Becoming a Book Eater: On the Value of Annotation

Apr 04, 2022 | Posted by Jennifer

One of my most favorite high school classes to teach is literary analysis. Partly the reason is because I hold an English degree and focused most of my own studies in literary analysis. Partly the reason is because I find literature and learning the skill of literary analysis to be a great means for teaching critical thinking skills, which I believe are sadly in decline these days. Unlike many other subjects that have more clear cut questions and answers, analyzing literature requires the student to intentionally slow down and consider potential answers to questions the student formulates in his mind as he reads. One of the most valuable tools at his disposal is annotation. It is a skill that is addressed by Andrew Pudewa in the Structure and Style writing approach beginning with the very first unit, Note Making and Outlines, where students underline key words in each sentence of a source text. He tells the students to “add notes to what you are reading.” He continues to address the skill in increasing levels of sophistication throughout all of the units. Annotation amplifies comprehension.

What is annotation? Simply stated, it is a written means by which the reader interacts with a piece of text. In my case, my students are interacting with literature and poetry. Here is a small list of just some of the things a person might write when they annotate:

  • Define unknown vocabulary.
  • Remark on especially compelling imagery.
  • Notice literary devices, such as similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, epistrophe, and assonance.
  • Make predictions.
  • Ask questions.
  • Look for potential foreshadowing.
  • Highlight allusions.
  • Point out shifts in point of view.
  • Ponder potential themes.

Why is annotation important? In addition to helping students slow down and think critically about what they are reading, annotation is a skill that transfers to all kinds of learning. Whether the subject be math, science, history, social studies, religion, or any other subject you can come up with, annotating the associated texts will help students learn and remember the material. Additionally annotation is a life skill that moves beyond the boundaries of the classroom and can be used in business as well as in personal life.

There are a number of ways in which people annotate. My personal favorite is direct annotation, in which students write within the book itself. Making notes in the margins, students directly interact with the text. The more notes that appear in the margins, the more thoroughly the book is “digested” and becomes a part of the student.

A page from one of my college textbooks

In some cases, direct annotation within a book is not possible, either because the student doesn’t actually own the book (Libraries tend to frown on people writing in the books.) or because the book needs to be passed down to a younger sibling (although in that case I might make the argument that the younger sibling would then receive the double benefit of reading his older sibling’s thoughts alongside the original material). When it isn’t possible to write in a book, I have my students use sticky notes to paste onto the pages. What is nice about this technique is that students can choose to color code their comments, keeping different types of comments on different colors. Pink might be vocabulary while yellow might indicate literary devices, for example. It makes finding those specific elements easier when they are color coded. Then, once they have finished the novel, those notes are easily removed so that the book can be returned to the library or shelved for a future reader.

One of my student’s novels from this year’s class

Another way I have had students annotate is through dialectical journaling. In this case the written interactions with the text happen outside of the novel, oftentimes on a computer screen. When I have taught this method, I typically have students divide their comments into columns. The first column pulls the pertinent quote from the text and notes the page number where the passage is found. The second column categorizes the comment, e.g., vocabulary, simile, allusion, foreshadowing, etc., and the third column is reserved for the student’s thoughts and comments about the element noted. This method is convenient because students who are reading digital books can simply cut and paste the text they are commenting on into the document and then type up their thoughts. It is also a great way for dysgraphic students to interact with literature because it doesn’t require physical handwriting. That being said, it is my least favorite of the bunch because it is so far removed from the book itself. I prefer handwriting instead, the benefits of which Andrew Pudewa has described in great detail in his conference talk Paper and Pen: What the Research Says.

When I first introduce annotation work in my classes, a practice I expect my students to use throughout the course, students at first feel a bit adrift. They typically are accustomed to explicit homework assignments, and the amorphous nature of annotation is intimidating. I have found Mortimer J. Adler’s essay “How to Mark a Book” helps them to feel more at ease. If a student argues that annotation takes too long, I use an analogy about travel to help him better understand its importance: Most of the time we travel by highway to get from point A to point B. It may not be the prettiest route, but our aim is to get to our destination in the shortest possible time. But other times we want to enjoy the journey, so rather than jump on the interstate with everyone else, we turn off on a pretty country road and enjoy the scenery. We may even stop along the way to snap some photos or to go for a walk. In those instances the journey becomes just as important as the destination. In fact, sometimes it surpasses the destination in importance. The same is true for annotation. And if students begin to annotate some of their books, they will begin to make more connections in their other reading as well.

When we annotate in our books, the books become a part of us. Our annotations reflect our thoughts, attitudes, and questions. In a real sense we become book consumers, not just book readers or collectors. Adler perhaps says it best when he writes in his essay, “You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher's icebox to your own. But you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your bloodstream to do you any good.”

Teach your students to “eat” their books. It is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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