Online English Tutor Tip: Make Annotations Easy

Annotations are a common assignment for English homework (our private online English tutors are here to help). You could be annotating a textbook, a novel, a poem, or even another student’s essay.  Regardless, annotating serves three main purposes as a learning tool:

 +  It ensures that you complete the reading and do so thoroughly, presuming that you must be doing so to find areas to annotate

+  It helps train you to take notes and find patterns and key points on potentially difficult material

 +  It can illustrate real examples of techniques or ideas taught in class.

But, despite the skills they reinforce, annotating literature and text can still be a difficult task for students not used to it.  Especially when many teachers neglect to teach methods of annotating or help students who struggle with it. More often than not, the problem is not knowing what to annotate or how to do so. 

The first tip is always to make sure you are following your teacher’s instructions. You may have beautifully color-coded highlights of five different types of figurative language, but you still might get a bad grade if your teacher’s instructions were to write 3-5 opinions about the piece in the margins. If your annotation assignment has specific goals (like “circle all spelling/grammar mistakes,” “underline at least two examples of hyperbole,” or “note each piece of evidence that supports the author’s argument”), then make sure you are following those first.

However, you are also likely to encounter open-ended assignments with instructions that just ask you to “annotate” something. If you don’t know what to do or where to begin, you might feel lost in this assignment.  Many students turn in annotation assignments that look like the following annotations of an article from the LA Times (note that this is also an example essay prompt for an SAT essay practice test!):

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This is an example of a poor, but a common, attempt at annotating an article.  Notice that full sentences are underlined and that the few notes that are included are very generic and could apply to many different essays. The final “conclusion” note isn’t even correct.  Though this is the last paragraph here, it was not the conclusion of the article, as this was only an excerpt.

 Looking at these annotations gives the impression that the student did not read the article.  Or, if they did read it, then they did not understand it.

Instead, here is an example of the same article with better (but still easy!) annotations!  Without even reading anything – just by glancing at each – which would you be more inclined to give the higher grade?

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Notice that now, the article looks much more analyzed.  We are no longer underlining entire sentences, and we can consider our annotations together when we look back at work instead of having to reread most of each paragraph to read an annotation.  We’ve also organized it by using different emphasis marks (underlines, highlights, circles, and stars) for different categories we’re annotating.

Now, if your annotations look like the first example, and you want them to look more like the second, here is the procedure for doing so.  First, don’t just read the article as you would normally.  Instead, think that you are inspecting it, or trying to find certain things.

For example, let’s look at the highlighted elements.  As we went through the article, we identified every time we saw an explicit use of figurative language.  We saw this in the first and last paragraphs.  This can be replaced with anything that you’re currently learning in class: if your teacher is teaching you about alliteration, then highlight alliteration, and if you’re learning about allusions, then highlight any allusions.

Next, look at the circle words.  Circles are great for specific words you want to emphasize.  Here, we circled every occurrence we noticed of emotional word choice.  This is an easy one that applies to many things you might have to annotate.  Notice things like “sugary spreads of stars,” “irreplaceable” darkness, and “wrecking habitat[s].”  These words aren’t exactly objective or scientific.  Instead, the author is trying to get you to feel a certain way.  You can circle anytime you see a word that jumps out as emotional or extra.  You can also circle things like repeated words or phrases throughout a passage.

Then, we can look at the underlines.  Yes, we can still underline things.  We can even underline whole sentences if it’s important.  We just want to avoid excessive underlining or underlining things with multiple meanings.  Here, we chose to underline the author’s use of facts and statistics.  This is another one that is usually easy to find in a persuasive piece; you just need to look for numbers, probabilities, organizations or experts, or any kind of citation. 

Our next differentiator was the red star.  Here, we put stars around every time we saw the author restate his main point (or thesis).  We noticed that he was doing so at the end of each paragraph using this technique. 

Finally, we can look at the notes in the margin.  The margin would also be a good place to explain our techniques for our teacher if necessary (e.g., highlights = figurative language, underlines = facts, etc.).  We try to keep our notes brief but not generic.  Here, we noted what the author was doing in each paragraph and also took note of any of the things not included in our other annotations (like the personal anecdote in the first paragraph).  It can also be good to draw arrows, connect different notes, and write in different parts of the paper if necessary, but a quick comment for each paragraph is usually effective.

So, this was a break-down of one quick method to improve your annotating.  This can help you even if you are having a hard time understanding what you’re reading.  Think of it almost like a scavenger hunt where you’re looking for a few things to note.  It’s also okay to be wrong – as long as your making some effort to illustrate your thoughts.  Use different techniques instead of just underlining, avoid emphasizing whole sentences or entire paragraphs, and look to write a quick note for each paragraph.  Following these steps can quickly perfect your annotating skills to help you read more analytically (and improve your English grade!).   

Michael C. is currently a private online math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerd in Irvine and Anaheim.