Guest Blogger- David Stuart, Jr. Kent ISD Bulletin

Purposeful Annotation: A Close Reading Strategy that Makes Sense to My Students

Post- Purposeful Annotation Image
Mmm… tortilla chip crumbs. (It’ll make sense later.)

When I first started writing about close reading, I was doing what a lot of people did at the time, and still do: I essentially used the phrase “close reading” instead of the term annotation.

Unfortunately, it took me about a year to realize I was doing this — and I do feel it’s unfortunate because close reading became this confusing, nebulous thing, and I contributed to that. I was one more person contributing to the buzzwordification of close reading.

Now before you write me off as a negative person who hates buzzwords just because they’re buzzwords, please don’t. While I do try not to take the educational establishment too terribly serious (instead opting to occasionally poke fun at us), I am perhaps excessively serious when it comes to helping students flourish in the long-term.

So when I call close reading a buzzword or write the term’s obituary, I don’t want to give you the impression that we should let ourselves cynically dismiss the idea that reading is often hard, analytical — and yes, even “close” — work, especially when we’re dealing with complex, college- or career-level texts assigned by a teacher. We still need to teach kids, across the disciplines, how to wrestle with assigned texts, seeking, like Jacob, whatever blessing they have to bestow.

So to help my kids get after it and dominate some life, I’ve now replaced the vague “close reading” with a strategy I call purposeful annotation.

Purposeful annotation: here’s what I’m talking about

The big idea is this: what we do when reading should align with

  1. why we’re doing the reading in the first place and
  2. what we’re going to do with the reading after we’re done.

When my students have a text they can write on, the idea, then, is to annotate in a way that supports our purpose for reading and the parameters of our post-reading task (keep in mind that the purpose and the task should line up). Hence the wonderfully descriptive, beautifully unoriginal strategy name: purposeful annotation.

As an example, let’s say I’m helping my students think through the task of purposefully annotating a Kelly Gallagher-esque article of the week. In that case, the purpose I set for my students’ reading is to, as Mr. Gallagher put it recently in a blog comment, simply become smarter about the world, and the post-reading task is that they need to write a thoughtful 1+ page response.

In that example, knowing that I want to dominate that post-reading task and that I simply need to get myself engaged with the probably unfamiliar and certainly unchosen content, I, as a student, ought to make annotations that begin to respond to the text. Of course, I can’t respond to something I don’t understand, and so sometimes, especially when faced with a particularly befuddling sentence, paragraph, or section in the article, I ought to slow down, re-read, and then annotate a brief summary or paraphrase of the challenging section in the margin.

So two things we can annotate, naturally, are 1) our responses to a text, and 2) our paraphrases/summaries of bits of the text we had to wrestle with. These logically line up with what I’m going to do with the text after reading, as well as my purpose for reading it in the first place.

The idea here is that I’m writing these things in the margins — these purposeful annotationsnot simply for a grade or because the teacher said, “Do a close reading.” I’m doing it to help me dominate:

  1. the task of understanding and learning from the text while reading (this is one of my ultimate goals for my students — that they’ll read the texts I assign with self-kindled, habituated, cultivated curiosity, engaging with it for learning’s sake), and
  2. the task of doing a thing with that text after reading (if my head’s on straight as a teacher, there’s going to be a piece of writing or a piece of speaking that every student will do with any given text).

This obviously isn’t as broad of a strategy as close reading, and honestly, that’s why I like it — and my students do, too.

The core idea is that annotation should help the reader during and after reading. It should serve, as my friend and work-sister Erica Beaton has well put it, as the leaving of cyanide-laced breadcrumbs (okay, the cyanide bit is mine — but seriously, that’s the right way to put it, because breadcrumbs alone get eaten by birds, while cyanide-laced breadcrumbs leave a nicely traceable, bird-covered trail).

Mmm... Dark and accurate -- my favorite flavor of analogy.
Mmm… Dark and accurate — my favorite flavor of analogy.

Why teach purposeful annotation rather than some other method?

