Writing in the Margins


Remember marking up your textbook in university cramming for that exam? These days writing in books is uncommon in schools, something that is discouraged. Yet there was a time when it was normal to see books with writing in the margins. Imagine discovering an old book marked up with the notes of historical figures like Newton, Austen or Poe. All were avid margin scribblers. Margin writing is not just for great minds of the past, but a valuable skill that every student will benefit from.

Asking questions is a key reading strategy that we teach students. It increases their comprehension and engagement with the text. Questioning what we read and having an inner dialogue with the author makes us better readers, pushing our thinking and clarifying our understanding, but just asking questions is not enough. We have to answer them. In addition to the old idiom “read between the lines”, we should encourage students to “write between the lines.”

To be a real reader, you have to mark up the page. Writing in margins brings the text to life. A book full of images, text and scribbling is a window into the mind of the reader. Through the act of writing in the margins, you analyze and discover, with the pencil becoming the sign of your alertness while you read. It also assists in the construction of meaning, providing points of reference for your thinking. The insights you gather from reading someone else’s margin notes help to reveal their thought processes.

It’s a way of testing out your thinking and working through the text – grappling with the author’s concepts and ideas. Writing your reactions down to what you read also develops a greater comprehension of the text and increases the probability that you’ll remember what you read.

Whether it’s underlining, asterisks, questions, numbers, circling or simply writing, let’s allow students to mark up books (always in pencil, of course). Let’s give them the opportunity to talk back to the author and text. Let’s help them realize that reading should be a conversation between them and the author. This exchange sparks learning. Marking a book with our thoughts is literally an expression of our differences or agreements with the writer, a process that leads to deeper understanding.

What schools think of as vandalism is actually an indispensable aspect of learning.

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