A photograph of a page of a book that has been annotated. Some of the text has been circled with notes in the margin explaining what it is.

Source: Annotate a Text 1, mrfishersclass, Flickr

Annotation is a “writing-to-learn” strategy. It consists of writing explanatory notes and critical (analytical) commentary to yourself. When you annotate, you write on or mark text to indicate its special importance.

Annotating text consists of two steps: (1) underlining, highlighting, circling, or marking the author’s words in some way and (2) writing notes in the margins. Depending upon your purpose for reading, your marginal notes might include summaries, explanations, observations, clarifications, interpretations, predictions, and questions.

One great advantage of annotating as you read is that it helps you fight fatigue and distraction when you are studying or testing. Although students often complain that annotating slows them down, the opposite is actually true. You won’t have to spend valuable time rereading because your mind wandered. You’re also less likely to lose your concentration when you’re actively reading (marking the text).

close photo of the tops of 14 markers in different colors

Source: Coloured Pen Lids, incurable_hippie, Flickr

Most importantly, when you mark text, you create a trail that will guide you when you return to the material later. If you read the text passively without marking it, your understanding and recall of what you read will not be as sharp or focused.

Study the chart below. The first column lists tools that will help you annotate. The second column lists methods for marking the text. The last column makes suggestions for what to mark in a text. Your purpose for reading will determine which techniques you choose for marking the text and what information you chose to mark.

Tools Techniques Information to Mark
  • Highlighters in a variety of colors
  • Pencils
  • Pens in a variety of colors
  • Sticky notes
  • Photocopies of pages from textbooks, library books, and books you have borrowed from others; in other words, books you can’t mark
  • Highlighting
  • Underlining (straight and squiggly lines)
  • Boxing and Circling
  • Enclosing information in [brackets] and (parentheses)
  • Numbering (1, 2, 3) and/or lettering (a, b, c) important points
  • Drawing arrows to connect related ideas
  • Using icons (e.g., smiley faces) to express your reaction to the text ☆ ☺
  • Title, subtitle, headings, author’s name, information about the author, captions that explain images
  • Unfamiliar words
  • Main ideas
  • Important details
  • Steps in a process
  • Examples of literary devices or rhetorical devices
  • The “5 W’s”: who, what, where, when, and why
  • Repetitions
  • Patterns

Feel free to create your own system, but be consistent. For example, always highlight main ideas in one color and supporting details in another. Consistency will be helpful when you review the text. The goal is to leave a trail that will make it easier to find information on a second reading.

Like any skill, annotating requires practice, so let’s get started!