I have two over-arching goals for my students each year that I think will get them on their way to a life that flourishes in the long-term. I want to help as many kids as possible to figure out

  1. why school matters to them and their lives, and then,
  2. how to dominate the challenges of school and, more broadly, life.

So much of my thinking is still shaped by one of the central ideas of Jerry Graff’s Clueless in Academe — far too many students simply don’t understand school, and, frustratingly, that simply need not be so. A big part of helping kids “get” academia is showing them how argument is the essence of thought and then teaching them arguespeak across the school day — They Say, I Say remains the best text in the world for helping with that.

For me, Graff pointed out both the problem — academia does a great job obscuring itself to students — and a large part of the solution. Arguespeak is the language of power not just in school, but in the world at large — we’re foolish not to teach kids that.

Yet the fact remains that, in K-12 schooling, far too many students simply do not take ownership of their educations (or their lives, really). This is a point that struck me like a freight train while reading the introduction of David Conley’s College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know.

From Conley’s book:

The [students] who had the greatest success were those who were willing to take some modicum of ownership of their learning and responsibility for their behavior. Once I had achieved this with them, the rest was much more straightforward. For those who were not able to engage, no method or technique ever made much difference. This lesson about the importance of ownership of learning never completely left me. Interestingly and unexpectedly, I had reached the conclusion that the social contract was a two-way street: society has a responsibility to create a level playing field, and individuals have a responsibility to take advantage of it.

I’m sure I’ll write more on ownership of learning this year as it’s a central burning question for my colleagues and I, but for the sake of this post suffice it to say that I believe the clearer we can be about what we ask kids to do and why we ask them to do it, the more academia becomes unobscured and the more likely it is that our students will come to a place where they can say, “Yes — schooling matters for me because _______________.”

In short, I’ve found that the phrase purposeful annotation makes sense to my freshmen and explicitly shows them how to “work smarter not harder” when reading and doing something with a text.

So how do we do the purposeful annotation thing?

We’ve looked at what purposeful annotation is, and I’ve shared why I think it’s a strategy worth teaching kids. Now let’s examine how to actually do the thing.

First, start with the end in mind

Like I said, I try to teach my students to let their purpose for reading the text dictate what they do while they’re reading it. For my “what does this look like in a gradebook” readers (I feel you), I do consistently assign a grade to whether my students, at minimum, write 1-2 thoughtful, purpose-driven annotations in the margins of each page of a shorter complex text. (I explain how I grade articles of the week in this post.)

article of the week -- example of close reading
Here’s an annotation that demonstrates thoughtful engagement with the text.
Example of an annotation that shows little evidence of thought. I don't mark kids down for this, but I also don't give them credit for it. Responding with OMG, smiley faces, etc is a strategy for staying engaged with a text and responding to it emotionally, but I want more when kids annotate.
Here’s an annotation that shows little evidence of thought. I don’t mark kids down for this, but I also don’t give them credit for it. Responding with OMG, smiley faces, etc is a strategy for staying engaged with a text and responding to it emotionally, but I want more when kids annotate.

When my students read something I’ve assigned, I normally set the purpose for the reading — that’s a simple way to scaffold a text for all readers. I often allow for some choice within that purpose (for example, with article of the week, I follow Gallagher’s lead and tend to give 1-3 possible response options), or to set it broadly enough to allow for some individual expression.

Possible response options for a sample article of the week
Possible response options for a sample Gallagher-style article of the week.
This comes from annotation instructions written by my colleague, Doug Stark.
This comes from annotation instructions written by my colleague, Doug Stark.

With that said, here are the kinds of annotations I recommend kids try (remember, 1-2 thoughtful interactions per page) based on what their purpose is for reading.

If your purpose for reading is to learn the content:

  • Summarize a sentence or paragraph
  • Paraphrase a sentence or paragraph
  • Circle and define key words

If your purpose for reading is to end by responding to a specific prompt:

    • Annotate toward that prompt. If you’re being asked to evaluate, make evaluative annotations. If analyze, make analytical annotations. If you’re thinking, “Um, my kids don’t know what those verbs mean, really,” then use Jim Burke’s A-List (pictured and linked to below).
Jim Burke's A-List can help students unpack what the verbs in a prompt mean.
Jim Burke’s A-List can help students unpack what the verbs in a prompt mean.

