Reading with writing is better than reading with just a highlighter

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Highlighting alone = ineffective learning

It's no longer a secret that highlighting alone (as opposed to highlighting as part of a note-taking strategy) is one of the least effective ways for students to learn. John Grohol, in an article that looks at research on effective student study strategies, pegs the findings on highlighting this way:

However, writing as part of reading does lead to better reading comprehension and learning. In a 2010 Carnegie Corporation Report, “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” Steve Graham and Michael Hebert, after a review  of the research, write, “The evidence shows that having students write about the material they read does enhance their reading abilities. In fact, fifty-seven out of sixty-one outcomes (93 percent) were positive, indicating a consistent and positive effect for writing about what is read” (page 13).

So we can take two things from this research: one, writing while reading can help learning; two, it needs to be the right kind of writing done the right way (for example, summaries aren't right for all occasions).

In print, there are two common ways to write while reading. One is to write in the margins of the text being read. the other is an option that gives readers more room to think: writing in a notebook (or reading journal, or research log, or index card, to name other variations.)

Classic annotation occurs in whatever space the margin allows.Notebooks give writers more room than margins.

Digital tools, like those found in LaunchPad, the Macmillan Learning platform the following images come from, combine margin annotations with the expanded thinking space notebooks offer. And then these tools sometimes go one step further. They offer the option to share annotations and notes, turning annotations into discussions. Consider the following:

A harmonious blend of highlighting, annotation, and note-taking.

As you can see in the image above, electronic tools allow annotations in the margins, but with no limit to how much one can write. In the example above, the highlight draws attention to the part of the text the note addresses, putting the highlight in service of annotation.

The same tool can be used by the instructor to guide student responses, essentially turning the annotation tool into a shared notes, or, if preferred a discussion. By moving conversation to the margins of assigned text -- including text an instructor adds on their own -- it is easier to require students to base comments and analysis on evidence from the text.  For novice readers, or readers encountering new ideas for the first time, seeing what others think, gleaning a classmate's take, can create an experience similar to a study group or academic book club, as shown below.

When an instructor offers a prompt, students can reply to it and their annotations and notes can be shared.

By kicking off the kind of activity shown above, where students can reply to an instructor written note, instructors can do a number of things:

  • Write prompts that guide students to particular annotation strategies.
  • Foster rhetorical reading skills.
  • Use groups to set up study group discussions in text.
  • Allow students to see how classmates interpret or engage with assigned texts, fostering learning from classmates.