Annotation can hinder reading comprehension compared to other literacy strategies

Dive Brief:

  • While having students practice annotation — adding a note or marking text for added emphasis — can help them later recall the importance of a passage or piece of information, it may not be effective as a reading comprehension tool for students younger than college level, according to a 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal Educational Psychology Review.

  • The strategy can in fact hinder comprehension in some cases, said Timothy Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

  • “If I am struggling to understand what a text is saying, then having me underline or highlight the important information will end up with everything getting highlighted since I don’t have the linguistic or content knowledge [or] skill that would allow me to separate important and unimportant information,” said Shanahan.

Dive Insight:

Though annotation is getting some attention in schools, studies that have compared it to other reading strategies have found it may not be the best approach to ensure students understand what they’re reading, said Shanahan, who is also founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy.

For example, relational reasoning, which asks students to compare what they’ve read to what they know, was more effective than annotation when used with middle school students, according to a 2021 study

Shanahan suggests that educators tap into approaches other than annotation no matter the kind of text students are reading, ranging from science to history.

“According to research, some of the most effective strategies that students can use to comprehend better includes repeatedly summarizing what you are reading as you go along through a text,” Shanahan said. “Or [students can] read portions of a text and then self-question about that, responding to your questions. And if you can’t answer, go back and re-read.”

Science books and papers can often use graphics mixed with text. With materials like this, Shanahan said, educators can have students look at how the information is organized and consider how the text connects with the graphics.

“Comparing the information across these different formats can increase understanding,” he said.

While annotation can be useful for focusing students on a particular piece of information, they first need to be able to contextualize and understand what the text means, Shanahan said.

“Annotation guides one to pay attention to particular kinds of information, [where you] highlight the important information, circle the vocabulary words that puzzled you, and put a question in the margin where you aren’t understanding what is being said,” he said. “However, none of those kinds of annotation will improve comprehension.”

This article originally appeared in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.