Monday, February 26, 2018

Comprehension Killer: Assassination by Annotation

As I have been in classrooms this year, I have seen some incredibly creative teachers doing all sorts of things to promote thinking in their classes.  They have worked on helping students to become aware of their thinking as they read and ways to help them capture that thinking. In fact, after visiting one campus, I vowed to bring baskets of sticky notes (Santa Claus style) the next time I dropped by because they have become a staple necessity for guided reading groups.  I love it.  I love seeing the thinking that students are doing.  And that’s the thing....the annotations that students write on a paper when they are reading should reflect something about their thinking!  Unfortunately (and especially at this time of year), annotating becomes a gauntlet of stopping after paragraphs and writing main idea statements. For many students, this is a comprehension killer.

 When we read, we are essentially having a conversation with the author. The author’s side of the conversation is on the page.  Our annotations should reflect our side of the conversation.  When you look at a student’s annotations, and all he has written are main idea statements (or just phrases copied directly from somewhere in a paragraph), that is the equivalent of a conversation where someone is just going “uh-huh...uh-huh...uh-huh.”  That doesn’t tell me he knows anything about what the author was saying.  Can you imagine having a conversation with someone and routinely stopping him to repeat what he said? That would get annoying fast.

In a good conversation, we have reactions (!), ask questions (?), and remember important information (*).  If we want our students to engage with what they are reading and understand it, keep it simple. Why do they have to write a sentence if a symbol will do?  If a reader underlines or highlights something, it should be because it caused a reaction, sparked a question, or is worth remembering.

Like most strategies that we develop through the experience of becoming readers, each person’s way of annotating will be unique.  Rather than dictating how students must annotate, try modeling your own ways for them.  Show them pictures of notes from books you are reading and have them discuss what they can tell about your thinking based on your notes.  Have them look at each other’s annotations and talk about the conversation that is reflected. Go beyond that...have them think about their thinking.  Have students review their annotations and sort the types of things they noted.  Did they ask more questions? Have more reactions?  Does the type of thinking they do change depending on what they read?

In this season of testing countdown, remember...there is such a thing as formulaic reading just as there is formulaic writing. It is tempting to think that going through a series of steps will result in thinking, but it rarely happens that way.  Just as formulaic writing produces bland, unengaging results, formulaic reading emphasizes recall rather than deep understanding.  Annotating is a powerful tool that all skilled readers use, but we have to allow students to develop a way of annotating that works for them and that enhances their understanding.