3 Annotations for Deeper Reading

Active and purposeful highlighting and annotating is an important skill that can enable greater success in being able to comprehend a text.  Of course, there is an ongoing conversation as to whether or not highlighting in particular detracts from comprehension (here’s looking at you, Harvard), but most people agree that marking key information and observations is overall very helpful in the process of deciphering a text. 

While there are various annotation guides and strategies, I like to keep things simple and efficient for my students.  To do this, there are three simple annotations that I use with my students for all texts in order to take our reading to a deeper level.  These three annotations accompany the reading strategy Three Levels of Thinking, which I blogged about last week.  In order to fully comprehend the usage of these three simple annotations for deeper reading, please read my blog about the Three Levels of Thinking.  You can find it HERE.  The three simple annotations for deeper reading accompany each step of the Three Levels of Thinking.  For each step in the process of our thinking, students can make annotations that will facilitate their comprehension of a text’s message and purpose.

The three annotations for deeper reading include:

1.     Making observations by paraphrasing & summarizing

2.    Making connections in order to brainstorm abstract topics that will become thematic claims

3.   Finding rhetorical relationships in the text and considering what they emphasize

I will discuss each of these three annotations in further detail as we go, but please note that although the Three Levels of Thinking are listed in numerical order—from making observations to drawing conclusions (much like the Scientific Method)—I discussed in my blog from last week that this process is recursive.  It goes backwards and forwards and skips around because we tend to complete some of these processes in a different order for different texts, and sometimes even simultaneously.  However, it is important to note that students should move through these annotations in the order listed below, especially when close reading a complex text with a complex message, because the order of these steps will expose the reader to the multiple layers of reading and comprehension. Once they have mastered the strategy, they can then begin to allow the process to become more organic by highlighting and annotating recursively, meaning that they can highlight and annotate for these three items all at once as they read.  But this takes lots and lots of practice, and sometimes students think they can do it all at once, only to find out later on that they’ve misinterpreted the text because they moved through the close reading process too quickly.  These are all tips to keep in mind when having your students highlight and annotate with this process.

Level One:  Making Observations

Before we can analyze a text and/or interpret the meaning of a difficult text, we must first take a look at the “moving parts.”  We need to see what’s there, get an idea of the overall topic before we attempt to analyze or interpret it.  This, of course, depends upon the complexity of the text because there are times when we can look at a text and immediately decipher the message (say, a car advertisement, for example—“buy the car!”).  But when it comes to deciphering the meaning of a more complicated text, we might need to paraphrase/ summarize by paragraph, or go even smaller to the sentence/ phrase level.  When I teach students this strategy, we stop and paraphrase each individual paragraph or stanza, if it is a poem.  If it is a visual text, I will have them list their observations instead of annotate on the text, and we will break the visual text down into smaller components in order to accomplish this first annotation task.  That may mean that we assign quadrants to a painting and then make observations for each quadrant, or if the text is a film or documentary, we will stop every 5-10 minutes and list observations for each segment. 

The more difficult the text, the smaller it needs to be broken down.

Students should pay careful attention to details because even the smallest details are important for deciphering meaning. 

Key questions for this level of annotations include:

What do you see?

What do you notice?

What is literally present in the text?

Can you put the section into your own words?

After students paraphrase/summarize/make observations of the text and its individual pieces, they go back through each section again and make level two annotations.

Level Two:  Making Connections

Level two annotations consist of making observations from text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world.  This is the level at which we begin to bridge what we see in the text to what it means, and our connections, or personal associations, can help us build this bridge—especially for topics that we don’t know much about. 

This is the level when we begin to tap into prior knowledge in order to use what we already know to figure out something new.  This is a cornerstone concept of lesson planning in general because filtering new data through our life experiences is an invaluable problem-solving tool. 

When students make these connections, they can go through each segment of the text, and annotate by writing, “This reminds me of ___________________________.”  These connections might be very specific and concrete, which is a good place to start.  However, the goal of level two is to make abstract associations with these concrete connections because it is the abstract ideas that will begin taking us to the thematic level of the text. 

