Redefining annotation: Ditch That PDF and hyper-annotate

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Thursday, March 8, 2018

Redefining annotation: Ditch That PDF and hyper-annotate

Students can mark up documents. But how can we transform that activity to something bigger? Hyper annotation!

[callout]Today’s post was written by Joe Marquez, a tech coach from Clovis, California. Find Joe on Twitter at @JoeMarquez70 or on [/callout]

Learning how to read and annotate text is an important skill all our students need to truly understand stories, articles, and *GULP* textbooks.

This is a skill that can be learned over time. The hard reality of the situation, though, is most college level texts are now distributed in PDF or other digital formats for our students to manipulate.

In the face of this new reality, it has become a necessity to teach our younger students the skills of digital annotation (marking up a document) and manipulation (changing it around).

With digital devices, we encourage students not to simply use a digital version of a highlighter, but rather level up their annotation practices to redefine the entire model.

Below we will see how one single PDF can be transformed into a living annotated document with a few simple tricks and tips (and some more advanced, geekier ones, too).

Once you have an article to annotate, you can use any combination of these ideas to help your students dive deeply into a text!

(NOTE: All of the steps in this post rely on the Google Chrome web browser and G Suite/Google Apps.)

Want to see an example before we get started? Click here!

Step 1: Find an article to annotate

Your first step is to locate a PDF which you wish to have your students annotate. My favorite site to grab up to date current event articles for any subject and lexicon level is NewsELA.

Once in NewsELA, find an article and click the print icon. However, we won’t actually print it on paper. We’re going to digitally print it as a PDF.

NewsELA will ask how you would like the article, select “Article Only”. This will redirect you to a Google Chrome PDF “preview” screen where you will select the download icon in the upper right. You now have the PDF of the article which you will then upload to your Google Drive.

Step 2: Convert it to Google Docs

Once the PDF article is in your Google Drive, right click on the file, select “Open with” → Google Docs. The PDF is instantly transformed into an editable Google Doc after a little formatting takes place.

The article is now ready to be distributed to your students via Google Classroom. Now we can get to hyping up our annotations.

Optional: Grab ANY website as PDF (alternative to NewsELA)

You can also turn any website into an easy to convert PDF with the Mercury Reader chrome extension. Simply visit any website, click on the Mercury Reader rocket icon. This will get rid of all the website clutter and leave a nice polished text version of the website. Then right click, select print and save as PDF. Now all you have to do is follow the same instructions as above to place and use it in your google drive.

Step 3: Supersize your workspace

Hey, this is a digital document … it’s not paper! We aren’t limited to the confines of a 8.5″x11″ piece of wood pulp if we aren’t going to print it.

So let’s supersize our workspace.

  • Go to file in the upper right corner of the Google document.
  • Select “Page Setup”.
  • Change the orientation to landscape.
  • Change the paper size to something larger. I like the “Tabloid” option.

Your students now have a supersized workspace to annotate like a rockstar.

Now, let’s take annotation to the next level!

So … we have our text. We have it set up so students have plenty of room to work on it.

What do we do with it now?

All of the options below are just that — options. Use any of them in conjunction with each other to help your students create something amazing with what they’re learning!

Pick and choose. Think of the options below like the $1 menu at a fast food restaurant.

Pick one. Pick a couple. Pick all of them if you’re really, really hungry!

Option 1: Split text up with columns and tables

Annotations work best when you have a space to leave your thoughts/notes/comments on the article as you read it. So, why not create a 2 column table? One column for the text. Another column for thoughts/notes/comments.

  • Copy all the text on the document by using “Ctrl+A” (select all) then “Ctrl+C” (copy).
  • Delete all the text. (Don’t worry. It’s not really deleted … you copied it, remember?)
  • Select “Table” on the toolbar and create a 2×1 column table.
  • Paste the copied text into the left column by using “Ctrl+v”.

Now you have your text on the left and a place for your students to write on the right.

But wait. There’s more! You can …

  • Add a 1×1 single box table underneath each section of the text and type “Summary”.
  • Want a third of fourth column? To insert new Column, “Right-Click” in current column, then select “Insert Column Right”.

A digital document is malleable. It has no set size, shape or form. Make use of its transformational properties!

Now you have a space for the students to summarize that portion of the text.

Option 2: “Talk to the text” with the comment tool

One of my favorite strategies when reading an article or text is to “Talk to the Text” — having readers comment on what the article is making them think/feel.

These include statements like, “This sentence is confusing,” or “I can relate to this scenario by…”.

This strategy can be easily done with the comment tool built right into Google Docs.

Just highlight the text you want to “talk to.” You will see a comment icon pop up in the right margin of the document. Click this icon then type in your comment. Easy peasy!

Option 3: Highlight and group text with Highlight Tool add-on

Students can easily color code their document with each color representing a specific task.

What if they could do even further organize their color coding system?

They can automatically create a color coded table of those highlights using the “Highlight Tool” Chrome extension! It’s like having your own personal assistant to pull out the important points and summarize them for you at the end of a document.

