Help Students Annotate Literature

A few years ago, I implemented a middle grade reading strategy to help students annotate literature more effectively. We kick off the year reading short stories in my 6th grade classroom. The group typically has not had much experience marking and highlighting fictional reading passages. So, I started printing short lists with key words and ideas. Each student receives a “What’s Important?” list prior to starting each story.

Annotating Literature

We review the list briefly, so students will take note when they see items in the reading passage that might be significant. The lists do not include items that would reveal a surprise ending or give away a big plot twist, but they are intended to help focus reading. For example, a list might have a general item like, “mark similes and metaphors.” Or, it might have something more specific such as, “highlight references to eyes.” Eyes come up a lot! I once had a teacher in a high school literature class tell me alarm bells should go off in my reader brain every time I see gardens and/or flowers on the page. If you read Shakespeare, that is definitely true– flower references are key.

Annotating Literature

4 Tips to Help Annotate Literature

  1. With brief reading assignments like a short story, create and pre-print the list for the students prior to reading. Focus ideas I typically ask students to find are descriptions of the main character, a specific figure of speech that is emphasized in the story– often similes, and one important word or idea. I mentioned the idea of eyes above. Other items might be weather, a special object a main character has, or a detail related to the setting. (CLICK HERE to see my short story resources that include these lists).
  2. If a short story is only 1-2 pages, we read through the story one time without stopping, analyzing, or interrupting. Then, as a whole group, in reading circles, in pairs… students review the list while re-reading the story a second time and annotate key features and quotes.
  3. When students mark the text, use different types of marks. Circle key words, highlight figures of speech, underline a quote with a specific symbol in it, and put stars or arrows in the margins. Use a variety of eye catching annotations and colors. I am not sure about your classroom, but my students have pencil cases overflowing with colorful pen options, so they actually like this task.
  4. For longer texts such as a novel unit, do not pre-print a list. Read a few chapters with the group and then begin keeping a list of ideas the students believe are important. For example, in The Giver, students begin to recognize references to pale eyes or the use of capitalization for things that are typically common nouns. Start tracking those items as the reading continues. In Where the Red Fern Grows, students comment early on about how often Billy cries. We immediately added that to our list and started notating scenes and quotes where Billy shows emotion. Because these types of sections in the story were marked, students created much more thoughtful essays when they later analyzed a theme from the novel (CLICK HERE to read about the theme activity).
Annotating Literature

By providing lists for shorter reading selections and then scaffolding students to build personal lists with longer texts, the learners will begin to identify essential ideas in literature independently. Rather than giving a blanket direction “to mark important things,” offering a prepared list helps students build this essential reading skill. Now that my own children are reading higher level texts in high school, I can see the importance of analyzing literature efficiently.