Tips for Teaching Annotation in Science Class

This guest post was written by a friend of mine, Kristin Lee, who writes terrific resources for teachers who want to help their students with scientific literacy!


Scientific Literacy is becoming an increasingly important set of skills for our students and to our society at large. How do I tell fact from fiction? What is this commercial/article/story/author trying to tell me? How does this jive with what I already know about this topic? These are critical questions we ask ourselves when we encounter new information and we should be helping students navigate answering them in our science classrooms. We can build up these skills when we connect what our students learn about language, reading, and critical thinking to science.


Annotating text as you read is one way to put it into action. When used purposefully, it can be an excellent way to get students thinking critically about almost any topic. That makes it an brilliant tool for science class! But sometimes language skills seem out of our depth, or just the thought of adding one more thing to our plate feels overwhelming. Here are some quick tips on how to use text annotating in your secondary science class.


1.) Make it Meaningful.

        It’s a big one! The easiest way to turn your students off annotating text is to let it become busy work. To combat that, make the annotation directly related to why the students are reading the text and what you will do after reading.


Doing a vocabulary activity afterwards? Then the students should be focusing on vocabulary in their annotation.


Are you asking them to read a text to build empathy about an environmental issue? It makes sense to ask them to annotate with their feelings and reactions to phrases, facts, and statistics.


There are many different ways to annotate, so choose one that adds to your lesson and helps the students accomplish their goal.  It may seem counterintuitive, but another way to keep annotating meaningful is NOT doing it all the time. Decide which activities and topics where annotating will make the biggest difference to student understanding and engagement.


Examples of types of annotation you can use:

                    Summarizing and Paraphrasing

                    Analyzing Text Structure or Text Features

                    Emotional Reaction

                    Vocabulary Exploration

                    Evaluating the Source/Author’s Purpose

                    Comparing and Contrasting


2.) Model. A lot.

        Annotating while you read doesn’t come naturally, so it’s important to show your students lots of examples of what you are expecting.  Reading passages out loud and narrating your thought process as you make annotations helps your students see what annotating looks like. Each time you introduce a new style of annotating, model it to your students. You could even get the students modeling their process for one another!  The more they see it, the more comfortable they will be.

3.) Start Small.

        Students won’t be able to annotate a 3-page news article right out of the gate. Start small with a couple of paragraphs and work your way up to larger texts.  Build up their confidence in their annotating skills with practice and modeling.  You’ll be happy you did!


4.) Use a Focusing Question.

        The more specific you can be about the annotation you want, the more purposeful it will be. It can help to give the students a question to keep in mind while they read and while they annotate. Let them know how the question will be used after they have finished reading. Such as having students write responses, starting class discussions, or starting peer discussions. Having a question to focus their work is a positive way to keep them engaged in both the reading and the annotating.


5.) Use for Vocabulary Building and Exploration.

        Let’s face it – science reading can get extremely vocabulary dense, technical, and inaccessible. It can be a major barrier to student reading engagement and comprehension.  This is especially true when the text is not necessarily written with children in mind. But never fear! You can use annotation to help support your readers by using it as an opportunity to explore vocabulary that they are and aren’t familiar with.

Ask your students to focus on the vocabulary of the text and make note of science vocabulary they are already familiar with:


Is the word used in a familiar way?


Does it fit with what you already know on the topic?


And then ask them to note with a different color or symbol the words they aren’t so sure about:


What could this word mean in the sentence and context it’s used in?


Where can I do some research on this word later?


After reading, they can research the word lists they’ve made and reflect on how the new information changes their understanding of the text. Think of it as the Scientific Method of Vocabulary!


6.) Pull in the Literacy Skills that Lend Naturally to Science.

        I have a few favorite literacy skills to pull in to science content and they are very useful to meaningful annotating. These are my favorites:


        -Author’s Purpose: Evaluating the source of information is one of the most crucial aspects of scientific literacy. Assessing text for things like bias, credibility, and intent is good science and also goes hand-in-hand with the Author’s Purpose ELA standards. Annotating can fit in well by having the students pay particular attention to source or author information, opinion vs. fact, subjective vs. objective language, etc.


        -Determining Meaning: Determining meaning is all about using the context of the rest of the text to figure out unfamiliar words and phrases, looking at how particular words and phrases change meaning and tone, working out words that can have multiple meanings, etc. Because science texts often rely heavily on science, and sometimes technical, vocabulary – this is an easy and helpful place where ELA skills can crossover. This is also something we are used to doing while we read: identifying words and phrases that are unfamiliar to us or used in a way that isn’t how we typically see it and then looking for clues in the context around it to help us out. That is a process we can help our students annotate through to become more effective text detectives.


        Referring Back to the Text: Because you’ve already got your students thinking critically about the text, making note of important information, and you’ve directly related the annotating to the after-reading activity – it becomes really natural to extend that in to teaching students to refer back to the text often and cite textual evidence.  They’ve already done the legwork as they read, so picking out which pieces of information support their answers, decisions, conclusions, or arguments is much simpler. This is especially important in science because we want to focus on evidence-based conclusions.


7.) Don’t Grade It.

        Annotating is a means to an end – meaningful engagement with the text and aiding in the accomplishment of an after-reading goal. Those ends will generally speak for themselves!  Annotating looks vastly different for each student and it’s just plain hard to assign a grade for how well a given annotation helped a student understand, build vocabulary, or complete a writing prompt. So save yourself the trouble – let students’ annotations stand on their own. Ask them to reflect after an activity on whether their annotating helped them and what they’d like to do differently next time.  


8.) Make it Fun.

        Okay, this one is kind of cliché AND doesn’t necessarily relate only to science class. But everyone loves fun colored pencils, highlighters, post-it flags, colored paper clips, and whatever else you can find in the Target Dollar Spot! It’s a simple way to create annotating buy-in.  Go a little nuts.

Would you like to start with reading about scientists in your science class?  Go here to download a free scientist of the week reading!


Do you have a go-to strategy for annotation in your science class? Tell us about it in the comments!  

Kristin Lee combines creativity and scientific literacy to craft classroom materials that support students and teachers in their science classrooms. Prior to becoming a teacher-author, she spent many years working in education outside of Chicago. When not creating new ways to get kids hooked on science, Kristin enjoys playing with her young son, playing fantasy football, and other wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. You also can find her on TeachersPayTeachers, Boom Learning, Pinterest, Instagram, and her website



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