Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


310: Rock the Reading Block
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145: Teaching Annotation just got Fun

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So here’s the thing about annotation. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it. It’s personal, and that makes it a different kind of challenge to teach. I’ve spent the last month thinking about this, and developing curriculum for it. I started with checklists and copy-and-paste templates for digital annotation, but I ended up somewhere much nicer. Because as tempting as it is to give students a bookmark showing 93 things they could look for in the text, with color codes for each one, do we really think they’re going to carry on with that once we’re not hovering?

Not so much.

Today, in episode 145, we’re going to talk about what it looks like to be good at annotation, a few creative ways to get there, and maybe more importantly, how to help students understand the point of being good at annotation.

You can listen in below, or on any podcast player.

So let’s start with what it looks like to build mastery in annotation. What do advanced annotaters (yep, I just made up a word) have that beginners do not?

Like with so many things in English, it’s all about intention.

Annotating just to annotate is easy. You grab a pen, maybe some sticky notes, and you underline, highlight, and sticky up a storm. But what have you really accomplished? Chances are, your beginning annotaters don’t feel any more confident discussing or writing about the text that they’ve just randomly marked up.

So as we teach our students about annotation, and teach them that there’s no specific one right way, we DO want to let them know that there is a desired result. When they’re done annotating, they should understand the text better. It should be easier to both ask a question about it, and answer a question about it. It should be easy to flip back through a section and find something they want to find. It should be more memorable to them than if they didn’t annotate.

Some master annotaters will be flair pen jedis – using color coordination to identify themes, key quotations, big questions. Others will be sticky note jugglers, pro at using those tiny little squares as a guide through the maze. Some will write long notes to themselves in the margins, while others draw sketches. Some will combine all of these strategies at will, like a pastry chef with her frosting tips.

So then, if we know what we want, master annotaters who have developed their own style, how do we get there? There are so many options! Today I’m going to share four. Try one, or try them all.

Building Annotation Skills with Illumination

You know how people used to create illuminated manuscripts? These stunning versions of a text brought so much richness to the words. For this project, students will try illuminating a text themselves, in their own modern way (no need to get out the mortar and pestle and start powdering gold leaf for the paint).

To have your students illuminate a text, think about what annotation skills you’d like them to try out. Things might feel checklisty for a minute here, but every student will put their own unique spin on the project, and everyone will learn from what everyone else does too.

You might ask students to identify literary devices, highlight characterization, share themes, experiment with sketchnotes and visuals, use color coordination to bring clarity to their viewer, and ask questions.

You can let them work in Google slides, a digital program like Canva, or on a large sheet of paper with some artistic materials available.

As they work to create a visual illumination, they’ll have a chance to see just how much their own understanding of the piece improves as they go over and over it, trying to decide what’s most important to illuminate. They’ll experiment with different ways to showcase what they’re discovering, increasing their annotation toolkit for the future. And then, when they share their work with each other (I suggest a gallery walk and a chance to share positive feedback), they’ll have a chance to see what they like best about each other’s annotations, and borrow ideas for their own future work.

By the end of the project, hopefully they will better understand how annotation helps them understand a text better and remember it more, AND have some new strategies ready to use for more informal annotation.

You can explore annotation resources in my TPT shop here if you’d like.

Building Annotation Skills with Collaboration

Collaborative annotation is a fun way to help students dig deeper into a text and learn from the ways that others annotate. For this project, divide your students up into groups and share some roles with them.

For example…

Role #1: Identify key literary devices and define vocabulary words that readers might not know. Use color coordination to help.

Role #2: Find big themes and ideas in the text and make them visible with your amazing margin notes. Help explain sections that might be confusing.

Role #3: Add visual annotations in the form of icons, sketches, drawing, photos, or anything else you can think of to help highlight meaning.

You can introduce this type of collaborative annotation by letting the class collaborate to help you with one as a model, and then by going BIG with some models on the walls for your groups to annotate. It’s not easy to all be writing and drawing on one tiny piece of paper, so either giving students large butcher paper to print a text selection on, or printing big posters like the ones below can help bring this activity to life.

