Definition and Purpose

Annotating literally means taking notes within the text as you read.  As you annotate, you may combine a number of reading strategies—predicting, questioning, dealing with patterns and main ideas, analyzing information—as you physically respond to a text by recording your thoughts.  Annotating may occur on a first or second reading of the text, depending on the text’s difficulty or length. You may annotate in different formats, either in the margins of the text or in a separate notepad or document. The main thing to remember is that annotation is at the core of active reading. By reading carefully and pausing to reflect upon, mark up, and add notes to a text as you read, you can greatly improve your understanding of that text.

Think of annotating a text in terms of having a conversation with the author in real time. You wouldn’t sit passively while the author talked at you. You wouldn’t be able to get clarification or ask questions.  Your thought processes would probably close down and you would not engage in thinking about larger meanings related to the topic. Conversation works best when people are active participants. Annotation is a form of active involvement with a text.

Reasons to Annotate

There are a number of reasons to annotate a text:

  • Annotation ultimately saves reading time. While it may take more time up front as you read, annotating while you read can help you avoid having to re-read passages in order to get the meaning. That’s because…
  • Annotation improves understanding. By pausing to reflect as you read, annotating a text helps you figure out if you’re understanding what you’re reading. If not, you can immediately re-read or seek additional information to improve your understanding. This is called “monitoring comprehension.”
  • Annotation increases your odds of remembering what you’ve read, because you write those annotations in your own words, making the information your own. You also leave behind a set of notes that can help you find key information the next time you need to refer to that text.
  • Annotation provides a record of your deeper questions and thoughts as you read, insights related to analyzing, interpreting, and going beyond the text into related issues.  Annotations such as these will be useful when you’re asked to respond to a text through reacting, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing, since these types of annotations record your own thoughts.  Much academic work in college is intended to get you to offer your own, informed thoughts (as opposed to simple recall and regurgitation of information); annotating a text helps you capture key personal, analytical insights as you read.

The following video offers a brief, clear example of annotating a text.

What to Annotate

You’ll find that you’re annotating differently in different texts, depending on your background knowledge of the topic, your own ease with reading the text, and the type of text, among other variables.  There’s no single formula for annotating a text.  Instead, there are different types of annotations that you may make, depending on the particular text.

  • Mark the thesis or main idea sentence, if there is one in the text.  Or note the implied main idea.  In either case, phrase that main idea in your own words.
  • Mark places that seem important, interesting, and/or confusing.
  • Note your agreement or disagreement with an idea in the text.
  • Link a concept in the text to your own experience.
  • Write a reminder to look up something – an unknown word, a difficult concept, or a related idea that occurred to you.
  • Record questions you have about what you are reading. These questions generally fall into two different categories, to clarify meaning and to evaluate what you’ve read.
  • Note any biases unstated assumptions (your own included).
  • Paraphrase a difficult passage by putting it into your own words.
  • Summarize a lengthy section of a text to extract the main ideas–again in your own words.
  • Note important transition words that show a shift in thought; transitions show how the author is linking ideas.  This is especially important if you’re reading and annotating a text intended to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, as it allows you to clarify and evaluate the author’s line of reasoning.
  • Note repeated words or phrases; it’s likely that such emphasis relates to a key concept or main idea.
  • Note the writer’s tone—straightforward, sarcastic, sincere, witty—and how it influences the ideas presented.
  • Note idea linkages between this text and another text.
  • Note idea linkages between this text and key concepts or theories of a discipline. For example, does the author offer examples relating to theories of motivation that you’re studying in a psychology class?
  • And more…again, annotations vary according to the text and your background in the text’s topic.

View the following video, which reviews reading strategies for approximately the first three minutes and then moves into a comprehensive discussion of the types of things to annotate in non-fiction texts.

How to Annotate

Make sure to annotate through writing.  Do not – do not – simply highlight or underline existing words in the text.  While your annotations may start with a few underlined words or sentences, you should always complete your thoughts through a written annotation that identifies why you underlined those words (e.g., key ideas, your own reaction to something, etc.). The pitfall of highlighting is that readers tend to do it too much, and then have to go back to the original text and re-read most of it.  By writing annotations in your own words, you’ve already moved to a higher level in your conversation with the text.

If you don’t want to write in a margin of a book or article, use sticky notes for your annotations.  If the text is in electronic form, then the format itself may have built-in annotation tools, or write in a Word document which allows you to paste sentences and passages that you want to annotate.

You may also want to create your own system of symbols to mark certain things such as main idea (*), linkage to ideas in another text (+), confusing information that needs to be researched further (!), or similar idea (=). The symbols and marks should make sense to you, and you should apply them consistently from text to text, so that they become an easy shorthand for annotation. However, annotations should not consist of symbols only; you need to include words to remember why you marked the text in that particular place.

Above all, be selective about what to mark; if you end up annotating most of a page or even most of a paragraph, nothing will stand out, and you will have defeated the purpose of annotating.

Here’s one brief example of annotation:

Sample Annotation

What follows is a sample annotation of the first few paragraphs of an article from CNN, “One quarter of giant panda habitat lost in Sichuan quake,” July 29, 2009. Sample annotations are in color. 

“The earthquake in Sichuan, southwestern China, last May left around 69,000 people dead and 15 million people displaced. Now ecologists have assessed the earthquake’s impact on biodiversity look this word up and the habitat for some of the last existing wild giant pandas.

According to the report published in “Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment,” 23 percent of the pandas’ habitat in the study area was destroyed, and fragmentation of the remaining habitat could hinder panda reproduction. How was this data gathered? Do we know that fragmentation will hinder panda reproduction? 

The Sichuan region is designated as a global hotspot for biodiversity, according to Conservation International. Home to more than 12,000 species of plants and 1.122 species of vertebrates, the area includes more than half of the habitat for the Earth’s wild giant panda population, said study author Weihua Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.” So can we assume that having so much of the pandas/ habitat destroyed will impact other species here?

Link to two additional examples of what and how to annotate

  1. Invention: Annotating a Text from Hunter College, included as a link in Maricopa Community College’s Reading 100 open educational resource. There’s a very clearly-annotated sample text at the end of this handout.
  2. Ethnic Varieties by Walt Wolfram, included as a link in Let’s Get Writing.

Summary: Annotation = Making Connections

The video below offers a review of reading concepts in the first part, focused on the concept of reading as connecting with a text.  From approximately mid-way to the end, the video offers a good extended example and discussion of annotating a text.

Note: if you want to try annotating an article and find the one in the video difficult to read, you may want to practice on a similar article about the same topic, “Tinker V. Des Moines Independent Community School District: Kelly Shackelford on Symbolic Speech” on the blog of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Try IT

Read the paragraphs from “Cultural Relativism” that deal with the sociological perspective. Annotate the paragraphs with insights, questions, and thoughts that occur to you as you read.