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Steven R. Van Hook

How to Develop Note Taking & Study Skills
Start with annotating for levels of meaning.
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 by Chad Donahue

Chad DonahueStudents are often directed
to take notes or “study the reading” in school. When I was young, I remember wondering if such directives actually meant something, or if they were just teacher talk. I didn’t know what to “do” when given such directions.

To study a story in literature or a chapter in a history text, I would open the book and start reading or skimming, of course, like everyone else. But was this the same thing as studying?

Certainly not.

Annotating is an important first step in teaching students to remain engaged with any text. Annotating is the act of marking up a page of text. The “marking up” can take many forms, including underlining, highlight, and writing in the margins (not recommended for expensive textbooks).

Annotating for meaning involves three levels, taught in sequence. First, students are shown how to annotate for single word meaning. To do this, they must know what synonyms and antonyms are. When annotating for single word meaning, students identify key words in a text, circle them, and note a synonym or antonym in the margin. This process becomes a kind of game where students enjoy coming up with similar and opposite meanings for words. A simple quiz can give the following directions: "Annotate the page for single word meaning. Identify and circle ten key words on the page. For five of the words, note a synonym in the margin. For the other five, note an antonym."

This activity keeps students engaged in the text for a specific purpose. Instead of just skimming or reading – or wondering what they’re supposed to be doing – students have a task to complete. Identifying synonyms and antonyms for key words helps students retain the meaning of the text. This process can be modeled, where the teacher uses a document camera and common page of text to work through the process together with the class.

After annotating for single word meaning, students can practice annotating for sentence meaning. Using the same process, students identify key sentences and paraphrase them for meaning by adding phrases in the margins. Finally, annotating for paragraph meaning. Students again look for important paragraphs and summarize or paraphrase them by writing a sentence in the margins.

Teaching students to annotate for three levels of meaning is a specific process that keeps them engaged in text and requires them to complete tasks that improve retention and understanding. Annotated pages can be turned in as assignments, and students can earn points for their work. By focusing on annotating for levels of meaning in middle school, we help prepare students for the demands of high school and beyond.

Chad Donohue teaches middle level Humanities at Park Place Middle School
in Monroe, Washington. He has 19 years of teaching experience and
serves on the adjunct staff of Seattle Pacific University.

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