Updated: Nov 3, 2019
Teaching pupils how to annotate texts effectively is a skill that is required from years 7 right through to 13 and if it’s embedded early, it can be built upon and expanded as pupils move through secondary school.
Annotation and essay based written analysis both require pupils to use the same skills when talking about a text. And it all comes down to 3 words: What, How, Why.
· What do you learn? What do you see? What is your response to the question? What is your evidence? What does it show? What is presented?
· How is presented? How do you know?
· Why is it presented in this way? Why has this method been used?
As teachers, I think we all use these words, all the time. However, it is not always something that pupils retain and re-use independently.
Sometimes a text can appear overwhelming for pupils and whether it’s a poem, a short story or a novel, it can be difficult for pupils to know where to start. So, I always tell my classes to start with the ‘what’. This is the easiest element to look out for and is usually where the highlighters come into play! You can either structure this with a question such as ‘what do you learn about the narrator’ or merely ask pupils to highlight ‘what stands out’. I usually clarify what I mean by ‘what stands out’ and give them a list such as: anything unusual, interesting word choice, imagery, interesting structural techniques etc.
You can even ask pupils to answer the questions in this basic form until they get the hang of it e.g. Q: what do you learn about the house? A: I learn that the house is abandoned. Q: How is this presented? A: It is presented through the use of personification. Q: Why is this technique used? A: This technique is used to show the house feels lonely.
Once pupils have highlighted their examples, they can then move onto the good stuff – the annotation. I encourage them to make brief notes next to what they have highlighted. So for example, if I have posed the question ‘what do you learn about the narrator?’, they may write down ‘he is angry’ next to a word or phrase they have highlighted as this is ‘what’ the quote shows. They have now completed the ‘what’ part of annotation. The next part is ‘how’. This refers to ‘how is this shown’ or ‘how does the writer convey this’ and is focused around writer’s methods and authorial choices. Therefore, I would expect the next annotation they make to say something which identifies method such as ‘simile’, ‘list of verbs’ etc. You can then move onto ‘why has this been used?’. Also, don’t be afraid to re-vist the ‘what’ questions if pupils aren’t being clear on what is shown or what they learn.
Once they have identified the ‘how’ they need to consider ‘why’ this was used. I find this the most challenging aspect because pupils often fall into the habit of writing ‘because it makes the reader want to read on’ – I have officially banned this statement in my classroom! So instead of making vague statements, I encourage pupils to say something as specific as they can. They may then be able to say something more purposeful such as ‘the list of verbs shows he cannot stop moving as his anger has taken control’. I find that asking them to repeat the method in their sentence forces them to take their comments further.
Now, how to transform this into a more formal essay? As I tell my pupils, if your annotation is good then you are already halfway there. The annotations are then used to build up a PEAL or more detailed essay. I often attach the keywords ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ to any essay structures that I put on the board, so pupils can see how and where the different ideas fit together, and how much they are reliant on each other.
I also encourage them to engage with these questions and use them to provoke higher order thinking skills. For example, in a recent GCSE class we were looking at the exam question: How does Hansberry present conflict in her play ‘A Raisin in the Sun?’.
This is how our conversation went:
T: what examples of conflict can you see in the play?
P: the conflict between Africa and America
T: how is this shown to you?
P: through Beneatha and Asagai
T: how does Hansberry make this obvious to you?
P: when Asagai insults her hair and uses harsh words
T: why do you think Hansberry chooses these words for Asagai?
P: to show that he doesn’t understand why Beneatha changes her natural hair
I also ask my exam classes to write ‘what, how & why’ on any task or practice exam I give them as it focuses their annotations, planning and essay writing. If it is there on the page staring up at them, I find that they are more likely to keep asking themselves these questions as a way of ensuring what they are writing is both relevant and analytical.
Using highlighters can also be rather helpful, particularly for lower years and I often break down a passage and ask them to look for different methods (therefore starting with the ‘how’) e.g green = similes, blue = short sentences, pink = personification. So then my questions would change around slightly so that when I ask for the methods to be shared with the class I would then ask ‘what does it show?’ and ‘why has it been used?’.
I try and keep to the ‘what, ‘how’ ‘why’ method as much as possible as it helps pupils to see that all texts can be approached in the same way. I use this method for both fiction and non-fiction texts and make sure pupils are aware of the different methods that are used across a range of different texts.
Ultimately, however you find yourself asking these questions, they will always help to scaffold an answer and prompt a more detailed answer. Therefore, be prepared to throw these words around a lot! I even encourage pupils to use these words with each other when they are doing peer work and ask them to actively question each other’s choices and comments.