The beauty of annotating


Dewdrops on a dragonfly


Like dewdrops on a dragonfly, annotations are microscopic, fragile and beautiful. I’ve come to believe that they’re the most important secret for teaching literature; a hidden treasure trove, waiting to be discovered. Here’s what I think is precious about them:

  1. Annotations are the best way for pupils to analyse texts in detail
  2. Annotations are an instant way for teachers to see pupils’ thinking
  3. Annotations allow pupils to return to poems and remember ideas for comparisons

Close analysis 

When pupils are taught explicitly how to annotate, they can go much deeper into texts, beyond surface level ideas. For instance, here are three pupils’ annotations of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If:




 You can see how much of an advantage small, neat handwriting is! The detailed precision that these Year 8 pupils can achieve through annotating and colour-coding themes, rhyme scheme and poetic devices is very powerful. The deeper thinking results in much sharper understanding of the poem and much more imaginative responses in analytical essays.  


Visible thinking  

The greatest benefit for me as an English teacher is that, at a single glance, I can see the quality of thinking that the pupil has put into the poem. For example, take these two pupils’ annotations of the poem Sister Maude by Christina Rosetti:      





It’s immediately obvious to me as a teacher who understands the poem better. Sharing lots of concrete examples like this with pupils is a great way for them to see what successful and ineffective thinking looks like.  


Memorable comparisons

Over time, annotations become a beautiful way to revise poems previously studied. Pupils can flick back through an anthology and see instantly how far their thinking has evolved. When it comes to writing a comparative essay, they have all their ideas beautifully laid out. This also gives them a feeling of success as they can literally see how far they’ve come from the beginning of the poetry unit in a couple of glances.   Of course, this goes for plays and novels as much as poems. It reminds me of annotating my own texts while studying for GCSE and A-level. Teaching, I’ve found my 11-year old pupils just as capable of annotating to this level of detail as my Year 11s, with explicit instruction and stretching exemplars.



Now what?

I tried asking my Year 11 GSCE set to annotate their AQA anthologies using four-colour pens, with different colours for themes, language, form and ambiguities. Explicitly teaching a sequential series of questions to ask of poems to interrogate and annotate them worked a treat. You can read about this in the book on English teaching I published last year. To bring the best out of my pupils’ annotations, I’ll do a few things from now on:

  • Use a visualiser to model the process as well as showing examples of the end product
  • Build a bank of excellent exemplar models, digitising, displaying and celebrating them
  • Print anthologies of set poems for Year 7, 8 and 9 for each pupil to annotate over the unit

In a word, annotating is beautiful!

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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5 Responses to The beauty of annotating

  1. louenstone says:

    Joe – thank you for this post, you are entirely right – when we annotate a piece of literature, we finally see all the subtly, contrasts and shades of colour that live inside the writer’s imagination. I think one of the most useful ways I have used annotation this year has been to aid students’ imaginative writing. We study and annotate a short extract from literature – the first description of Bodmin moor in Jamaica Inn for example – for technique, language, ideas, style. Then we use those annotations to aid our own writing – this time of a storm in a city street. Once students have written (often I ask them to double space their writing) they then annotate their own work – using the same annotation rubric, or as they develop confidence they annotate each others. This approach, once students are clear of the purpose and the practice, slows writing right down as they know they will have to justify each word choice later on and makes writing a much more thoughtful process.

  2. Did you hear the Radio4 programme about marginalia recently? Really lovely.

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