Show Your Work: Using Reading Annotations to Activate Students’ Engagement, Curiosity and Growth in First-Year Writing

Amara Hand is an instructor of first-year writing and a writing center consultant for historically Black universities. She received her B.A. in English from Norfolk State University and her master’s in rhetoric and writing from Monmouth University. Amara began teaching as an adjunct at her undergraduate alma mater in 2016 and became qualified for online instruction in 2018. In addition to designing and teaching online writing courses, she is a full-time lecturer and professional writing consultant at North Carolina Central University.

Amara Hand
Image Credit: Amara Hand

Annotating, the active process of reading and interpreting texts, is a crucial skill for college students of all fields. As a young bookworm, I got into the habit of defacing every book I owned. They were mine, I thought, my favorite things I carried with me wherever I’d go. I’d write my name over the back of the front cover and the front of the back cover. I’d mercilessly dog-ear the tops and bottoms of pages with creases as sharp as some starched Levis. In class, I’d aimlessly scribble and scrawl letters and shapes between the sheets of already published pages and photocopied handouts. And one day, out of the blue, I started to feel bad about it. I started to believe that my markings weren’t possessive, just destructive. I thought that my aimless doodling damaged the integrity of each book I owned. But I didn’t realize, until maybe my senior year of undergrad, that these weren’t necessarily acts of defacement, but the art of honest annotation. It is an act of engagement that students ultimately benefit from as they work to make their own meaning and engage with ideas in a way that is honest and curious.

I don’t think I’ve referred to those early scribbles as annotations because I didn’t always have a focused intention for reading when I was younger. In fact, it’s likely that a lack of curricular interest coupled with my diagnosis of an attention deficiency were the ultimate impediments to my own efforts to read even when I found solace in books. However you want to slice it, I wasn’t always focused on the text itself and what I could do with it, or what it had to do with me at that moment.

It wasn’t just the focus I was lacking; it was the element of belonging and of genuine and curious response that was missing from my reading intentions. Imposter syndrome or stereotype threat must have convinced me that my voice did not belong on the same pages with certified scholars. At various points in my literate life, waves of anxiety would violently thrust me from engaging with the ideas of others, and that sort of undue fear may be common in first-year students.

Reading with a Purpose, Reading like a Writer

As I enter my sixth year as a writing instructor, I’ve realized that my methods are heavy on critical and active reading in order to become a stronger, more effective writer. Particularly, reading like a writer, a process coined by Mike Bunn in his essay “How to Read Like a Writer,” is a helpful framework for first-year students to adopt when beginning to critically analyze texts. This process can also begin to enable students to recognize major moves, features, and conventions in certain field-related genres, from cultural criticism to psychological studies. When regularly presented with opportunities to engage with and analyze texts in this way, students can become familiar with and fluent in the structures, expectations, and limitations of writing in certain situations.

Reading-and-annotating is my favorite class activity. It’s a hands-off way to ensure students complete the assigned readings in a meaningful way. Most dive right in, reacting or responding to what they’re reading and comprehending. Some students are wary of the idea and have difficulty understanding what kind of comments should be made. Some assume that annotating is equivalent to simply highlighting key passages and unfamiliar words. I stress that annotating is not only highlighting passages they think demonstrate “the right answers.” I let them know that summarizing key points is fine, especially when accompanied by thoughtful commentary or insights that seek to understand—the way something was written, its potential meaning(s), and its impact. I have to explain that annotating with marginalia encourages them to explore, explain, inquire, and react to rhetorical and field-related writing situations they will face later. This is about thinking in a way that not just observes but analyzes and engages meaningfully. This is about students finding the value in their own evolving understanding and voice. Most students come to learn this as the semester presses on, with some consistent practice and patience.

When I send out my welcome email days before the semester begins, I have students complete a “getting to know you” survey wherein I ask a bit about them, including their relationship with reading and writing. The pre-course survey allows me to get to know each student in an informal yet individual way and determine the best way to approach the first lectures and lessons. Every semester of each first-year writing course begins with a lesson in stepping up students’ reading habits to a new level, becoming more active in the process. This means I have to get them to unlearn certain reading habits. The first two lessons of my class are dedicated to understanding the difference between the words passive and active; we discuss the meaning of each word and then tack it onto the context of literacy and reading. I ask students whether they read passively or actively. Most if not all of them are passive readers, which is fine, I assure them. I, too, was a passive reader with difficulty focusing on and even comprehending what I was assigned. And it is because of this firsthand experience that I need to stress the importance of building helpful and active reading habits early on in my students’ intellectual lives.

One of the main ideas I stress to students is that reading something more than once is a sign of effort and growth. It’s even an expectation as a critical and active reader. I like to share the fact that I often have some trouble with reading comprehension, and sometimes I have to read some things more than once to make sure I understand. I’m sure to let them know that the level of effort or initiative it takes to read and reread something is the measure of progress, not failure. It’s like when we’re passively watching a movie or listening to a show or a song we have on in the background; sure, we may say we’ve seen it, but when we take it in again, a bit more attentively or actively, we notice some things that we missed at first. “Oh wait, that’s what she meant by that line?!” “Ooh! I didn’t even realize that’s who they were talking about right there!” “Oh, okay. This scene makes a lot more sense now.” When we watch, listen, or read something more than once, it’s a nice way to either confirm or correct our initial understanding. 

