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Annotating vs. Underlining

Part of high school (or some more competitive middle school programs) is learning how to read. By this, we don’t mean learning how to sound out words and whatnot, the essentials of phonics. Instead, we mean learning how to read with an eye toward comprehension. We have written extensively in previous posts about annotating a novel for English class. The goal with literature focus on annotation is theme tracking with an eye toward writing. While the goal isn’t inherently different when students annotate for courses besides English, the focus changes slightly. When students annotate textbooks for history, chemistry, economics, or a number of other subjects, we want to focus on organizing information for test purposes. In other words, students should annotate in such a way that condenses the textbook information. 

We give a much more thorough approach to textbook reading in this blog post, but here is a brief overview of our approach. Begin at the end of the book. Students should start the textbook chapter by skimming the chapter review for major themes and key concepts. Next, students should learn the “main characters” of the chapter by reviewing the key terms section, usually located at the front of the chapter. For instance, what are the key vocabulary terms or the key people in the chapter? Lastly, before students begin reading the chapter, students should seek out some kind of timeline or organizing structure within the chapter. This skill takes time to develop, but it is essential to both effective and efficient studying. 

Now that we have discussed our tried and true textbook reading approach, it’s time to discuss the titular concept of this blog post: highlighting vs. underlining. In short, we are huge fans of underlining and skeptics of highlighting. Here’s our argument:

Highlighting Can Be Distracting 

It’s a fact that highlighting is much more fun than underlining. The rolling of color across a textbook page while mundane compared to normal activities is often more stimulating than even the most entertaining of school textbooks. It sounds silly, we know. However, every year, we watch students use their highlighter (yes, a highlighter) to distract themselves from actually reading the textbook. The highlighter becomes a textbook ‘pacer’ and coloring tool rather than a tool to organize information, which leads to our next point. 

Underling Lends Itself to Condensing Information

Underlining, because it isn’t as fun, helps students focus on condensing information, which is the entire point of annotating. With a highlighter, students often finish reading the textbook and admire the technicolor pages they’ve produced from a dry text about the War of 1812. While fun, that’s not the goal. Underlining helps students focus on only the most critical information, especially if the student follows our textbook reading process explained above. Students can further enhance the efficacy of underlining by following the ‘eight-word rule’ – only underling eight words in a row at a time. 

Underlining Eliminates Excuses

Not everyone has a highlighter when they sit down to read a textbook. Whether the student is at home, in class, or reading on a long car ride home, requiring a highlighter as an annotation tool adds an extra step of complexity. On the other hand, most students have a pen or pencil within reach at all times. If a student doesn’t have a pen or pencil, it’s much easier to find one in an unfamiliar setting compared to a highlighter. Therefore, underlining eliminates excuses to get started, which, in turn, reduces the possibility of procrastination. 

Bonus: one scenario where highlighting can be more effective than underlining

Highlighting can be effective when categorizing information into discrete blocks, particularly when those discrete blocks are intermingled in a textbook or relevant course text. For instance, if a student is reading great speeches for her A.P. English Language and Composition class, highlighting could be an effective tool to organize the speech into relevant rhetorical devices (logical appeals, emotional appeals, etc.). 

For more ideas on reading comprehension strategies, please check out our other resources. For information on our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, reach out today!


Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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