Remember when you used to underline terms or phrases and take notes in the margin of a book you were studying? College students often highlight and circle important text and often write notes in margins of their textbooks. Those who study their Bibles often do the same as they read the scriptures.

Annotating is a fancy word for marking up text with additional notes to provide explanation or comment. Our students need this skill, primarily because many of them are unable to simply read a passage and understand all of the different elements present in prose and poetry. We don’t let students write in most of our books, but that’s okay because technology gives us an alternative.

Most word processors now offer the ability to annotate text within a document. It is easier than ever to find articles, poems, passages, essays, and other text online that can be copied and pasted. Some programs will even scan text, recognize it, and convert it to editable text for you and your students.

As an example, let’s say that we want students to analyze a poem like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. I easily found the poem on The Poetry Foundation’s web site and then copied and pasted the text over to a Google Doc.

Next, I can share this document with students (super easy in Google Docs or via Google Classroom) and then provide students with a list of items they should consider and for which they can create annotations during their analysis. As an example, in a poem, students might look for the following:

  • What is the subject of the poem?
  • Does the title of the poem restate the subject or is the title a unique feature of the poem?
  • Who is the speaker in the poem? Which lines provide information (evidence) about this speaker?
  • What is the mood of the poem? Identify some language within the poem that establishes this mood.
  • What type of poem are you reading? Is the poem telling a story (narrative) or expressing a thought or emotion (lyric)?
  • What words in the poem are unfamiliar to you?

As they find these things, students create short notes about each using the comments feature within Google Docs. As students use their cursor to select text in the poem, they can choose to make the text background a different color, sort of like using a highlighter in a book. Once they highlight some text, they can fill in small boxes to the right of the text with contextual notes.

In addition, students can highlight words they don’t understand and then use the built-in dictionary tool to define them. They can then place these definitions in the comments to create annotations.

If students don’t understand a reference like an allusion in the poem, they can highlight keywords and then use Google’s Explore tool to find more information.

Annotating is a skill that is important in all subjects and at all grade levels. As a specific example, the English/Language Arts TEKS for grade 6 are full of skills and objectives that could be addressed by allowing students to use the highlighting and commenting features in Google Docs when reading poetry, fiction, and non-fiction pieces.

Google offers an entire online class for learning how to annotate, which you and your students can access at