Step Up Your Literature Game: Marking Up and Annotating Books

Jul 19, 2017

Do you want to improve your ability to comprehend and think deeply about the literature you read? Mark up your book! Many students are encouraged to annotate their texts, but few know how to do this effectively. Commonly, students underline or highlight long sections of text that stand out to them, but later wonder why they chose that particular section to emphasize.

A few getting started tips:

It is important for students to come up with a system that works for them. Parents that don’t want books scrawled in could buy Post-It Notes that students could stick into their books or even provide a special notebook to take notes in (just be sure your notes include the page numbers for your observations so that you can find important sections later on!).

Also, I highly recommend that students read the book for enjoyment first – to “live” in the literature, get to know the characters and plot, and just experience the book and fully immerse themselves in it. Many of the works chosen in literature courses are what we call “Great Books” – and as a teacher passionate about literature, it always makes me a little sad when students are so concerned about getting every detail right that they miss the joy and brilliance of the work itself. Students only get to experience a great work of literature for the first time once – so just enjoy it the first time through the week’s assignment. Then, go back a second time and mark it up – this time thinking and processing through what you read on a deeper level.

What do I mark?

While it isn’t necessary to hit every one of these points, and every novel won’t contain each item, here are some areas to think about and intentionally consider making notes on:

  • Unfamiliar words or cultural/historical references – then go look them up!
  • Literary elements you find (try to guess what your instructor will discuss in class and find them before they are mentioned!)
  • Connections you can make in the literature – to your own experiences, other works, or examples you have seen in “real life”
  • Questions you have, or sections you don’t understand
  • Plot and character development observations
  • Have a conversation with the author – ask questions, applaud or critique the work in your notes – what do you love or despise about what you just read and WHY
  • Favorite or poignant passages or quotes

Marking up your texts will increase your engagement and what you get out of class since you’ll be more thoroughly prepared for discussion than if you had only done a cursory or “light read.” It will also greatly increase your comprehension and assist you in writing papers as sections you found important are easily found and referenced.


Webb, Burt. “Twelve Ways to Mark Up a Book.” Open Loops, 20 Feb 2006.  Accessed 29 June, 2017.

Jenny Cutler graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in Education, and in 2012 with a Master’s Degree in Multicultural Education, both from Eastern University.  Jenny taught in both private and public schools until she had her first child and decided to stay home with him.  She ran a tutoring business during her first few years as a stay at home parent but found teaching online to be an ideal fit for her, and she made the switch in 2014. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.