For example, a student may write, “This reminds of the time when I road Splash Mountain at Disney World.”  The student has made a very concrete connection, so the next step would be to ask, “What abstract ideas, or tone words, do you associate with riding Splash Mountain?”  The student might respond with words such as, “Fun, exciting, scary, exhilarating,” etc.  So, the student would write these words down next to each connection because these abstract ideas will help us with level three in which we move from the concrete (what we literally see) to the thematic meaning of the text.  Note that sometimes students might already write abstract ideas when making connections, which is great!  For example, a student might make the following annotation:  “This reminds me of being scared.”  In this instance, the student has already made an abstract association with the text, which could possibly aid in interpreting the text on a deeper, thematic level. 

Key questions for this level of annotations include:

What connections to do you make with the text?

What abstract ideas do you associate with the text?

After students complete their connection annotations and make abstract associations, they move onto level three, which is the interpretive level. 

Level Three:  Rhetorical Relationships

Level three is the level at which students begin to marry the first and second levels in order to look for rhetorical relationships that emphasize the key points in the text that ultimately point to theme.  That’s a very longwinded way of saying that in this level, students go back again through the text (yes, for a third time) and annotate for the following terms:  juxtaposition, contrast, repetition, and shift.  In my previous blog, I discussed the fact that I like to teach these four terms to my students in lieu of teaching them content-specific vocabulary such as anaphora and epistrophe (note that this does not pertain to my Advanced Placement or Honors level students).  All literary techniques fall into these four rhetorical categories, and I find that it’s much more approachable for students to be able to recognize something as repetition rather than know if it’s a case of anaphora or epistrophe.  Not that there’s anything wrong with teaching those terms, but I find a higher rate of success with literary interpretation with simplifying the vocabulary of literary analysis.  I discuss this concept in more concrete detail in my blog from last week about the Three Levels of Thinking

After students annotate for these rhetorical relationships and identify them in the text, they then connect them to the abstract ideas from level two.  Students should look for repeated ideas that keep coming up again and again.  Writers and artists use repetition as their number one way of communicating an overall idea.  So if a student is seeing the concept of “fear” coming up again and again throughout the annotation process, it’s more than likely that the message of the text somehow pertains to fear. 

Once students have identified the one, key abstract idea that the text is mostly about, they aren’t finished yet!  One of the biggest misnomers about THEME is that it cannot be a single word.  A single word is a topic, and a single word is incredibly broad.  So, the topic of the text may be “fear,” but the theme is NOT “fear.”  An example of how stopping at a topic doesn’t work for interpretation is saying that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is love.  Love is a very broad topic.  What does Romeo and Juliet say about love in particular?  One could argue that the play’s theme is that love conquers all, OR one could argue that the theme is love leads to destruction.  These are two, opposing themes, which illustrate the importance of moving past topic to a focused and narrowed theme.  I spend quite a bit of time teaching my students the difference between topic and theme in all of my classes, and sources such as Cliff’s Notes do NOT help because they list themes as single word topics OR phrases.  Talk about confusing! 

After students have identified the topic of the text, the next question the student needs to answer is: 

What does the text say about the topic (or abstract idea) __________?

The answer to this question is their literary analysis, or interpretation, and the rhetorical devices are their evidence to prove it!

The key questions for this level of annotations include:

Does the text contain any juxtaposition (words or ideas placed side-by-side for the sake of comparison)?

Does the text contain any contrasts?

Does the text contain any repetition?

Does the text contain a shift (hint:  all texts shift)?

What abstract ideas (from level two) do these terms emphasize?

What does the text say about the topic?  Break it into a theme.

I find that this strategy breaks down literary analysis into its smallest components in an approachable way that enables students to analyze any work of art. 

What annotation strategies do you use with your students?  I’d love to hear from YOU!  Please leave a comment below and share with us your feedback.