Here’s how you add the Highlight Tool add-on …

  • In your Google Doc, go to the Add-on option on the toolbar.
  • Select “Get Add-ons” and search for “Highlight Tool.” (See the animation below for the correct one.)
  • Select “Add to Drive”.

Once you have added the tool, it should now appear as an option in your Add-Ons menu at the top of your document.

Here’s how you create a table of the items you’ve highlighted …

  • Open the Highlight Tool.
  • Select Highlighter Library.
  • Select your Highlight colors and label them for whatever purpose you would like such as: “Main Topic”, “Confusing Statement”, “Will be on Test” etc.
  • Select “Save” and then begin to highlight the text.
  • Once you’re done highlighting the document, go to the bottom of the highlight tool on the right of your document.
  • Find  “Extract Highlights.” Select “By Color” and extract to “This Document”.

The tool will then extract all your highlights and place them in a color coded table at the bottom of your document. It’s an amazing tool to help collect your students’ thoughts for easy reference.

Option 4: Add relevant images using the “Explore” tool

I love having students identify images to support the topics of the text.

Google Docs makes this process a snap with its embedded “Explore” tool in the bottom right corner of any document. This “Explore” tool allows students to research relevant images to the text.

The “Explore” tool will automatically search the article text for content and bring up images it thinks are relevant.

If the images it suggests do not fit what your students have in mind, they can use the search bar at the top of the tool to make another search.

To add the image all they need to do is drag and drop it from the “Explore” tool into the document. Once brought in, I ask my students to label the image and explain why they brought it in and how it relates to the text.

Option 5: Add student-created images or models with the Drawing option

When standard images won’t do, why not let students make one themselves?

Sometimes, I want students to create a visual of the text …

  • a recreation of a item described in the text
  • a mind map of their thoughts about the text
  • a model of the content being described

Have students create an image by going to File > Insert > Drawing. They can create with shapes, lines and text. Students can even bring in an image which they believe is relevant, then label/annotate over this image for a greater impact.

When they’re done, they just insert the drawing into the text.

Option 6: Hyperlink outside resources and add “sticky notes”

The “Explore” tool is also a great place to find other texts and articles that further support what students are learning.

  • Simply click on the “Explore” tool in the bottom right corner of the document. Search for related articles and websites.
  • Students can visit the website to expand their knowledge or fact-check information found in the article being read.
  • If the website was helpful the students can then hyperlink the website to their text. They can also comment on the reason they found the article helpful.
  • Students can even easily cite the website in MLA, APA or Chicago format as a footnote. They just click on the “ (quotation mark) icon next to the article link in the explore tool.

BONUS: An extra step students can take is leaving a “Sticky Note” on the website they visited. This lets them leave information behind to review later.

This digital sticky note can be place in the exact spot where the student found that helpful information — with a note explaining why it was helpful. This is nice for longer-term activities and research projects.

  • To use the sticky note, simply install the Google Chrome extension Note Anywhere.
  • Go to the webpage where you want a sticky note.
  • Click on the “Note Anywhere” extension in the top right corner of your Google Chrome browser.
  • A sticky note will pop up. Move the note anywhere on the webpage.

This note will now be on this webpage until it is removed by the user.

Option 7: Create artifacts and short video screencasts

How many times have you left a comment or taken notes only to come back to them days later and not know what the heck you were talking about or referring to?

Now we can leave short screencast reminders/tutorials for any idea, concept or tool.

To unleash this powerful new strategy add the Google Chrome extension “Awesome Screenshot” to your chrome browser.

Take a screenshot of your page:

  • Click on the “Awesome Screenshot” icon in your Chrome extension toolbar.
  • This will bring a dropdown box with many different choices to take a screenshot of your page.
  • To simply take a “picture” of a certain portion of a webpage have them select “Capture Selected Area”.
  • Students can then annotate over it with ink, highlights or text to create an artifact of learning.
  • This image can now be added to the document in the pictures column of the Google Doc.

Record video of your page/screen

This artifact of learning is great, but sometimes you need a narration, too, to remember key points of your learning.

When this is the case select “Record my Screen” from the Awesome Screenshot extension menu.

This will allow your students to record their screen and voice for up to 30 seconds.

  • Select “Record my Screen.”
  • Turn the microphone option on.
  • Then select “start recording.”

This video clip is then saved to the local drive or in Google Drive and can be easily hyperlinked to their document for easy review later.

It’s NOT a “substitution” task

Technology is meant to advance our knowledge. It can leverage the 21st century skills our students will need in college or their next step in life.

Simply substituting handwritten notes or annotations with a digital medium is not acceptable. We must create digitally what is not possible in the real world with traditional tools and redefine what’s possible with digital tools.

Try one or two strategies in your class to get started and add more as your students begin to understand their purpose.

Some of the tips above are simple, other are a little more complicated, yet all leverage the power of the digital device to make the impossible, possible.

How have you marked up documents and/or annotated with your students? How could you see using some of these options in your class? Share in a comment below!


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  • Greg Worrall says:

    I tried to download the highlighter tool and I was blocked from access on it. When I tried to use the sticky note option as well, I could not get a note to come up. I can see the benefit of making a couple columns. Would be a nice way for students to organize some key ideas.

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