Annotating

Learning Objectives

  • Explain strategies for annotating texts

To annotate is to actively engage a text by pausing to reflect, mark up, and add notes as you read. It can increase comprehension, help you remember what you’ve read, and save you time by not requiring you to re-read as often. The simplest ways to annotate include marking up the text by highlighting, underlining, bracketing, or placing symbols in the text or the margins, but simply highlighting is insufficient. Highlighting tells you that you thought something was important in the moment you read it, but when you go back later, you won’t know why you thought it was important. As you annotate, you’ll also want to add keywords, phrases, or questions, and make connections to the content.

While annotating, look for opportunities to:

  • Summarize important ideas in your own words.
  • Add examples from real life, other books, TV, movies, and so forth.
  • Define words that are new to you.
  • Mark passages that you find confusing with question marks.
  • Write questions that you might have for later discussion in class.
  • Comment on the actions or development of characters.
  • Comment on things that intrigue, impress, surprise, disturb, etc.
  • Note how the author uses language.
  • Draw a picture when a visual connection is appropriate.
  • Explain the historical context or traditions/social customs used in the passage.

Watch It

Watch this video lesson to learn about the value of annotation and how to do it.

You can view the transcript for “Creating an Annotation System” here (opens in new window).

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Annotating a Textbook

Most textbooks are organized in similar ways, with chapters, sections, headings, visuals, and activities. Use this structure to help you break down the content in manageable chunks and to look for important concepts, facts, key terms, and theories contained within the text. Look for any sidebars and special features, and be sure to complete any practice questions or activities.

One great way to annotate a textbook is to create your own study questions based on the reading. After reviewing your notes, create study questions about important theories, facts, people, dates, and terms, then use the questions to quiz yourself.

Note-Taking strategies

There are several recommended note-taking strategies for textbook reading such as SQ3R or Cornell Notes.

SQ3R

SQ3R stands for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recite
  • Review

In this method, you first survey the text by glancing over the headers and major points. Then you turn the headings or the main ideas from the summary into questions about the reading. So if a header says, “Annotating a Textbook,” you could write, “What are methods for annotating a textbook?” Next, you read to find the answer. Then you try to recite your answer out loud in your own words, without looking at your notes. Then you can continue on, but remember to review your notes when you are done with your reading.[1]

Cornell Notes

Cornell notes are often used during a lecture but can also be used while reading a text. You begin by creating two columns on your paper—draw a vertical line about 1/3 of the way across a paper. On the right-hand side, you write down notes as you listen or read. In the left-side column, you add in questions and elaborate on the things you wrote on the other side. It follows this general structure:

  • Record: write down notes from the reading or lecture on the right side of the paper
  • Question: write down questions or keywords on the left side of the paper that connect to the notes on the other side.
  • Recite: Cover the detailed notes on the right side of the paper and ask yourself the questions from the left side, or use the keywords to see how much you can recite from the reading or notes.
  • Reflect: Think deeply about the notes and try to make connections between what you already know and what you learned.
  • Review: Review your notes frequently—before class, after class, before an exam, etc.[2]

Annotating a Work of Fiction

When annotating a work of fiction, such as a novel or short story, look for key elements, such as:

  • Characters: The protagonist is the main character and the focus of the story. They may be the hero, or anti-hero, someone who is flawed but still fulfills the role of the hero. There may also be an antagonist, someone who is opposed to the main character.
  • Setting: The setting is a place and time where the story unfolds. The setting may be current, historical, or invented.
  • The Plot: Many stories follow a predictable plot formula, which involves exposition (setting the stage), a conflict that causes action leading up to a climax, then falling action and resolution.
Icons showing the plot of a story, with five common stages of: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

Figure 1. Identifying the 5 stages of a plot will help you as you annotate works of fiction.

  • The Point of View: The point of view is the teller of the story. 
The Point of View: as stories, works of fiction have a narrator who tells the story from a particular point of view: First person (I or We), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they).

Figure 2. Recognizing which point of view is being used is another helpful tool in annotating.

  • Themes: Themes are the major ideas expressed in a story. Every story has one or more themes that it develops, such as “human endeavor is ultimately futile” or “working-class unity leads to successful resistance to oppression.”

Annotating an Essay or Nonfiction Book

Reading (and writing!) essays is an essential part of your college experience. Essays and books are usually organized around a central idea or argument, known as a thesis statement. And even though a book is longer with more room to develop ideas, both books and essays share a similar structure that has an introduction, body, and conclusion.

When annotating an essay or nonfiction book, try these strategies:

  1. Find the stated or implied thesis statement, also referred to as the author’s central argument. A thesis consists of a specific topic and a position statement on the topic. All of the other ideas in the text support and develop the thesis, so it’s really important to identify the thesis as you read. You’ll get lots of practice identifying and writing thesis statements and topic sentences throughout this course.
  2. Identify topic sentences. Topic sentences are the main ideas of a paragraph.
  3. Identify key supporting details. Supporting details help develop and explain the topic sentences.
  4. Identify transitional words and phrases. These can work as signposts to better help you understand the author’s argument. They often highlight examples and comparisons with the main argument. Look for words like:
    • Example (e.g. for example, for
      instance)
    • Time or Sequence (e.g. first, second)
    • Comparison (e.g. however, on the other
      hand)
    • Concession (e.g. admittedly, granted)
    • Addition (e.g. furthermore, in addition)
    • Cause and Effect (e.g. as a result,
      consequently)
    • Conclusion (e.g. therefore, in conclusion)
    • Summary (e.g. in summary, in other
      words)

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  1. Textbook Reading Systems. Cornell University. http://lsc.cornell.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Textbook-Reading-Systems.pdf
  2. The Cornell Note-taking System. The Learning Strategies Center. Cornell University. http://lsc.cornell.edu/study-skills/cornell-note-taking-system/