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“Why do we have to annotate?”

“Why can’t I just highlight?” Ever heard that from a student? A few weeks ago I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students with the objective of convincing them that annotating is a powerful way to make sense of a source–I did this by helping them realize the value of annotating AND by teaching them what they might include in an annotation.

Why do we annotate? I don’t have to convince you of the value of annotating, but we do need to remind students that annotating a source can help us make sense of the details and remember what we read. AND if we can understand and remember what we read, then we are more likely to be able to engage in critical thinking.

What types of notes should we jot when we annotate? This is the bigger (or real) question for students. Many (maybe most) do not know what to write in an annotation. They do not realize they can sketch a concept that is being described, write notes about what they don’t understand, note the type of detail the author has used (e.g., comparison, cause-effect, process, etc.), highlight or draw a box around important terms of the topic of a paragraph or section, and so forth.

Notes about the lessonThese students were studying the conservation of matter in science so I located a NEWSELA article that described condensation, boiling, and evaporation. Below are images and notes from the first two parts of a three phase lesson.

During Phase 1, I introduced the vocabulary word “process” –which is in the first sentence of the source. Understanding this word helps a reader understand many parts of this source better. I wrote the definition on the board and then we discussed briefly (see my notes from my lesson plan). We briefly previewed and made predictions and then I gave them a purpose for reading, “You have been studying condensation and evaporation in science. As you’re reading, I want you to think about new information you are reading that you can add to what you already know.” I encouraged them to put a + sign by new info, but to not spend energy on annotating yet.

As the students read the article, I leaned in to confer with several. I noticed that while they were able to name the topic they’d read about and give a few general details, they were not describing, in detail, what they’d learned. One student stuck out to me – he seemed very confident. He’d pushed the article away and was on to other things. When I leaned in, he informed me that he’d read the article twice and, basically, understood it all. I asked him to describe to me the process of evaporation and noticed he was probably drawing from his background knowledge to respond. Then I asked him to describe to me how the author explained evaporation. (The author uses a real life example of a puddle of water that appears to be shrinking but in reality…) The student had nothing to say, could not recall how the author did this. Together we went back and reread and discussed.

I closed by asking them to turn and talk with a partner about a new piece of information they’d learned from the article.

During Phase 2, I started by asking one students to come up and be the teacher while I pretended to be a student. I handed him a sticky note with a prompt a teacher might use to check for understanding – “Describe the process of condensation that you learned about in this article.” I asked him to ask me this question. When he did, I paused and looked out at the group with a bewildered look. I said, “Well, I think it’s about how water goes up in the air.” I looked at the students and said, “Is that about what you can say???? There was a lot of information in this article and that’s all I can really recall.” Most of the students agreed enthusiastically – “YES!!!” While we were laughing at me for not remembering more, we were also making it okay to say, “Hey, I need to go back and read and think through important parts closely to make sure I understand what I read and remember what I learned.”

They were with me!!! So then I introduced an anchor chart with the question “What are types of annotations we can use to help us make sense of details (in a source) and remember what we learned?” (See below.) 

I modeled thinking through a sentence in the source (with the article on a doc camera) and annotating and then we collaborated on deciding what to underline and jot down in the margins. As we annotated, we stopped and thought about what kind of annotation we’d made and began to list these types of annotations on the anchor chart. The students gave annotating with a partner a go. I quickly realized, that for many, they would need lots of additional opportunities with the teacher as a guide. Still there was good conversation about what they might jot down to help them make sense of the source. In the end, we only closely read and annotated two short paragraphs and that was plenty!!!

I closed by asking the student who’d played the teacher earlier in the lesson to come back up and ask me the same question. I modeled using my annotations to explain what I’d learned:

I learned that evaporation happens when a liquid is heated in some way.  The water molecules at the surface of the water start moving more quickly and they break away from the other molecules and move into the air as a gas. Evaporation is the effect and the liquid being heated in the cause. The author used a real life example–a puddle of water and what happens to the water to help me understand how this happens every day.

I looked out at the students and said, “How did I do?” There was a resounding cheer! They recognized the difference in what I could say – but more importantly in what they could say as a result of thoughtful annotations. Then I asked them to turn to a partner and use their annotations to explain what they’d learned. I probably could have asked them to put away their annotated text and talk about what they’d learned and observed positive results as well. They just understood and remembered the details better.

Woohoo!!!! So much fun!!!

Hope this helps.