A New Marriage: A Pencil and a Piece of Text


As an English teacher, I have two objectives when my kids are reading a text. I want them to understand it, and I want them to do something with it after in response. This is no different in the content areas. To be college and career ready, students must be able to read complex texts, so whatever we can do to help this process in all areas of the curriculum is a win-win. Therefore, I want to arm my fellow content area colleagues with some ideas on reading and tackling comprehending complex informational texts. Responding (writing!) should go hand in hand to the reading of the texts.

My favorite Common Core standard which can be accomplished in content area classes is this: “Write frequently for many reasons.” (W.CCR.10). This is because writing helps reading and reading helps writing. They go hand in hand and should always be married. This brings me to the next happy pair: A pencil shall always accompany a piece of text.

So, how can this occur in all classes? Whatever and whenever they read, have them write, even if it’s a paragraph or two.

YBH (Yes but how!?) 

When I read a book, I always have a pencil in my hand because I like to note something important so I can remember it. Annotation is a fancy word for this.

Annotation is a writing-to-learn strategy for use while reading; it helps readers be fully engaged in a text. Another way to look at it is annotation is the act of “talking” to the text as you read it. Though you may not be speaking out loud, you are writing/taking notes about what you are reading as you are reading it.  I’m not looking for busy work. Oh how I despise busy work, and annotation on the outside can look ultra busy. No, I want them to obviously learn for learning sake but also to enjoy the process of reading and unpacking a text, thereby unraveling a mystery! The physical interaction of annotation uses hand, eye and brain which makes a lasting imprint in your memory.

It’s for all subjects all of the time.

Selling students on this is a tall order. But before you sell it to your students and get them excited, you must first be completely in the annotation camp.

Know these first

There are two things you must know before you introduce it to your students.

They have to know WHY they are reading a particular text. Are they going to write a paragraph on it or are they to look for certain important points? Give them the purpose so they can be successful AFTER they read it! Next, students do need to know what they will be doing after they read it.

I so agree with Dave Stuart when he says, “The core idea is that annotation should help the reader during and after reading.” Just imagine reading a 10-page article and having to go back to review it! If you have annotated and taken a few notes in the margins, the review and the after work is done, and the very act of writing and thinking in the margins propels students to have even more interesting ideas about their text.

Introducing “talking with your pencil” to students and forming an annotation habit

First, you want to introduce it as a way to record their thinking and save time in the after work. Show samples of various annotated texts and have them review them in cooperative learning groups. What was annotated? Why do you think they marked this?

Next, annotate a short one-page piece with them. Let them hear your thinking on paper as you notate in the margins and mark up the text.

Remember, keep selling the why they are doing this!

Talk about the two kinds of annotations:

  • Symbols (on text itself) like circling a word or boxing a concept
  • Marginalia (writing in the margins) like a paraphrase or connection you make. Examples:
  • Summarize as they go (looking for main ideas in each cluster of paragraphs)
    • This is the initial start to comprehension and interaction with text as they find the main points at the end of a cluster of paragraphs.
    • You may need to revisit how to find main idea and how it flows through the text
  • Ask questions as they read to clarify confusions
  • Make connections about self or world (a great way to engage as a reader)
  • Interpret a meaning or define vocabulary
    • Unknown words can stifle a reader. They can use context clues and insert a synonym or definition as they read
  • See an emerging theme or pattern

Finally, make a bookmark as a “cheat sheet” so they know what and how to mark while they read.

Remind them that there is no perfect way to annotate as it is just a trail of their thinking. Moreover, when they are finished, they can easily write a response now that they have notes. For example, writing a summary is a breeze if after every paragraph they’ve been paraphrasing main idea in the paragraphs.

Differentiating for students
Set up tiers of annotation. Students can move up tiers as they master skills. For example, tier one students could solely focus on vocabulary and summarizing main ideas. Tier two students could analyze and make connections also. The goal is to have all students annotating in the margins and interacting with the text for the purpose of producing a writing piece afterwards. If they see how their notes aid in their writing, they’ll be more apt to be more scrupulous with their annotations.

Again, remember the key is just getting them used to reading with their pencil and interacting as they read. The writing piece that follows will be much easier to tackle and we are accomplishing the reading and writing combination.

There is no doubt our students will grow in their comprehending of complex texts if we get them to read and write more often. In the content areas, aim for clarity and content and let the English teacher worry about all of the other traits.

Reading and writing is a marriage we already understand. Now, let’s always make sure we are armed with a pencil as we tackle informational texts across the curriculum.


Stuart, Dave Jr. “Purposeful Annotation: A “Close Reading” Strategy that Makes Sense to My Students.” Retrieved from http://www.davestuartjr.com/purposeful-annotation-close-reading/.

Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.