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Tackling Text Complexity through Annotation

Lesson Question:

What vocabulary and reading strategies can students use in analyzing literary nonfiction?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

The Common Core State Standards for Reading place an emphasis on scaffolding instruction so that students can read increasingly complex texts. In this lesson, students are encouraged to identify the most difficult sentences in a work of nonfiction and to then use annotation techniques and the Visual Thesaurus to better understand the author's message.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • define dystopia using the Visual Thesaurus, and generate examples of dystopian works
  • theorize about a surge in the popularity of dystopian fiction
  • annotate a complex sentence from a piece of literary nonfiction using peer collaboration and the Visual Thesaurus


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers or iPads with Internet access
  • copies of Jay Parini's New York Times "Room for Debate" essay: "Feeling 'Gamed'" (one per student)
  • "Annotation Exercise" handouts (one per student) [click here to download]

Note: Although the Common Core State Standards' model of text complexity consists of three components (i.e., qualitative evaluation of text, quantitative evaluation of text, and matching reader to text and task), this particular lesson introduces students to a simplified look at the variables that are used to determine readability (quantitative evaluation) and how students can use those variables to help focus their close reading strategies.


Defining dystopia and eliciting examples of dystopian fiction:

  • Display the word map for dystopia and point out its meaning as "a work of fiction describing an imaginary place where life is extremely bad because of deprivation or oppression or terror."
  • Elicit examples of dystopian fiction from students (e.g., The Hunger Games trilogy, Maximum Ride, the Harry Potter series, etc.), and then have them respond to the following writing prompt in their journals:

"Why do bestselling young adult novels seem darker in theme now than in past years? What's behind this dystopian trend, and why is there so much demand for it?"

(from "The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction")


Sharing student theories about the popularity of dystopian fiction:

  • Elicit a few volunteers to read their journal responses aloud, and then reveal that this prompt was the focus of a New York Times "Room for Debate" feature entitled "The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction."
  • Explain to students that the Times invited seven different authors to respond to this writing prompt and that today they are going to analyze one writer's – Jay Parini's – essay called "Feeling 'Gamed.'"

Independent reading of "Feeling 'Gamed'":

  • Distribute copies of "Feeling 'Gamed.'"
  • Ask students to read the text independently and to circle one sentence that they find to be the most difficult in the essay.

 Analyzing what can make a text complex or difficult to read:

  • Hold off on discussing the content of Parini's argument, and instead have a short discussion about how they chose their complex or difficult sentences. What is it about those sentences that makes them especially hard?
  • Press students to be specific as they explain why certain sentences are difficult. If they say "the words," ask them to supply examples of words and then ask them if they are hard words because they don't know them or if it is because they don't know how they are being used in that particular sentence.
  • Explain to students that teachers sometimes use readability software to approximate the grade level of a text. By using the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level scale on Microsoft Word, Parini's essay measures as a grade 10 text, but the following sentence measures above a grade 12 level text:

It may even be more brutal these days, with an excess of testing and the watchfulness not only of parents and teachers but the big eyeball of the system itself, its vision intensified by video surveillance cameras, Facebook and the omnipresent Web, which tracks everyone down, puts every idiotic statement in the virtual concrete of electrons – forever.

(from Jay Parini's "Room for Debate" essay, "Feeling 'Gamed'")

  • Chances are many students chose this very sentence as the most difficult, since it is long and contains some challenging vocabulary words. Explain to students that those two variables — average sentence length (ASL) and average number of syllables per word (ASW) — are what the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level algorithm readability uses to approximate the grade level of the text. Students will probably also point out that the symbolism and metaphorical language in this sentence (not a variable measured by F-K) also contributes to its difficulty.

Annotating a complex sentence:

  • Organize the class into small groups (group size dependent upon iPad or computer availability) and distribute to each student an "Annotation Exercise" handout.
  • Explain that annotation is a fancy word for the process of taking notes on a text.
  • Challenge students to make as many notes as they can relating to this one sentence. As a minimum, encourage these annotations:
    • circle the unfamiliar or tricky words and replace those words with easier synonyms or phrases by using the Visual Thesaurus.
    • circle the pronouns (i.e., it, its, which) and replace them with the nouns they represent
    • underline the symbols and explain what they represent

Sample annotation:

Making meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary or vocabulary usage:

  • As students are working, encourage them to look up not just unfamiliar words on the Visual Thesaurus but also familiar words used in an unfamiliar or less common way.
  • For example, students might not initially circle concrete as unfamiliar, but they might not be familiar with its metaphorical usage in this sentence for describing something tangible or real.

  • Alert students to the phrase "virtual concrete" as an oxymoron. What is Parini saying about the nature of something written on the Internet by using this contradictory word pairing?


Sharing sentence interpretations:

  • Ask each student, after all their group annotating is complete, to reread the sentence silently using simplified vocabulary and with replacing pronouns with their antecedents. Then, have students share those readings aloud with their partners. After hearing the multiple readings, have each group sum up the sentence's message in ten words or less.
  • Hold a brief closing discussion where groups share their ten-word summaries and relate the content of the sentence with Parini's essay as a whole. How does Parini's point about teens living in an age of "watchfulness" relate to the popularity of dystopian literature? Do students agree with Parini? Which points in his essay can students support? With which points in the essay do students disagree?

Extending the Lesson:

  • Although the annotation method of close reading a difficult sentence has been modeled in this lesson with a New York Times nonfiction essay, students could also use this same method with other forms of challenging informational or literary nonfiction texts. Appendix B: Text Exemplars of The Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy is a good reference for sample information texts for a variety of grade levels.


  • Assess students' annotations to see if they are choosing appropriate synonyms, accurately identifying pronoun antecedents, and interpreting metaphorical language.
  • Assess students' ten-word sentence summaries to see if they comprehended Parini's point and could concisely articulate it.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
    • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
    • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
    • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
    • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
    • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Reading: Informational Text Key Ideas and Details

  • Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

Craft and Structure

  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
  • Analyze in detail the structure of a specific paragraph in a text, including the role of particular sentences in developing and refining a key concept.
  • Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

  • By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 6–12 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 7.    Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of informational texts
 Level III (Grades 6-8)
1.       Reads a variety of informational texts (e.g., electronic texts; textbooks; biographical sketches; directions; essays; primary source historical documents, including letters and diaries; print media, including editorials, news stories, periodicals, and magazines; consumer, workplace, and public documents, including catalogs,technical directions, procedures, and bus routes) 
3.       Summarizes and paraphrases information in texts (e.g., arranges information in chronological or sequential order; conveys main ideas, critical details, and underlying meaning; uses own words or quoted materials; preserves author's perspective and voice) 
4.       Uses new information to adjust and extend personal knowledge base
5.       Draws conclusions and makes inferences based on explicit and implicit information in texts 

 Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1.       Reads a variety of informational texts (e.g., textbooks, biographical sketches, letters, diaries, directions, procedures, magazines, essays, primary source historical documents, editorials, news stories, periodicals, catalogs, job-related materials, schedules, speeches, memoranda, public documents, maps)  A
3.       Summarizes and paraphrases complex, implicit hierarchic structures in informational texts (e.g., the introduction and development of central ideas, the relationships among concepts and details)
5.       Uses text features and elements to support inferences and generalizations about information (e.g., vocabulary, language use, expository structure, format, arguments and evidence, omissions or ambiguities)   


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Comments from our users:

Monday June 25th 2012, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Alison T. (Charlotte, NC)
This fits exactly with the brainstorming I've been doing this summer on the CCSS. I will be doing it with my 6th grade students.

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