In addition, integrating students’ own genuine thoughts and honest reactions to what they read helps to build a more significant understanding of and connection to the material. If there’s something they don’t fully understand, I encourage them to “make it known on the page,” rather than grazing by it. I tell them to drop emojis, draw “big ol’ question marks,” and write “WTF?” or “huh?” beside passages that confuse them. If students find a way to illustrate their thought processes, I want to see that too. I want them to capture their authentic reaction in the margins of the text. I tell them to show their work and make it plain. I want them to return to the scene (re-read) and investigate the clues left behind (their own initial annotations), answer their own questions, and clarify their own confusions through rereading and discussing. There’s no need to front in the process of learning. Kendrick Lamar would say that “you ain’t gotta lie to kick it.”

I use learning materials that promote meta-writing and reading like a writer as well as the value of reader-response theory, situational and genre awareness, and contemporary conventions of writing and research. Prioritizing such rhetorical frameworks can enable students’ critical thinking skills by increasing their level of engagement with the material as well as their confidence and awareness of the weight of their own words, especially in relation to or concert with another’s. Rhetorics and handbooks like the Norton Field Guide to Writing or The Little Seagull Handbook provide (pro)active rhetorical lenses through which readers can fully interrogate, navigate, interpret, and respond to any text in order to recognize and appreciate the following:

  1. What the text says (logos): These are basic reading-comprehension questions that are included in most reading assignments. These remind me of the book report—based questions from high school or any other straightforward reading task.
  2. How the text is written (ethos): These questions promote reading like a writer. This requires a close examination of the text, understanding the genre, and recognizing its conventions and how they all effectively work together.
  3. Personal reactions to the text (pathos): These questions promote significant reflection on the reader’s experiences, values, heart, and mind. It makes the reader find their way into the discussion via a personal connection or response to some part(s) of the text. This is perhaps the most important, and yet often forgotten aspect of reading, what the reader actually feels connected to. Without this appeal, reading is just a chore.
Concept developed by Amara Hand and adapted from The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Chapter 3: “Summarizing and Responding: Where Reading Meets Writing.” Designed by Ksenia Selemon.

Assigning Annotations (An Overview)

  • Reading-and-annotating is a weekly activity, worth up to no more than 25 points. This is a low-stakes assignment meant to promote a healthy habit of reading in a way that is not overwhelming. Longer texts are broken up into more digestible chunks, about 2–5 pages at a time.
  • This activity is effective for first- and second-year students (though it’s appropriate for students at any level) who need to bear down and build productive reading habits, who have trouble sifting and navigating dense texts, or who find it difficult to complete a reading confidently. Making them add their voice to the conversation is the most effective approach to active reading.
    • To start, students are told in the syllabus to download course tools, including a digital annotator program like Kami, Notability, or OneNote.
    • If reading on-screen is too much and some prefer to print, they may print out the PDF and legibly handwrite their annotations. I accept clear, close-up images of the entire reading, not just the pages that were annotated.
  • During the first week of class, students are presented with a lecture on active reading and annotating with samples of effective comments and note-taking strategies. After the lecture, they are presented with an opportunity to practice annotating their textbook chapter, preferably something metacognitive like “Summarizing and Responding: When Reading Meets Writing.” I ask them to consider at least two of the three strategies of reading; my favorites are how the text is written and, especially, the reader’s personal reaction to the text. This situates the students’ metacognitive thoughts in the forefront of the learning process.
  • After some practice, they will apply the strategies to a longer text, something like Bunn’s “How to Read Like a Writer.”  Students are asked again to use one (or any number) of the reading frames to engage the text in a meaningful way. A frame could be assigned by the instructor, but in some cases students may select the most appropriate reading lens for the text.
  • Students are encouraged to react naturally and honestly, make comments, draw connections to their life, disagree, ask, and answer their own critical questions. Using their authentic voices when annotating is the most important aspect of active reading for students. I show students my own annotations that contain code-meshing, multiple emojis, somewhat profane acronyms, and other colloquialisms; doing this shows them how my voice fits in the conversation. It shows them how they can get in on the discourse as well.
  • Students upload their annotated PDFs to the LMS. Submissions are assessed on the level of commentary and engagement made visible on the page.

Closing Thoughts: Personal, Not Just Pedagogical

As I work in a constant state of pedagogical growth, I have made some necessary changes to have students show the work that would normally go unseen. Writing this post has forced me to think about not only what I can do to improve this activity (like encouraging sketch-notes or implementing social annotations and one-question quizzes), but also why I do this assignment. Thinking back to how much of a distant reader I became when I was assigned texts that I couldn’t connect to, I am sure students today have plenty of other distractions and outside interests that keep their minds busy and otherwise engaged. For me, this is personal more than pedagogical: It’s important to assign readings that directly impact and reflect students’ lives as people in this world, people who are learning to express their thoughts and emerging intellect. It is equally important to meet them where they are and allow them to express their emerging understanding in informal ways that allow their natural voice and learning process to flourish. If we start giving them opportunities to make meaningful connections to their lives and what they learn in or out the classroom, we can foster a generation of engaged readers and more mindful writers.

Leave a Reply