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The problem with annotations right now

 Many teachers think that annotations offer an excellent way to peer into the minds of students as they read. I think so, too.

But right now, there’s a huge problem: Teachers don’t know what they’re looking for. There’s no agreement about how to assess annotations.

You don’t see this with writing. In a five-paragraph essay, all teachers are looking for five paragraphs. They’re also looking for a thesis, no matter if they call it a thesis, controlling purpose, overall claim, or main idea.

There’s just much more agreement with writing. It’s more public. We need to do the same thing with reading.

Many teachers like annotations, but few are ready to require students to annotate in a specific way. Annotating is considered “personal” to the reader; we shouldn’t tell students how to interact with the text.

I agree with this argument once students become advanced readers. In the same way that strong writers can break conventions once they learn the essay form, strong readers can annotate how they like once they demonstrate understanding of the basic requirements.

For most students, though, annotating is new and foreign, and there’s nothing wrong with teaching them one right way to do it. Several years ago, a few colleagues and I developed a system of annotating that we used in our ninth grade Humanities classes. This summer, I’m hoping to improve that system and to unveil it this August. I’ll keep you posted. 


  1. Catdaddy

    I am looking forward to seeing innovative new ways to approach this….there is nothing wrong with guiding students (especially struggling readers!) through a text…in fact…isn’t this what scaffolding and modeling are all about? I’m going to have to pick the brains of my AVID teachers and tutors too…am thinking they have something in place that goes along with their Cornell notes scheme…nice article

    • Dave Keller

      Hi Catdaddy, I’d like to “second” Mark’s interest in what AVID teacher and tutors do to support student annotating. I’m going to be seeking out AVID teachers to see what they are doing. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Mark Isero

    Hi Catdaddy. I’d love to hear what your AVID teachers and tutors say. I know that AVID has a method. The trick is to make annotations seem helpful and useful to students as an artifact of their thinking. Many students think that annotating is boring and just slows them down. If teachers got rid of reading questions at the end of texts, perhaps students would be more open to annotating.

Please share your brilliant insights!