In college you will encounter demanding texts of great complexity. You will be asked to engage these texts critically and to challenge the thinking and conclusions of others. You will also have to retain an extraordinary amount of information and recall it later. To thrive in this environment you will need to develop some new habits and strategies. The most basic, and most fundamental, of these is a formal procedure for the annotation of texts.

What is annotation?

Annotation refers to the process of making meaningful marks on a text as you read it. These marks are helpful for a number of reasons that I describe in the first chapter of the Open Handbook. This chapter comes first because it is perhaps the most important new skill and habit that you can develop as a first-year student.

Annotation strategies

Since you have likely never engaged a text in such a manner, here are some strategies that you might consider as you develop a process for annotation and critical reading:

  • Use a symbol system. Develop a system of symbols to flag important aspects of a reading. Mark significant elements within the text such as the thesis, argumentative claims, and evidence. Also note when a text references other texts, authors, or events. Note places where you become confused or uncertain; later, in a second reading, you can give extra attention to these portions of the text.

  • Interrogate the text. Ask probing questions back to the author in the margins of the text. Be skeptical. Be ruthless. Be rigorous. Challenge the conclusions and arguments that he or she presents by making ones of your own.

  • Summarize. Write keywords or make “microsummaries” in the margins next to each paragraph. Later, you will not have to re-read the entire document to find your place. These can be especially useful if you later use this text in your own writing.

  • Connect. Find connections between the reading and others within the course or your broader reading experience. Develop the capacity to bring other texts into dialogue with each other, imagining writing and reading as a form of social interaction.


Print out the document below and practice annotating it as if it were a paragraph from one of your course readings. What sorts of marks will you make on the text? What will you flag as important and how will you signal it? What marginal notes will you write? What questions will you ask?

Download Source citation
Workshop From: Douglass S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton’s “The Continuing Causes of Segregation." The Blackwell City Reader. Edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.