Don’t just read — Annotate!

I teach US History to high school students. I often ask my students to annotate the readings we do for class. I want to see evidence that they engaged with the reading and I want to find out what questions they had about the reading. I find this far more productive than asking all of my students to answer the same set of questions, to test for basic comprehension of the reading.

Invariably, some of my students tell me, “I read it, but I didn’t annotate it.”

This is not helpful. First, I can’t tell if these students did the reading.

Second (and more importantly) I don’t get to find out how my students’ brains engaged with the reading. I love learning from the questions my students ask. If students just read, but don’t annotate, the deprive me (and their classmates) of an opportunity to learn.

For instance, this morning we were discussing the Louisiana Purchase, and how some members of the opposing political party did not vote for this famous purchase of land (Thomas Jefferson, the president at the time of the purchase, was a Democratic-Republican; the opposing party was the Federalists).

(pictured below is the Louisiana Territory in purple — I think it’s useful to see what’s claimed by Spain at the time)



One of my students, arguing the Federalist perspective, made a comparison to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. There, people who were far away from the seat of power in Boston and who were upset with having to pay taxes, decided to rebel in the western part of the state.

What I should have pointed out in class (but now I’ll point it out in class tomorrow) is that the way George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania in 1794 showed that the federal government might actually be capable of controlling far-away lands.

But the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country — how far could people travel in the 1800s?

In any case, it was a very cool connection. I’m not sure if he made that connection while thinking in class, or in his annotations (or both), but I do know that connections like that one — Shays’ Rebellion to Louisiana Purchase — happen only when students engage with the material.

Another student asked — in his annotations — how the US got the money to pay for the Louisiana Purchase, and wondered whether the US had to go further into debt to make the $15 million purchase back in 1803.

Not surprisingly, the US did have to go further into debt —

the price was more than the United States could afford. As a result, it was forced to borrow from two European banks at 6 percent interest. It did not finish repaying the loan until 1823, by which time the total cost for the Louisiana Purchase had risen to over $23 million.


When students ask these sort of engaging questions, it shows that they are making meaningful connections to the history we are studying.

And that’s cool on many levels.

So don’t just read — annotate!


In response to a comment on my post, here’s a sample student annotation (with the student’s name taken out):


I have students use Google Docs, and this also tells me when a student did his/her work — a useful tool for tracking a group’s work in a shared document 🙂


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Don’t just read — Annotate!

  1. Are the students annotating paper copies of the document or is it being done digitally? If they’re doing it digitally, what tool/app/platform are you having them use?

    • Steve Goldberg says:

      I teach at a laptop school (BYOD), so most of the reading is online. I typically have them copy the reading into their own notes and write comments using Google Docs. Occasionally, we do readings on paper, and then they annotate on paper.

      At the end of my post, I’ll add a screenshot of one student’s annotations (with the student’s name removed)

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