Student Resources

How to annotate a text.

Annotate (v): To supply critical or explanatory notes to a text.

Identifying and responding to the elements below will aid you in completing a close reading of the text. While annotations will not be collected or graded , doing them properly will aid in your understanding of the material and help you develop material for the assignments ( Textual Annotations, Weekly Journals, and Major Essays ) .

While Reading :

I recommend using multiple colored highlighters for these elements. Characters: Green, Setting: Blue, Margin Notes: Yellow, etc.). And be as detailed as possible when making notes–You’d hate to go back to something later and not remember why you highlighted it!

After Reading :

Complete these points in the margins at the end of the text or on the back of the last page.

Final Thought:

Annotating is as personal as reading, and there are MANY ways to annotate a work. This system is just a suggestion. For example, some people prefer to use colored highlighters, while others may prefer to use symbols (underlining key words,   etc.). There’s no “right way” to annotate–If you already have a system, feel free to use what you are comfortable with. I am not going to hold you to a specific style, however whatever style you use should cover the major areas discussed above.

Looking over the shoulder of someone writing on a notepad

Where to Make Notes

First, determine how you will annotate the text you are about to read. 

If it is a printed article, you may be able to just write in the margins. A colored pen might make it easier to see than black or even blue. 

If it is an article posted on the web, you could also you Diigo , which is a highlighting and annotating tool that you can use on the website and even share your notes with your instructor. Other note-taking plug-ins for web browsers might serve a similar function. 

If it is a textbook that you do not own (or wish to sell back), use post it notes to annotate in the margins.

You can also use a notebook to keep written commentary as you read in any platform, digital or print. If you do this, be sure to leave enough information about the specific text you’re responding to that you can find it later if you need to. (Make notes about page number, which paragraph it is, or even short quotes to help you locate the passage again.)

What Notes to Make

Now you will annotate the document by adding your own words, phrases, and summaries to the written text. For the following examples, the article “ Guinea Worm Facts ” was used.

Two circled textboxes. Left reads "Traditional removal of a Guinea worm consists of winding the worm -- up to 3 feet (1 meter) long -- around a small stick and manually extracting it..." Right reads "The best way to stop Guinea worm disease is to prevent people from entering sources of drinking water with an active infection..." A blue arrow moves from left to right, with blue text reading "Better to prevent than treat later!"

To summarize how you will annotate text:

1. Identify the BIG IDEA 2. Underline topic sentences or main ideas 3. Connect ideas with arrows 4. Ask questions 5. Add personal notes 6. Define technical words

Like many skills, annotating takes practice. Remember that the main goal for doing this is to give you a strategy for reading text that may be more complicated and technical than what you are used to.

Instructor Resources (available upon sign-in)

Reading: Types of Reading Material

Reading: Reading Strategies

Reading: Specialized Reading Strategies

Reading: Vocabulary

Reading: Thesis

Reading: Supporting Claims

Reading: Logic and Structure

Reading: Summary Skills

Writing Process: Topic Selection

Writing Process: Prewriting

Writing Process: Finding Evidence

Writing Process: Organizing

Writing Process: Drafting

Writing Process: Revising

Writing Process: Proofreading

Research Process: Finding Sources

Research Process: Source Analysis

Research Process: Writing Ethically

Research Process: MLA Documentation

Grammar: Nouns and Pronouns

Grammar: Verbs

Grammar: Other Parts of Speech

Grammar: Punctuation

Grammar: Sentence Structure

Grammar: Voice

Success Skills

English A: Language and Literature Support Site

Annotating texts.

In the first 5-10 minutes of your exam time, annotate your stimulus text in such a way that you gain a deeper understanding of the text's message, purpose and stylistic features. 

Responsive image

As an IB learner you aim develop thinking skills. Annotating texts is a skill that makes thinking visible. By annotating texts, you begin to see patterns of style and structure. Annotating a text is like casting a big fishing net. What do you haul in? How do you begin to sort your catch? 

