/  By  / 

When highlighting goes too far

favicon Annotation purists tell us to just say no to highlighters. If you let kids use highlighters, then they’ll just color up the whole page.

You mean, like this?

Yes, Annotation Purist, that’s exactly what you mean.

It’s true that there’s too much color among novice highlighters. Sometimes I ask students, “When do you highlight something?” Answer: “When it’s important.”

Ah, so everything is important.

Distinguishing what’s important vs. what’s not is a crucial skill in reading. It gets to the heart of other critical skills: summarizing, identifying author’s purpose, and identifying main claim.

And it’s not easy for most students. It takes a lot of practice.

The teachers I coach do a great job letting students know that highlighters should be used only for high-level annotation. Instead of assuming that students know what that means, teachers model when to use a pen and when to break out a highlighter.

There’s nothing wrong with a little color — if it’s just a little bit. I mean, interior decorators often suggest painting an accent wall to counteract the rest of a white dove / Muskoka Trail room.

If it’s used in a targeted way, color can help students and their peers to capture the gist of an article. If done well, highlighting complements written annotations and shows the relationship between the more important vs. less important aspects of an article. favicon


  1. micheleg

    I like this very much.
    I am trying to stop underlining too much. I’ve started forcing myself to match any underlines with margin notes. That’s been good.
    Thank you.

  2. Mark Isero

    Michele, I like your 1-underline-to-1-margin-note rule. But what do you do when the margins are small and cramped? Write smaller? Most teachers don’t modify their texts, so when they’re single spaced and have 1-inch margins, there’s not a whole lot of space to make annotations.

Please share your brilliant insights!