One of the first questions a student asks at the beginning of the school year is “How do you want us to annotate assigned readings?” It’s a fair question as every teacher who assigns or encourages engagement with a text through annotation probably has a different preference when it comes to what they require, based mostly on what they have seen succeed in the past. This week’s article hopes not to impose a method I think is best (and I’ve done that in the past) but to guide students toward an inquiry that helps them address this question for themselves.
Common student complaints about being required to annotate text include “It slows down my reading” and “I don’t enjoy the book if I have to mark every paragraph.” Legitimate complaints because students read at different speeds (I’m a slow reader), so what takes one student 40 minutes to read and annotate 15-20 pages for homework takes another an hour and a half. That’s not equitable, especially if some of your students are on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). As for being conduits for a love of reading: Teachers of literature do want to instill and maintain a love of literature. It would devastate me if years later a former student were to tell me “After taking English with you, I didn’t like to read as much…”
So what’s the answer?
Annotating a text successfully is largely dependent on factors aesthetic and practical. Reading studies have determined three levels of comprehension. Click on each for an explanation.
Can you explain what, literally, is being communicated on the pages. What, exactly, is happening? Who is doing the action? What happens as a result? Where is the book taking place and what is the specific context of the story?
Can you explain why these things are happening when there is no reason provided in the lines of the text? Presume that the author included this characterization, setting, dialogue, imagery for a reason. What might those reasons be? And based on what has happened, can you predict what might happen later? Why have you made that prediction?
How can you apply the apparent themes of the text to concerns of the greater global community? How can you apply these themes, characterizations, and tone to the events of your life or your own personal ideologies? How have the ideas in the text validated or challenged your personal ideologies?
Identify What Exactly is Happening in the Story
Beginning a new book is difficult for many students, especially if they don’t have a habit of reading regularly. Items in a text that seem simple to a teacher (we’ve most likely read the book five to ten times already) are a struggle for the new reader. So the first step a student should take when they annotate a text should be to note the things that will help them understand what’s literally happening as quickly as possible. Underline character’s names as you discover them for the first time and write a description in the margins. Or start by creating a character list in a blank space. I just picked up five books off a shelf in my office, at random, and each one of them started with text at least a third of the way down the first page, and the adjacent page was completely blank. Creating a kind of custom user’s guide for yourself on this first page will help you concentrate on the first relevant paragraphs of the text and you’ll have notes to refer back to later.
Define Words and Phrases You Don’t Know
In the first two paragraphs of Zapata’s beautiful novel, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, there were five items I had to look up, including what the American Marines did, exactly, on May 16, 1916. Defining words I don’t know and events I didn’t know about fill in the gaps for me and contextualize the characters presented. If I were to give a reading quiz on this first page, I’d allow it to be an open book quiz. I want to reward students for engaging with the work and teaching themselves new things along the way.
Consider a Separate Notebook
“I don’t like writing in my books,” a student will say. No problem. Having a notebook open next to you while you read would allow you to notate without having to turn back to the beginning of the book for your notes. I’d advise to make sure the notes are organized and labeled according to page number and paragraph. You’ll need to be able to find these notes later, especially if the course is a discussion-based one or if there’s a specific type of writing assignment at the end of the unit.
Interrogate the Text
Annotating for facts decreases in necessity the farther along you read in the book. It takes me about twenty pages or so to find comfort in a book I’ve read for the first time. Once a reader feels comfortable with a text, they can begin to interrogate it. Why is this happening? Why these characterizations? Often a reader will speculate the answers to these questions. All of this should be written in the margins or in a properly-labeled notebook. Writing things like WTF? or WOW Or OMG, though, aren’t helpful at all. Ask real questions. Make real comments.
Bring Your Sensibility to the Text
You don’t have to be Black and a pirate or have “long coffee-colored hair” and work on a sugar plantation in order to find your sensibilities in the pages of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, or any book. We indeed read to uncover lives and lands we’re not familiar with, but we also read to find a place for our thoughts and feelings in global humanity. My first instinct as a reader is to listen and discover, but to be able to find a commonality (or a contradiction) in a long-held philosophy I’ve had about people, or to imagine how in the world I could possibly survive given the same situation, is what makes reading fascinating and personal to me. Reading has helped me to find out more about myself than anything else I do. The sensibility I bring to the text, my beliefs and my prejudices, are what help me form a kind of truth about myself, and many times it’s a hard truth. But that’s what I think makes literature beautiful.
No one else has the same sensibility and personal context that an individual student does. A student should accept the responsibility to contribute to the conversation, write these annotations, and bring them back to the class to share with their peers. This kind of evaluation of the text makes the experience of reading together richer. Do you agree with what the character is saying or doing? How does their personal character match up with yours?
