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Using annotation to strengthen reading

New York Teacher

All social studies and English teachers need a strong, go-to reading strategy. I began my teaching career with the typical strategy of asking students questions about the reading. But I’ve gotten better results by moving them toward annotation instead.

Annotation is a more student-centered approach that allows learners to create their own meaning out of the text. It saves the teachers’ time by not having to write new questions for each reading. It leads to stronger and more interesting discussions and more authentic understanding of the text in question.

This is not to say I never ask students any questions about what they are reading. But if we always start with our own questions, we stymie students’ capacity to create their own questions and make their own connections. If we always begin with what we find interesting and important, the discussions become pro-forma responses and rarely blossom into a real conversation. Focusing students’ reading on annotations allows them to decide what is important and meaningful; it better prepares them for a rich conversation with their peers, one in which the teacher can take a step back and observe.

My breakthrough inspiration came while reading Cris Tovani’s textbook “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It.” The book helps teachers understand how to push students toward stronger reading habits. Many students can read the words, but how many really engage with the text? Tovani wants to show all readers how to do the thinking that seems to come intuitively to strong readers. 

I adopted a number of the book’s strategies, adapted some of them, added one of my own and stirred it all up into an annotation strategy (and an easy-to-remember acronym) called “I-READ.” Each of the letters stands for a different reading strategy. When students read, I ask them to annotate by writing and circling the letter that corresponds to the step they’re doing and then to write down their brief note next to it. 

The “I” corresponds to “Identify Important Information.” Students need to recognize that pieces of the text might be interesting, but identifying important information is crucial. We only know what is “important” based on what we’re looking for; students’ annotations should help them find evidence to answer a compelling or essential question for the unit or that lesson.

The “R” stands for “Relate.” It involves readers making connections between the text and themselves, other topics or other texts. In my class on colonialism, students read two separate pieces about British colonialism in Egypt and India. Their annotations reveal the genuine connections they are making between the two selections. When they read an article on the importance of clothing to colonial identities, many of them relate it to themselves and the significance of clothing in their own lives.

The letter “E” stands for “Evaluate.” This is my own addition to Tovani’s strategies. As a social studies teacher, I ask students to evaluate the author’s credibility and reliability. We also call this “sourcing.” They jot down notes about the author’s bias or credentials to help them gain perspective on the reading. A teacher might want to extend this to a general “evaluation” that allows students to stand in judgment of the text. What do they agree or disagree with? What angers or excites them?

The letter “A” stands for “Ask Questions.” It is crucial for building the foundation for student-centered reading and discussion. We don’t want students to ask questions only about vocabulary words they don’t understand; we want them to ask deeper questions about causation or meaning.

Lastly, the “D” pushes students to “Draw pictures.” It helps us see what they’re thinking as they read and it helps them to reflect on their own mental images. The artistic aspect also draws in many readers by adding an enjoyable element to the activity, and it leads to thoughtful share-outs.

With “I-READ,” my students have gained a powerful strategy for gleaning meaning from a text and I have a go-to tool for making reading more productive and discussion more student-centered. 

Model it for your students, have them try it out and then make it part of your toolbox.

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