In my previous post “Common Core: What is a ‘complex text’ anyway?” I wrote about the three aspects of a text that the Common Core measures to determine its “complexity,” which include: 1) quantitative, 2) qualitative, 3) reader and task.

Hopefully, that post helped to clarify how we as educators can evaluate the complexity of a text we are using with our students. This blog will focus on ways we can support students in reading, understanding, and analyzing those texts. The individual standards for each grade level vary and the standards themselves act as a staircase. Although the strategies I  discuss are used at the high school level, I hope they will serve to spark ideas for teachers in elementary and middle school.

Screen shot 2013-04-09 at 8.45.53 AM                       * Reading Literature Standards.


Each year, I have students enter my room who claim to hate reading. They say it is a waste of time because they never remember what they read. At first this surprised me. After ten years in the classroom,  I understand why they don’t enjoy or remember what they read. Most students are not really thinking about what they are reading. Few students have been asked to slow down and process a text.

Annotations are not a new strategy, but few, if any, of my incoming 9th grade students have ever been taught how to annotate. In college, annotations were the only reason I survived as an English major!

To be effective, students need concrete strategies to ensure that annotations do not add exponentially to their work load. Providing students with tips for how to highlight and annotate can make a big difference in the success of this practice.

Highlighting tips:

    • Important passages 
    • Names of people
    • Unfamiliar vocabulary
    • Quotable lines
    • Key research, statistics & facts
  • Themes & main ideas

Annotation shorthand:                                                                   Screen shot 2013-04-09 at 9.20.57 AM

    • ? = question or unsure of meaning
    • * = important
    • [ ] = quotable
    • # = info, statistic or research
  • ___= new vocabulary

Making notes in the margin:

    • Write definitions
    • Ask questions
    • Translate ideas into your own words
    • Make connections…other books, classes, life experiences
    • Capture emotional reactions
    • Summarize
    • Comment on ideas
  • Predict what will happen

Digital Annotations

As more teachers begin to supplement and replace traditional texts with digital texts, it is important that students learn how to organize, process and share online resources as well.

Diigo is a fabulous tool for highlighting, annotating, bookmarking and sharing digital texts.

Diigo example - Tiger Mothers Leave Scars 

Collaborative Annotations Using Google Docs

Teachers can create a Google doc with two columns – one for text and the other for annotations. This doc can be copied and shared with a small group of students who can read, annotate, and discuss the text using the instant message feature.

Screen shot 2013-04-09 at 10.49.32 AM

The beauty of using Google is that it can be done asynchronously (occurring at different times) for homework if you are working with older students or students with access at home. It can be done synchronously (at the same time) with students who are younger, need practice, or do not have reliable access to the internet outside of the classroom.

Students can ask each other questions, use the “define” tool to look up words they don’t know or the “research” tool to find out more about a concept. Google docs make it easy to connect students with each other and with a variety of tools to enhance their understanding of a complex text.

Pair a Piece of Reading with a Google Form

I love collecting information using Google forms. All of the information is stored neatly in a spreadsheet I can access at any time and/or share with others. Instead of making a stack of handouts with questions, why not have students submit responses via a Google form? This way you can grab examples of strong responses to share with the class so everyone can benefit.

I also love using anonymous responses to get students critiquing each other’s writing to improve their analysis, grammar, citations, etc.

Screen shot 2013-04-09 at 10.57.58 AM

If you use paper graphic organizers with students and want to take them online to incorporate media and facilitate collaboration, I will be focusing on that in my next blog post about the Common Core Reading Standards. 

23 Responses

  1. Hi! Thank you for this article. May I suggest Zotero for content curation, citation generation, and annotation of articles and books found online? It is useful for printed texts as well.

  2. Thank you for this article! Very useful! My 9th graders are stuck with a text that is written at a 12th grade level and I can’t ‘ditch’ it so I need many techniques to help the 2/3 of my students who definitely are not reading at a 12th grade reading level!

    • You’re welcome, Sarah!

      I hope these techniques will help your students better understand their text. That is a challenging situation. Good luck!


  3. Catlin,

    This post is fabulous. I have been looking for someone with the light on for a year, but just now discovered you. Thank you so much for sharing your innovative and helpful ideas. I will be consulting your site for questions that I have. Just perusing through some previous posts has connected some dots for me. Now I feel I have a place to begin incorporating ideas.

    You are sharp. You are professional. You are a brave pioneer! And you are almost shockingly generous with your strategies, plans, and lessons. Keep up the great work and hope to meet you someday.

    You inspire me.

    Take Care

    • Thank you for the kind comments, Debra!

      I’m happy to share what I am doing that is working. I’m thrilled to hear it is helpful for other educators.

      I hope our paths cross too!


  4. Hi Catlin! I teach Middle School ESL and have been researching close reading. Daily, my students face text that is YEARS above their reading level. I think close reading will help them greatly, and I’ve been searching for articles to help me implement it. I know that annotation will be a great part of what they do, but I really struggle in getting them to do it. This page was the most helpful thing I saw in weeks of researching. Thank you so much for posting!

    • Hi Anne,

      I’m thrilled you found this useful! I just started my second book and the chapter I am writing now is focused on developing reading skills (with a blended approach). I was just referencing this blog post. You comment was nice validation that this information is useful!


  5. I would like to be able to print a copy of this article to share with students and colleagues. However, I find when I try to do so that the images do not fit the page. Do you have a suggestion?

    • Hi Sheri,

      I’d suggest copying the text and removing the images. I don’t know of a way to adjust the size of an image if you are attempting to print. I’m sorry I cannot be more helpful!


  6. Hi Catlin,

    Thanks for your blog and your books. I have implemented a lot of your ideas in my 9th grade English class. I appreciate your willingness to share with the teaching community.

    I have a question for you about annotation. I would like my students to do more annotating, but I know that many of them won’t do it unless they know it will be graded. How do you keep students accountable for the annotation assignments you give them? Any advice would be appreciated.

    Lisa Workman

    • Hi Lisa,

      I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed my blog and books! I love sharing what I am doing with other teachers.

      I check annotations every day at the start of the class period when my students are doing silent sustained reading. It takes about 10 to walk around the room and flip through their annotations. It’s a 5-point assignment. I will deduct points if they are not complete. I’ll also have a quick conversation with a student if I feel like their annotations are not particularly thoughtful or strong.

      In general, it’s a pretty quick and informal process though. They do more formal annotations of informational texts online using Diigo and I tend to assess the quality of those in more depth.

      I hope that helps!


  7. It definitely helps! Thanks for taking the time to respond! Hope you have a fantastic school year. Lisa

  8. Check out for an amazingly empowering way to support students through every stage of annotation (track progress with common core standards). Been using since Beta and my students, colleagues, and I love it. Also, they were at ISTE!

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