Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources


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.


  1. Share Examples
    Show students sample annotations—your own or from other students. Ask students what they notice.
  2. Discuss the Value of Annotation
    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 yourself2 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
    • 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
  3. Model Annotating a Text
    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.
  4. Students Annotate a Text
    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?
  5. Practice Annotation throughout Unit
    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.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Schoenbach 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.
    • 2 Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.
    • 3 Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.
    • 4 Case-study teacher in Monte-Sano, “Beyond Reading Comprehension,” 225.

Related Content

Teaching Strategy

Give One, Get One

Students seek out and share ideas and information with classmates through this cooperative learning strategy.

Democracy & Civic Engagement

Entering the World of the Play

Students begin reading the play, having applied what they have learnt about Priestley and the relevant sociohistorical context to make predictions about its content.

Teaching Strategy

Say Something

Encourage students to stop and engage with a text as they read with this comprehension strategy.

Teaching Strategy


Help students approach challenging texts by breaking down content into manageable pieces.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.