The Practical Matters
Not everyone is going to find value in devoting all of this energy to literature. There might be another class that a student must focus on more intensely in order to succeed, or maybe the student just thinks we English teachers read too deeply into everything. Still, there are practical matters to attend to: you might be asked to participate in a graded discussion, or you may be presented with a writing prompt to complete during a class period, or you’ll have to devise your own literary thesis and support it with specific textual examples.
Knowing what your teacher expects of you is the key to efficient annotations.
Ask your teacher:
Are there discussion questions you’d like me to answer?
If you know the questions ahead of time, you’ll know what you should look out for as you read. It employs the same standardized test reading comprehension strategy many teachers recommend: read the questions first and mark places in the text where the answers might be as you read. Not a bad strategy at all, and it gives you a focus and direction while you read. Here’s one from the yet-to-be-released Discussion Guide for The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, published by Hanover Square Press.
Note that the discussion question asks the student to recall, infer and evaluate, all in the same question. If you know you’ll have to discuss these questions as part of a live graded discussion or an online discussion board, your approach to annotating the text is clear.
Not all teachers do this, though. I certainly don’t. I prefer the class discussions to be organic and based on the experiences of the new readers of the text. I feel like if I direct things too much, I’ll steer students’ minds toward a specific focus, while other pertinent parts of the text go ignored.
I still don’t know if that’s the best way, though. It might be presumptuous, especially given my advantage in having read and analyzed the text already. I’m thinking now that a balance might suit the course well. If a teacher can provide a question or two as a guide, those who want and need that guidance will have a path to success, while those who have the time and want the challenge of discovery for themselves can make their own path through the readings.
We Have to Write an Essay on this Book?
Another question to ask the teacher is what writing activity you’ll be expected to do at the end of the book. Sometimes a teacher will create an in-class essay exam with one or more prompts to choose from. If this is the case, paying close attention to class discussion is important. Whatever is discussed in class will appear on the in-class essay exam. If not, the teacher is unreasonable and mean. I know a couple.
If the assignment at the end of the text asks you to develop your own literary thesis supported with textual evidence, then you know that your annotations should include marking important passages that may or may not be included in the essay.
Maybe the teacher plans to assign a personal essay at the end of the reading. If this is the case, your annotations will be more evaluative in nature. Your opinion on people and events matter the most in this case.
More teachers are assigning a kind of hybrid essay, which may combine historical criticism, literary criticism, and personal essay. I’ve grown to love these assignments because, as I talked about last week, students are more comfortable writing in the first person than the often impersonal, distant third of literary criticism. A hybrid essay would put these writing voices side by side for the student to see and learn from.
The work you do during the reading of the text largely determines success or pitfalls during what comes next. Knowing exactly what your teacher expects of you and then working efficiently as an active reader will create less work for you later.
But don’t just take my word for it. There are credible resources all over the web, like
As an aside: The Lost Book of Adana Moreau was my summer reading assignment this year for the Latin American Literature class I created. The book just came out in February, and I was mesmerized by it. This is my review of the book for NewCity Lit.
Thank you for reading. If you think my posts might be helpful to a student or teacher you know, please share widely. See you next time.
My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother. And now, as I hunt and peck a page or two a day of this book, this recollection, this disclosure–this complete and total exposure of the last decade of my life–I’m even prouder of what she could do between chasing us down to wash our hair in the kitchen sink and thumbing through the Sears catalog for fresh pairs of Toughskins the August before every school year.
Despite the fact that an “introduction” is the beginning of a traditional American academic essay, it’s really the conclusion a writer has come to based on a study of the text, so it only makes sense that a student should write it last. And thanks to the word processor, there’s no longer a need to write from beginning to end anymore.
My first instinct as a reader is to listen and discover, but to be able to find a commonality (or a contradiction) in a long-held philosophy I’ve had about people, or to imagine how in the world I could possibly survive given the same situation, is what makes reading fascinating and personal to me. Reading has helped me to find out more about myself than anything else I do. The sensibility I bring to the text, my beliefs and my prejudices, are what help me form a kind of truth about myself, and many times it’s a hard truth. But that’s what I think makes literature beautiful.
Too many writers throw metaphors into an essay without regard for how the objects used in the metaphor relate to the content and pattern of the essay. “It sounded good to me,” they’ll say. There’s nothing wrong with writing what sounds right to your ear. You should love what you write and be excited by it, but be ready to let go of what doesn’t work in the revision stage.
As much as a student would like this to be an isolated rhetorical situation, it’s not. Their rhetorical situation occupies a pile of applications with thousands of other rhetorical situations. Harvard University received 43,330 applications from the college class of 2023. Each one of those is a rhetorical situation.
The clay for the essayist, for the purpose of my comparison, is the rough draft. It is difficult to convince young people that the essay they have come to know through their academic experience is, indeed, a piece of art because art takes time and practice and a patient process. To be fair, students don’t have the luxury of treating these assignments as art when they have seven or eight classes in a day, homework, extra-curricular activities, family.