Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Annotating Exemplars

Providing Strong Models for Student Writers 

One highly effective strategy for helping students develop and transfer writing knowledge is to increase their awareness about the genres they must write in.

In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose et al. claim that making explicit the ways experts organize and present knowledge in their fields strongly improves student learning. Without this assistance, novice learners will often “come up with knowledge organizations that are superficial and/or do not lend themselves to abstraction or problem-solving”(58). 

Annotation = Being Meta

Annotating a text – labeling the strong rhetorical and cognitive features – helps students become more aware of how to think and write in disciplines. Annotations demystify the process, make explicit what is often implicit for experts, and provide a valuable model for students to strive toward. In short, they provide "sign posts" for students navigating a new landscape. Because you are an expert in the genres of writing you assign (lab reports, white papers, memos, manuals, analytical essays, etc.), you are in a powerful position to assist students with acquiring rhetorical and cognitive knowledge specific to your field. Providing rich annotations helps students undergo a “cognitive apprenticeship” (Bazerman) and become familiar with the types of discourses (Gee) and genres that disciplines use.

Guidelines to Help Students Learn and Analyze Writing Genres

Places that are familiar and important to us may not appear intelligible or hospitable to students we try to bring into our worlds.

—Charles Bazerman, "Where is the Classroom?"

(Adapted from Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres (Devitt, Reiff, Bawarshi 2004)

1. Collect samples of the genre. Your course reading list can serve as an initial collection. Choose one or two exemplars from your reading list and provide annotations.

2. Identify the scene and the situation in which the genre is used.

Setting: Where does the genre appear? With what other genres does this genre interact?

Subject: What topics, issues, ideas, questions, etc. does the genre address? When people use this genre, what is it they are interacting about?

Purposes: Why do writers write this genre and why do readers read it? What purposes does the genre fulfill for people who use it?

3. Identify and Describe Patterns in the Genre’s Features. What recurrent features do the samples share? (Or, how does one sample share features with others in its kind?) What content is typically included? What excluded? How is the content treated? What sorts of examples are used? What counts as evidence (personal testimony, facts, etc.?) What rhetorical appeals are used? What appeals to logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and ethos (authority) appear? How are texts in the genre structured? What are their parts, and how are they organized? In what format are texts in this genre formatted? What layout or appearance is common? How long is a typical text in this genre? What types of sentences do texts in this genre typically use? How long are they? Are they simple or complex, passive or active? What diction (types of words) is most common? Is a type of jargon used? How would you describe the writer’s voice?

4. Analyze what These Patterns Reveal about the Situation and the Scene.

What do these rhetorical patterns reveal about the genre, its situation, and the scene in which it is used? Why are these patterns significant? What can you learn about the actions being performed through the genre by observing language patterns? What do participants have to know or believe to understand or appreciate the genre? Who is invited to the genre and who is excluded? What roles for writers or readers does it encourage or discourage?

Ways to Annotate

 You can provide annotations in several formats.    

  • Inserted comments in a word processing file
  • Sticky notes attached to a pdf file
  • Written comments at the end of the text or on an accompanying handout with samples cited from the text
  • Online annotations via a social bookmarking resource, such as Diigo.
  • An oral commentary provided on a screencast of the text. 

Choose a format that works best for your course and learning community.  

What to Annotate

Research on the use of models consistently shows the benefits of working with strong (exemplar) texts. Exemplar texts can be professional pieces from your field, and/or exemplars of student writing. A good practice is to identify and annotate at least one sample of excellent student work from your course each term. This will allow you to build your archive, and it will allow you to show future students what  A-level writing entails in your course.

Getting Started: Sample Annotations

A strong annotation  will identify the “writing moves” (Graff) and thinking patterns that you would like your students to emulate. The following phrases can be adapted to fit your own annotation style and needs:

The writer effectively introduces the topic/ question at issue/ argument/ problem by . . .

Here, the writer organizes complex ideas, concepts, and information (Provide examples) so that each new element builds on . . .

In this sentence/ paragraph/ section, the writer develops the topic/ argument/ problem thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, (provide examples, such as extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information) appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic. . . .

Notice here how the writer uses appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts. . . .

The writer uses precise language and domain-specific vocabulary (provide examples) to manage the complexity of the topic. . . .

The writer establishes and maintains a ________  style and ________tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the (identify specific discipline) in which the writer  is writing. . . .

The writer provides a concluding section that follows from and supports the information or explanation . . .

The writer demonstrates good command of the conventions of standard written English . . .

The CTLT can assist instructors and staff with developing annotations. Drop by or make an appointment!

Useful Sources

Ambrose, Susan, et al. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Bazerman, Charles. “Where is the Classroom?” English Basics, Winter 1992.Reprinted in Learning and Teaching Genre , ed. Freedman and Medway. Boynton-Cook, 1994.

Devitt, Amy, et al. Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres. Harlow, England: Longman, 2004.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  New York: Norton, 2007.

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