Writing About Reading: Differences in Reading Purposes Affect Annotations

By Sarah Catto | Categories: Writing

In my previous blog, I addressed how to help students think more deeply about analyzing what they have read in order to write thoughtful essays. We explored intentional annotation as an instructional strategy we can use to meet the needs of students who are analyzing texts and writing about reading. By focusing on the why of writing about reading, students should let their purpose for reading a text dictate what they do while they are reading it. Teachers need to set the purpose for reading the text they have chosen before the students begin to read. We introduced these purposes within two broad categories: learning the content and responding to a specific text-dependent prompt.

Now we will tackle the specific purposes of learning the content and responding to a text-dependent prompt, and how we teach intentional annotation towards each of these purposes. Both of these categories lend themselves to certain kinds of annotations. We will explore these in more detail.

Begin With the End in Mind

If we are going to teach students that a purpose for reading can dictate what they do while they’re reading a text, we first need to teach them to begin with that purpose in mind before they read. Purposes for reading can vary; however, for this blog, we will group them into two broad categories: learning the content and responding to a specific text-dependent prompt.

Purpose: Learning the Content

When I think about my experiences around learning the content, I like to think of examples in my own reading life when I intentionally annotated for this purpose. Then I use those examples to show my students what intentional annotation looks like. As we discussed in the previous blog, it’s important for students to see intentional annotation as something useful and applicable in their reading lives within and outside of school. For example, as I was reading Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Brain on a recent flight, I tried to be cognizant about the process I was engaged in as I learned new content and made annotations. I was learning the content and my annotations reflected that. In the margins, I would summarize a paragraph or write how it connects to something else I’ve read or know. I would write questions about topics I felt I needed to think more about, and I underlined key phrases or words that I felt were important to my understanding of this content.

Therefore, if the purpose of reading is to learn the content, students can:

  • Summarize a sentence or paragraph
  • Paraphrase a sentence or paragraph
  • Circle and define keywords
  • Connect parts of the text to other parts with arrows and explain the connection
  • Post questions to explore later in writing or discussion

I know plenty of educators who teach students to use certain symbols to represent different types of thoughts as they annotate, like the example here. While I understand the use of symbols for some thoughts, I feel the power of students adding one or two thoughtful, purposeful written annotations in the margin prepares them for the writing response that comes next. While I may use a star or asterisk to indicate something I feel is important, I typically add a few words about why I feel it is important in that text.

Purpose: Responding to a Specific Text-dependent Prompt

On the other hand, if the purpose for reading is to respond to a specific prompt, students should intentionally annotate toward that prompt. This is where we as teachers must show students that there are different kinds of annotations depending on the purpose within the reading and the text-dependent prompt associated with that text. However, if you’re being asked to evaluate, and you must make evaluative annotations, then you first must know what the term evaluate means. I teach my students to focus on the verb within the prompt to understand what is being asked of them, which will define their purpose for reading, and, in turn, will impact the kind of intentional annotations they will use to help them. A tool I’ve found helpful for my instruction of these verbs is Jim Burke’s “A-List,” which is a list of terms that are typically found in the types of prompts in text-dependent analysis (TDA) tasks. Utilizing this list regularly can help students unpack what those verbs are asking them to do in the text. We would not only use this list as we looked at responding to prompts in writing, but we would also use the terms in our conversations around what we read so that they become part of our daily vocabulary outside of the TDA. For example, if a student was presenting their opinion on something we read, I would say, “Readers, I want you to think about how you would evaluate that opinion.” And we would discuss what evaluate means, and how it may differ from explaining that opinion or arguing their own opinion. It is within these nuances that students begin to truly own these terms in their worlds of reading and discussion before the pencil ever hits the paper.

Once we know and understand the differences in the verbs these prompts utilize, then we can teach how those annotations differ as well. Evaluative annotations may note what the reader determines is important within the text or whether the text’s argument is effective. Analytical annotations can break down a larger text into smaller pieces to understand it better. Argumentative annotations may provide reasons the reader supports or opposes what is in the text. The annotations always follow the purpose.

What to Remember About Intentional Annotation

Here are the three most important things to remember about the purposes of learning the content and responding to a specific text-dependent prompt in intentional annotations:

  1. If we are going to teach students that a purpose for reading can dictate what they do while they’re reading a text, we first need to teach them to begin with that purpose in mind before they read.
  2. While students may have to learn new content and respond to a prompt, they are two different purposes and our instruction of the annotations towards those purposes must be different.
  3. It is important to make the time to include academic terms such as evaluate, argue, describe, and determine in students’ daily reading and writing conversations with each other. The more they understand the nuances between these terms, the more easily they can annotate between the differences in the prompts.

This is the last blog post in the “Writing About Reading” blog series. Blogs in the blog series include:

The Hard Work Before the Pencil Hits the Paper: Writing About Reading

Writing About Reading: Aligning What, When, and Why with Intentional Annotations