Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources Teaching Strategy | Facing History & Ourselves
Student notes
Teaching Strategy

Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources

Teach students to carefully read material by having them underline key words, write margin notes, and summarize main ideas.


  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



Why Teach Annotating and Paraphrasing?

The Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources strategy requires students to underline key words, write margin notes, and summarize main ideas as they read a primary or secondary source. Use this strategy if you have introduced a writing prompt that students will revisit throughout a unit of study. Because careful reading is integral to powerful writing and thinking, annotating text often helps students craft stronger written arguments. By practicing this strategy, students will learn to take notes from primary and secondary sources that address the validity and bias of evidence, the perspective of the source, and their own interpretation. Students will need regular practice, reinforcement, and feedback on their annotations in order for this type of careful reading to become routine.

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How to Teach Students to Paraphrase and Annotate Sources

Show students sample annotations—your own or from other students. Ask students what they notice.

Ask students why they think historians annotate as they read. Discuss the value of the following:

  • A way of “talking to the text” 1 and having a dialogue with yourself 2 as you read
  • A way to slow down your thinking as you read difficult text, so you read more closely, “thoughtfully, mindfully, intentionally” 3
  • An opportunity to sort out the material: what you understand and what is still puzzling 4
  • A way to keep track of your thinking as you read so you can revisit and use that thinking later, when you are debating or when you are writing your essay
  • 1Schoenbach 1999, as found in Chauncey Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension and Summary: Learning to Read and Write in History by Focusing on Evidence, Perspective, and Interpretation,” Curriculum Inquiry 41 (2): 238.
  • 2Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.
  • 3Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.
  • 4Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.

Model annotating a short primary source document in front of the class. Be sure you model both simple summarizing/paraphrasing and more complex critical thinking as you read. Options:

  • Circle or underline key words; tell students why these seem important.
  • Put a question mark by ideas you don’t understand or find puzzling.

  • Summarize key historical events and ideas: Does this make sense? What does 
this say? What does this mean?

  • Write phrases or sentences that express your reactions and interpretations.
  • Note the author’s intentions and assumptions.

Give students a short text to annotate on their own or in small groups. Circulate to give them feedback on their annotations.
After they have read and annotated, have students compare their annotations and consider these questions:

  • What did you write?

  • How did it help you?

  • How were your peers’ annotations different?

Ask students to annotate throughout the unit.
 Periodically remind them of the essential question and writing prompt as a way to help them focus their thinking as they read. What should they be paying
 attention to?

Check their annotations. Give students feedback. Write your own thinking back to them or talk with students about their margin notes. What strikes you? What ideas seem worth pursuing?

Remind students that they should use these margin notes when they write their essays.

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