Annotating was a tool that my teachers required in my high school English classes. The reasoning behind it is to help students identify the important details within a text. Supposedly it teaches students to read in a more engaged fashion in preparation for a test, paper or other assessment that will follow the reading of a novel, short story or poem. However, I feel that annotating is not being used correctly by students or teachers. In my opinion annotating leads students to read solely for the purpose of completing the required criteria set by the teacher. It also leads teachers to make strict rubrics requiring a set number of annotations students must complete. I believe that this use of annotation is defeating the purpose of reading.

Annotating was something that I was required to do beginning in high school. The idea of writing inside of books was something I was unfamiliar with, however, because it was a requirement, I was forced to do it.  I remember my teacher telling us that we had to write/underline/star at least 5 things per page of the book we were reading. I, being a diligent student consistently found 5 things I had a question or connection with and highlighted them. However, I discovered that my peers were simply highlighting/underlining 5 sentences and moving on without reading the material. Their Their attitude was, “Its for a grade, why would I waste my time with actually reading the book when our teachers only care if we note 5 things per page?” While this was seriously perplexing to me, I can understand their viewpoint because teachers put too much emphasis on finding the five required elements. However, they didn’t check to ensure that the 5 things highlighted were of substance and meaning to the novel itself.

I also remember watching some of my teachers grading annotations. They would simply count 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on each page without reading whatever was highlighted or written. I know numerous people who would legitimately put a song on their iPod and write down the lyrics of the song they listened to as they flipped the page. The crazy part about this is those students received 100s. How is this beneficial to anyone involved? I feel that annotations should be a choice. I know for some students annotating is helpful in their reading process, and then I also knew the iPod lyric writers…

Personally, I feel that the requirement of annotating caused me to read in a more mechanical way, which is not something I enjoy. I don’t think that there are necessarily 5 important things written on every single page of a novel that need to be identified in order to understand the central themes and messages conveyed in a book. Isn’t that the point of reading a book, understanding the central messages that an author is trying to convey? In many cases I feel that annotations causes a distraction, which causes the reader to fail to understand the overall meaning of a book. I wonder if authors intended for their books to be read in this manner? I would love to ask them what they think about the concept of annotations.

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5 Responses to Annotating

  1. claire.s says:

    Sydney, thanks so much for this honest post. Yikes the whole situation is so frustrating!!! You so well captured the way that the presentation of reading to students can shape how they view and engage with texts. It is just like our discussion of accelerated reader! The intense focus on comprehension based questions tells students that the purpose of reading is to learn and memorize plot details and facts and it sucks the life out of reading. As for the annotations, just as you said, it makes reading a mechanical act – you scan and you have to have something to say about a certain set number of lines per page, no more, no less. And if the passage isn’t speaking to you, make something up because what matters isn’t the thought you put into your interpretation, just the fact that you said something. I wonder what kinds of methods teachers could have used in this situation to shift the focus from quantity of annotations to quality? Perhaps not setting such a strict limit? Or having students talk daily in small groups or with the whole class about one annotation that they made and why it was important? Highlighting and writing notes in a text is such a useful tool, but there has got to be a better way to introduce students to annotations. Thanks for so well articulating this in your post!


    • sydneymitchell17 says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Claire! I definitely think that teachers should think more about quality rather than quantity when dealing with annotations or any other skills like it. I think that the small group idea you presented shows a lot of promise. I think that is almost a better indicator of student understanding and accountability than annotating because it forces students to share their ideas and opinions about the text they are reading. I think that there needs to be a balance between a strict number of annotations and not requiring them all because, like you said, they are a useful tool!


  2. Annie R says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences! I agree that the point of reading a book is to understand the central message an author is trying to convey. The problem of annotating and its formulaic nature seems to mirror the problems with standardized tests. Just as students learn how to strategically take tests to pass, students learn what they need to annotate to get a passing grade. The emphasis is on quantitative rather than qualitative learning. A strict rubric and criteria should not be needed to read and interpret a text, particularly in high school. It takes away from the enjoyment and interpretation of reading, instead it is just another assignment students need to quickly check off. Annotating is an important skill to have, but it should not be forced into a formulaic assignment that turns a useful skill into a pointless exercise. I remember from my own experiences in high school, as soon as students realized teachers were not as concerned with what students were turning in and their holistic learning experience, it was very easy to succeed based on the minimum standards the teacher would skim for in their work. I wonder what can be done to change the classroom culture of learning what to do to get a good grade, to instead of learning for the sake of improving one’s intellect. Is it the teacher’s fault and how they format their classroom? It is our increasingly technology-dominated society? How do we reemphasize a love of learning?


  3. Sean Adkins says:

    Certainly this points to a major problem in rubrics. Any teacher who assigns highlighting with the knowledge that he or she will merely count the number of annotations ought to know students will not benefit. That is not assessment; that is creating hoops to be jumped through.

    However, I think your real question begins at the end of the post: are annotations a distraction? or are they necessary to comprehension? I would argue that annotations are neither. Annotating is a skill, a tool, that does need to be acquired and practiced, but like any tool it is only as useful as it applies to the task at hand. Many novels do not require their readers to annotate in order to understand the text, but some dense novels do. Then again, some readers find annotation extremely helpful in all reading tasks, others find it largely useless. So, use of the tool depends upon both the task and the person who wields it.

    Which is why I think it is so important for literacy to be taught across the curriculum, as the CCSS mandate. Doing so helps students understand that reading skills are not isolated to ELA.


  4. Jeanne says:

    Leigh–this is great. I was just working with students yesterday on how to effectively (and meaningfully) annotate informational texts. We discussed how some of us annotate everything, while others may not annotate at all. I am thinking about having the students read your post and make five annotations. Just kidding.

    Liked by 1 person

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