Strategic Annotation: Thinking like an Expert Reader

Dr. Natalie Saaris
March 6, 2017

Teachers are always looking for ways to facilitate deeper student learning through reading. The true goal of any classroom is to prepare students not only for comprehension, but also higher-order analysis where they feel comfortable interpreting content and using it in new ways.

Getting to depth, however, requires that students understand how to think while they read. Teachers cannot simply hand students a text and expect that students will know how to process the reading in a deep way without guidance. Often, getting to the point where students can draw connections, synthesize, and apply new knowledge while reading is not about students trying harder, but about students knowing when to employ the right strategies.

Expert readers actively engage with text by summarizing, asking and answering questions, mapping concepts, activating prior knowledge, and recognizing patterns. While expert readers often do these things without being aware of them, growing readers need explicit instruction to become familiar with these strategies and adopt them in their own reading practice.

To introduce these strategies, teachers need to model annotations, scaffold by giving students clear instructions on how to annotate, and provide feedback. Teachers who do not offer guidance and feedback often find that students do not annotate at all, or that their students’ annotations are overwhelmingly comprised of personal thoughts and reactions (e.g. “This is so sad!”, “I like this.”) While text-to-self connections are a way to engage students, these sorts of annotations will not lead to deep understanding.

Annotations that encourage depth are:

1. Selective

Expert readers distinguish key ideas from less important information (Duke & Pearson, 2002). When students annotate every line of text or annotate randomly, they are not evaluating whether a given portion of text is relevant to their learning task. Students should be reading for a purpose and using annotations to focus their attention.

2. Metacognitive

Annotating allows students to track how they are constructing knowledge as they read and ensures that they are monitoring their comprehension; this matters because students who are aware of their learning process tend to have better learning outcomes. Examples of metacognitive annotations include those indicating a student’s confusion or those that reveal a contradiction between previously learned ideas and new ones.

3. Textually dependent

Annotations should reference the text and interpret what the author is trying to say. Although it is fine to include a few annotations that merely reflect a student’s personal reaction to the text, expert readers prioritize what the author is trying to say over their own personal interests (Winograd, 1983).

4. Useful

Annotating should help students organize and retain information that is pertinent for class discussion and further study. When students annotate effectively, they create a map of ideas alongside the text that they can use as a resource when writing a paper or reviewing for a test. They are also more likely to remember what they annotate because they’ve spent more time thinking about the idea and articulating it in writing (Willingham 2003).



Duke, N. K., & Pearson, P. D. (2002). Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension. What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, 205-242. doi:10.1598/0872071774.10

Willingham, D. T. (2003). Students Remember... What They Think About. Retrieved March 03, 2017, from

Winograd, P. N. (1983). Strategic Difficulties in Summarizing Texts (Tech. No. 274). Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED228616)

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