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.

Books with a Summer Setting

justin case shells smells

I keep seeing articles about how to encourage children to read throughout the summer. All of the articles make the same basic suggestions. Set a daily reading time. Establish a specific amount of time to read each day. Get involved in a reading incentive program at a local library or bookstore, and provide good book choices.

Ultimately, if your child/student likes to read, he or she will continue to read in the summer as long as there are books available. If you do not have a child who is an avid reader then you (or another adult) have to support the reading habits if you want any reading to happen. You will need to provide reading material or opportunities to choose reading material; model reading (that means read yourself); read together, and have book discussions. Even though we often think of reading as an independent activity for older kids, a child will develop better reading habits if reading is treated like a group activity, and all participate.

I wish there was a pill to magically make a child a reader but there is not. If you need a little kick-start finding a book to help your child get over the reading-when-not-at-school hump, try a book that takes place during the summer when the characters in the story are also not attending school.

summer setting pin

Upper Elementary (~3rd grade to 6th grade)

  • The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
  • Under the Egg by Laura Max Fitzgerald
  • My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian
  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
  • Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty
  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders
  • Hound Dog True by Linda Urban
  • Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom by Rachel Vail
  • The Secret Tree by Natalie Standiford
  • Ten Good and Bad Things About My Life (So Far) by Ann M. Martin
  • The Bread Winner by Arvella Whitmore
  • The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
  • Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech
  • The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
  • Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey

Middle School (7th grade+)

  • Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
  • The Summer of the Swans Betsy Byars

For younger readers, try The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner specifically #2 in the series. I could not remember for sure, but I think some of the Ivy and Bean books by Barrow take place during the summer as well as some of the Judy Moody by McDonald. Now that Mr. Star Wars and Miss Priss are beyond the early chapter books (sniff), my radar is not as good for these younger titles.

summer of my german soldier

Topic, Main Idea, and Details

ice cream sundae

The three dreaded pieces of a reading assignment to any student. Most students take a stab at a word in the first sentence to find topic and main idea and then pick something from the middle for a detail. There’s a 50/50 chance they will get partial points using that strategy. Well, hold on to your hats; I have a better way.

I attended another professional development class from my favorite source for good reading strategies– KUCRL. This time, I got some tips for helping students identify topic, main, idea, and detail.

  1. To find the topic of a paragraph or article, use the sentence prompt, “This paragraph/article is about _____.” The one or two words that complete the sentence is the topic. If a student is still lost, the topic will often appear in the title and/or first or last sentence of the paragraph, so look there while using the prompt.
  2. To find a main idea within a paragraph, locate the topic first. Then ask yourself, “What does this paragraph tell me about the topic?” Insert your topic at the end of the question. The answer to your question is the main idea.
  3. To find important details, use the main idea. Ask yourself, “What is specific information about the main idea?” Insert your main idea at the end of the question. The ideas that answer the question are the key details.

Read the paragraph and give it a try.

perfect ice cream sundae paragraphTopic: This paragraph is about ice cream sundaes.

Main Idea: What does this paragraph tell me about ice cream sundaes? This paragraph talks about sundae ingredients. The main idea is ice cream sundae ingredients.

Details: What is specific information about the ingredients? Key details are ice cream flavors, sauces, and different kinds of toppings.

These prompts help with standardized test preparation for reading comprehension. They also work well when looking for the important “stuff” while reading textbooks. Finally, this is a great way to pick out the essential information in any non-fiction reading assignment. It provides a structured way for students to weed out non-important details and zero in on the meat of the text in order to take notes for research projects or preparing for class discussion and tests.

If you are looking for teaching materials that help with these skills, visit my Teachers Pay Teachers store to purchase activities that reinforce reading skills like topic, main idea, details, and paraphrasing.