(A note about printing gigantic posters in pieces. It takes a bit of math, which is not my favorite, but I was able to design these in Canva by custom sizing a poster to 17 inches by 33 inches, saving it as a PNG file, and then splitting it across six slides to print. I had to monkey around a bit, but now I could do it over and over with different texts, so I think it was worth it!)

Once your students are in groups, they can access sticky notes and colors as they wish to work on their own individual roles for a while, then come together to share what they’ve done and give suggestions to each other. They’ll be learning from two other people about their annotation style along the way. Finally, as they all start to share the larger picture of the text, you can have them write down some questions for discussion into the margins.

I suggest you wrap up an activity like this by letting pairs of small groups present to each other (going around to have everyone present to everyone would just be too long) and then do a gallery walk to see all the annotation styles and wins that are up on the walls. Take some time at the end for takeaways – and not just about the texts students have annotated. Ask kids which annotations really impressed them, and how the activity is going to affect their own annotation style.

Building Annotation Skills with Quick Practice

Another way to help students develop their own personal annotation style is to help push them in a quick and easy way to try new things with their annotation. Do you notice that everyone is focusing too much on minutiae? Give them a five minute close reading challenge to focus on taking notes on the big picture. Do you notice there are too many boring discussion questions? Give them a five minute challenge to ask at least ten questions in the margins, and see what surprising things they come up with. Do you notice your students aren’t exploring the visual side of annotation? Do a challenge with icons, one with sketches, and one with color coordination.

Quick and fun “Try This” challenges can make good bellringers or discussion warm-ups. Be sure to remind kids that you’re trying to help them develop their own personal style of annotation, so they can remember and write about text effectively throughout their school career and their jobs. It’s not about showing you that they can mark characterization. It’s about learning to mark characterization and seeing if that’s helpful for them in understanding and remembering the text better.

Building Annotation Skills by Annotating Images

Images provide another fun angle from which to approach annotation. There are so many ways students can take their understanding of a text and use it to annotate an image – a photograph, a map, a character silhouette, a magazine cover, a book cover, an infographic, a web page printout.

An image annotation project requires a lot of critical thinking, as student combine what they read with what they see, mixing media and knowledge (in that way I love so much). It’s another way for them to continue developing the critical thinking components of their own annotation style, AND, if you include a gallery walk or small group presentations with the project, to see how others are developing their styles, and to learn from them.

So what do you think? Are you ready to have some fun teaching annotation? Goodbye checklists, hello creative personal styles! Every student will annotate differently, but every student’s style can be informed by activities like illuminating text to showcase to others, collaborative annotation, annotation challenges, and annotating images.

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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  • Head of Library but about to take on two English classes, something I’ve not done for a few years so this was super timely. Thank you so much!!

    • I’m so glad, Sue! Thank you for telling me! Good luck with your new position, I hope it will be a joy for you.

  • This podcast was inspiring to me!
    Dear Betsy,
    I have been an English teacher for 10 years in Israel. When I first started I was penalized for my creativity and collaboration techniques….
    I am proud to share that this did not deter me from my creative agenda!
    So, listening to your podcast and reading your creative tips inspire me to keep being creative! Not to mention my students’ positive responses.
    I am a great believer in teaching skills…these skills, specifically, annotation, can be encouraged for students to use in ALL subjects.
    So, thankyou!
    There is a quote that has followed me from the beginning of my teaching career, “Creativity is intelligence having fun!..” Albert Einstein.
    On a personal note, being creative raises the professional bar for myself and for my students. During these challenging times creativity helps motivation to learn…not simple however, doable.
    Knowing I am not alone in my efforts helps alot!

    • Oh Suzanne, I’m so glad you found it inspiring! In return, I am inspired by your story of not giving up even when you came up against those who did not share your passion for creativity and collaboration. Good for you!!!


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