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How to Develop Annotating and Note-Taking Skills in Your Secondary ESL Class

Mastering close reading and annotating strategies is essential to meaningfully engage with any text. We often instruct our learners to highlight keywords and important information as they read, yet many of them may not be able to identify these key details. That is why teaching annotating and note-taking strategies explicitly could help them to take their reading skills to the next level.

What to focus on before assigning annotating and note-taking tasks

1. Text features and predicting

Use a brainstorming activity where learners create a mind map to activate their schemata. For instance, before asking students to read a text, invite them to look at the text components such as the title, subtitles, images, and the way information and paragraphs are organized. Elicit information about the topic, language, audience, and the purpose of the text. You may also distribute a KWL chart and instruct learners to write down what they already know and what they want to know about the topic. Once they finished reading, they will add what they have learned about the issue/topic.

2. Different text structures

Students are exposed to different types of nonfiction texts throughout the year, so it is important to discuss text structures before asking them to annotate. Common text structures used in nonfiction texts are cause and effect, sequence, contrast and comparison, arguments for and against, solutions to a problem, and so on and so forth.

3. Teaching reading and annotating strategies

First reading

Ask students to read one paragraph at a time and summarize what they have learned. This strategy focuses on finding main ideas. Students should explain their understanding in their own words. Learners can work individually, or they can discuss their understanding with a partner and then take notes.

Second reading

Instruct learners to read the text again, but this time ask them to pay attention to specific information. Invite them to focus on certain aspects they might find in the text: definition, order of events, facts and statistics, arguments for and against, arguments and evidence, comparisons, similarities and differences, examples, advantages and disadvantages, solutions, etc. Explain that recognizing these elements will help them to identify and to highlight important information. You should also mention or elicit that the subtitles or subheads may already hint at important aspects they could focus on in each section of the text.

Provide learners with a colour-coded annotating strategy to identify important information:

Yellow = advantages/arguments for

Pink = disadvantages/arguments against

Green = facts and statistics

Blue = examples

Orange and an arrow = cause and effect

Purple = problems

Black = solutions

Of course, this colour-code can be modified. You may use other colours or even add symbols.

In addition, students may use the talk to the text reading strategy such as: identifying the topic sentences (main ideas), writing comments in the margin, asking questions, and including personal reactions to show how they connect with the text.

4. Note-taking strategies

In addition to the previously presented colour-coded annotating strategy, learners will complete a note-taking graphic organizer with the different key ideas the text focuses on. To render this activity more student-centered and to offer more differentiation, brainstorm these key ideas together as a class. If the text has subheads (subtitles), these could also indicate the main points to include in the graphic organizer.

You may download the note-taking graphic organizer here: Graphic organizer template.

To avoid copying the exact sentences or parts of the original text, require learners to record only keywords and short phrases in their note-taking graphic organizer. They cannot write complete sentences containing a subject, verb, and object.

Students should understand the difference between a keyword and a short phrase. A keyword is a word that has an important significance, and a short phrase is a combination of words that conveys an important information about something.

How I implemented these strategies in my class

To practice annotating and note-taking strategies, I had my ESL learners read and annotate a text on the benefits of extracurricular activities. You may find this article here: Top 8 Benefits of Extracurricular Activities for High School Students.

I stated the goals of the task:

- using colour-coded annotating strategies while reading

- taking notes under the form of keywords and short phrases in the graphic organizer I had already distributed.

Before reading, students worked in small teams to create a mind map by jotting down anything that came to mind about the term extracurricular activity. Teams reported back to the class and shared their ideas; then, I asked them to come up with a possible definition of extraccuricular activities that they needed to confirm after reading the text.

After this activity, I invited learners to preview the text components and features. We also brainstormed on the key aspects that should be included in the graphic organizer. The list below shows the aspects students chose to pay attention to while reading.

Title of the text: Top 8 Benefits of Extracurricular Activities for H.S. Students


1. Definition and examples

2. Academic performance

3. Interests and passions

4. Self-esteem

5. Social opportunities

6. Breaks

7. Life skills

8. Job opportunities and university applications

Here are some examples of keywords and short phrases I expected my students to record in their graphic organizer: after school activities, teamwork, improved public speaking skills, better grades, improved focus, new friends, wider social circle, discovering passions, new abilities, commitment, so on and so forth.

As students were reading and taking notes, I was monitoring their work. I checked their notes and helped them reflect or come up with a keyword or short phrase if I noticed they had copied sentences from the text. I used this activity as a formative assessment. Overall, almost all of them met expectations, and only a few needed more support.

The bigger picture

The above-presented activity can be used as a preparation phase before writing an informative or opinion text. For instance, my learners had to write an opinion essay addressing the following issue: Should extracurricular activities be required to graduate from high school? Thus, the annotating and note-taking task also assisted learners in gathering appropriate information about the topic to demonstrate their ability to understand and to select and organize relevant information from the assigned text.

If you are looking for some tips on teaching the opinion text to ESL learners, read my blog post here: How I Teach the Opinion Text Using Guided Instruction and Practice.

I hope these strategies will help your ESL learners to improve their reading, annotating, and note-taking skills.

The following ready-made teaching materials could be useful to work on reading, annotating, and note-taking strategies in your ESL classes. You will find these in my TPT store.

Happy teaching!

Kynga C.


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