Related pages

Excellence in Literature: Because reading well can change your life.

How to Annotate for Active Reading

by Janice Campbell · Published March 31, 2015 · Updated January 25, 2020

Please Write in Your Books!

by Janice Campbell

Have you ever been told not to write in a book? Most people have, and doing so can feel subversive. However, annotating (taking notes in the books you read) is an interactive way to increase understanding and enjoy a work more deeply than if you simply skim through without thinking. Here are a few ideas for taking helpful notes as you read.

Janice Campbell's annotated Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Annotated pages in my Norton Anthology.

A book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe . . . 

—Charles Lamb, from an 1802 letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Annotating a book helps you understand and enjoy it more deeply than if you simply read without thinking. If you have a choice, use a good paperback with decent margins for studying complex works. That will give you room for notes and you won’t feel quite so bad about ignoring the librarian’s disapproving gaze.

Use a pencil for writing in your books, as it does not show through or distract from the story, and it can be erased if necessary. In college, I made notes with a pen , but discovered that most ballpoint inks bled through thin pages and were not acid free. If you really want to use a pen, choose something like the Micron Pigma pens that are acid free, especially if your book is old or valuable.

You may annotate in margins, on the inside of book covers, or on the blank pages at the front and back of your text. Use an index card or piece of paper if you are using a library book (not nearly as much fun). There are circumstances in which highlighting  can be appropriate, but just realize that this will ruin the book for anyone else (especially visual learners), and you may find that you cannot read it again without distraction.

Annotate Within the Text

Pencil Annotations in Homer's Odyssey.

Annotations from the first page of Homer’s Odyssey.

Inside the Covers

Word Definitions

As you read, keep an index card or piece of paper tucked into the back of the book, or write on the blank end pages. Write down words you do not know, look them up, and write down the definition. If you understand the basic meaning from the context, do not interrupt the flow of the story—just look up the word later.

Did you like that quote from Charles Lamb at the top of the page? You can read a few of Lamb’s stories and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems here on our site.

And in this reading list from 1910 , there are a few candidates for practicing the skill of annotation.

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What is annotating and why do it, annotation explained, steps to annotating a source, annotating strategies.

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Software for Annotating

ProQuest Flow (sign up with your EWU email)

FoxIt PDF Reader

Adobe Reader Pro  - available on all campus computers

Track Changes in Microsoft Word

What is Annotating?

Annotating is any action that deliberately interacts with a text to enhance the reader's understanding of, recall of, and reaction to the text. Sometimes called "close reading," annotating usually involves highlighting or underlining key pieces of text and making notes in the margins of the text. This page will introduce you to several effective strategies for annotating a text that will help you get the most out of your reading.

Why Annotate?

By annotating a text, you will ensure that you understand what is happening in a text after you've read it. As you annotate, you should note the author's main points, shifts in the message or perspective of the text, key areas of focus, and your own thoughts as you read. However, annotating isn't just for people who feel challenged when reading academic texts. Even if you regularly understand and remember what you read, annotating will help you summarize a text, highlight important pieces of information, and ultimately prepare yourself for discussion and writing prompts that your instructor may give you. Annotating means you are doing the hard work while you read, allowing you to reference your previous work and have a clear jumping-off point for future work.

1. Survey : This is your first time through the reading

You can annotate by hand or by using document software. You can also annotate on post-its if you have a text you do not want to mark up. As you annotate, use these strategies to make the most of your efforts:

Lastly, as you annotate, make sure you are including descriptions of the text as well as your own reactions to the text. This will allow you to skim your notations at a later date to locate key information and quotations, and to recall your thought processes more easily and quickly.

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What Are Annotations?

Annotation, n..

1. The action of annotating or making notes.

3. a. concr. (usually pl. ) A note added to anything written, by way of explanation or comment.