Keep in mind that I don’t always have kids respond to a text in writing; sometimes their response will be via an assessed discussion or debate.

Second, do it while you read

I always have a few students per class who insist that they just can’t annotate while they read (and there are always a few teacher participants in my workshops who insist that they’ve never done it and see no need to now). Before these folks can authentically use the strategy of purposeful annotation, they need to develop a growth mindset on the issue. Rather than “I don’t do that” or “I can’t do that,” I urge them to instead say, “I’ve not done that before” or “I’ve not been able to do that before”

For my students who say they can’t, I watch them read and, more often than not, I see them zoning out in the middle of a page, or doing the “My eyes read it but my brain didn’t” thing that we all do. Annotation, I’ve found, can help my students focus on a text, especially when that annotation is purposeful rather than “fill the margins in as much as you can.”

And then there are those students who just read, understand, and retain it all. I try coaching them into the mindset that purposeful annotation is meant to make their post-reading work both stronger and more efficient. By choosing to annotate only portions of the text that they want to address further in the writing or speaking we’ll be doing after reading, they’re allowing their brain to leave those breadcrumbs on the page rather than keeping those notes in their brains (for an awesome article on how not writing things down keeps information in your brain’s rehearsal loops, check this out.)

Time out: what about teachers who see no value in annotation?

I know some readers are coaches, administrators, PLC leaders, department chairs, and so on, and if you’ve been trying to push close reading or annotation at your school, you’ve probably run into resistant folks. Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Are you referring to annotation as close reading? The video below explains what I mean (or click here to view on Youtube.)
  2. Instead of requiring all teachers to use a complicated coding system when teaching their kids to annotate, empower them with the idea of purposeful annotation. The means need to fit the ends.
  3. Think deeply about the why. Use my “Why teach…” section above to help.
  4. Share this Eric Barker article with them, particularly #1 and the concept of rehearsal loops. Annotation allows us to get our 1-2 “I could expand on these in the post-reading writing or speaking task” thoughts on paper and out of our brains’ rehearsal loops. This empties our brain, and that’s a good thing, as the post’s author explains.

Fight relentlessly against this becoming busywork

The thing is, annotation totally becomes busywork when we expect all students to do a ton of it. Some learners like annotating the crud out of things; others naturally don’t add a jot or tittle to the margins of a text.

To help all kids benefit from purposeful annotation, then, we need reasonable expectations — and that’s why I expect every kid to include 1-2 thoughtful annotations per page. “Thoughtful,” you say. “Wow. That’s so incredibly descriptive, Dave. Thank you. For nothing.” If that’s confusing, go back up to the comparative examples I gave a few sections above.

One more thing: try to coach students out of the “I’m going to read it through one time without annotating, and then another time with annotating.” If they’re doing this because they’re confused on the first read-through, show them how to break down difficult sections of a text and paraphrase or summarize the gist — this kind of annotating aids comprehension. On the other hand, if they’re doing this because they just don’t feel like it or they don’t like it, we want to help them get the hang of annotating as they read keeping their purpose for reading in the front of their mind.

The point of having kids do this is helping them efficiently internalize a purpose for reading, read toward that purpose, and then write or speak in line with that purpose.

Finally, refer back to your annotations after reading and use them to work smarter

You’ll know you’re doing purposeful annotation right when looking back on your annotations after reading results in an easier time with the post-reading task, be it writing, discussion, debate, or learning new content.

Unlike back in the day when I would tell my kids to “close read” an article, I feel good and clear when I teach them and expect them to purposefully annotate instead.


Dave Stuart Jr. teaches full-time at Cedar Springs High School. He also maintains a blog that aims to get at the heart of what matters most in teaching, ranging from the Common Core to our careers as educators. Dave’s first book came out in September of this year.