Oxford English Dictionary

The definition of the OED (see right) seems straightforward enough. Thus our project’s guidelines incorporate a similar, yet expanded definition in the very first paragraph: “Annotations are little notes that provide useful information to enhance the understanding of a text. There are different categories of annotations like vocabulary, historical context, etc. Depending on the text, some categories will be more important, some less, and some will not be used at all.” The conscious application of these categories just starts to describe our understanding of annotation and the (meta-)reflection on annotation in practice and theory.

It is part of the “Annotating Literature” project to develop the practice of commenting on a text. Annotations, as any kind of text, bring a set of questions concerning their usage which are useful to think about in this context. What kind of information is given? To whom it is given? And how can it be displayed to the greatest benefit? To exemplarily tackle these problems, we began by a “building” categories (the one referred to in the last paragraph) for different kinds of information and/or knowledge. The most basic kind of annotation is a simple dictionary check to help readers with English as a second language. But it also can include etymological information on, or the historic use of the annotated word , which is especially helpful with older texts. In addition to the basic vocabulary category, another fundamental kind of comment is the fact check. This “Factual” category encompasses crossreferencing data from history, geography, science etc. Comments on a text’s structure and style take note of e.g. the metre of a poem or the narratorial situation of a prose text. Adding to the text are the contextual categories which often connect the literary text with its times or maybe other texts (intertextual). In longer works it is useful to introduce an intratextual comment type that refers to the repeated use of motives or vocabulary within the same text. Higher level annotation might add a “theoretical” category that adds conceptual framework from philosphy or theology implied by the literary text or points to special ways to read the text from literary criticism. Each text might have a specific set of comment categories.

Which categories to display in a text also depends on the target audience. For a hobby reader, or a foreign language reader, the basic categories of vocabulary or facts might be enough. If the annotated edition is provided for the purpose of higher studies or academic use, the knowledge imparted has to be “deeper” contentwise. The different approaches possible have to be wholly reliable, and thus citable – a necessity in a text’s academic use.

How the results of a work are displayed also plays a crucial role in the development of what were traditional footnotes in books until the internet became a major medium. Modern electronic ways of packaging information, sorting it to generate a highly customized output, have the power to change the whole structure of annotation. A book in its “printedness” has to specify exactly what information it has to give at a certain material point on the paper, and once printed, the information is likely to become the fixed metatext of the literary work in this specific edition. Electronic publishing offers up tools to change this by its possiblities in linking informations in new ways or adding different kinds of information in that it can incorporate multiple media: graphic content, audio content, traditional writing or directly integrating other works via hyperlink. The idea of “annotation” therefore has changed: every kind of information can become part of an annotation. To develop a viewer, or a screen reader, that not only displays these amounts of information in a productive, orderly, easy-to-use fashion, but at the same time enables the recipient to exactly choose what content he’s interested in, is therefore one of the’s projects goals.

Learning Center

Annotating Texts

What is annotation.

Annotation can be:

Why annotate?

How do you annotate?

Summarize key points in your own words .

Circle key concepts and phrases

Write brief comments and questions in the margins

Use abbreviations and symbols


Use comment and highlight features built into pdfs, online/digital textbooks, or other apps and browser add-ons

What are the most important takeaways?

The table below demonstrates this process using a geography textbook excerpt (Press 2004):

A chart featuring a passage from a text in the left column and then columns that illustrate annotations that include too much writing, not enough writing, and a good balance of writing.

A common concern about annotating texts: It takes time!

Yes, it can, but that time isn’t lost—it’s invested.

Spending the time to annotate on the front end does two important things:

One last tip: Try separating the reading and annotating processes! Quickly read through a section of the text first, then go back and annotate.

Works consulted:

Nist, S., & Holschuh, J. (2000). Active learning: strategies for college success. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. 202-218.

Simpson, M., & Nist, S. (1990). Textbook annotation: An effective and efficient study strategy for college students. Journal of Reading, 34: 122-129.

Press, F. (2004). Understanding earth (4th ed). New York: W.H. Freeman. 208-210.

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