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  • Writer's pictureMegan Mariano

The Importance of Highlighting: Different Ways to use it in Middle School English Language Arts

By the time students enter middle school, they've had several years of writing experience. However, they've probably had very specific ways of writing that may not allow much nuance and elaboration. When trying to teach them more sophisticated writing, sometimes it's difficult for them to start thinking beyond the basics. This is where highlighting with a purpose comes in. Read about how I use highlighting in reading and writing.

Digital or on Paper?

Both! Personally, I am a bigger fan of doing it on the computer mostly because it's more organized and the colors are consistent. You can also easily go back and find something from awhile back that could relate to what you are doing now by searching the Drive, for example, as opposed to digging through actual folders.

I tend to use the same colors for the same things throughout the entire school year, so being digital makes this a lot easier. However, I still think grabbing good old highlighters is helpful, especially when it comes to note-taking.

But they can't highlight in their novels!

The only pitfall of all of this is that if you are reading workshop-based like me and use lots of novels, they can't highlight in their books for obvious reasons.

I have two solutions to this:

  1. Sticky notes: If they have multiple colors of sticky notes, those can replace highlighters. They can label the text for specifics using different types of stickies!

  2. Screenshots: This is what I do because eventually all those stickies have to come out. I have students take screenshots of pages to focus on and put them into their digital notebooks. I provide them with some highlighter clip art. They can then move the clip art highlights over the screenshot page.

This is a student example from my Historical Fiction unit. This shows you how they use screenshots and highlighter clip art to pinpoint text details. Much easier than typing out the entire text detail.


Literary and Non-fiction Elements

I am sure many of you have heard of close reading by now. There are lots of different definitions of it, but an aspect of it, in my opinion, is looking for specific things while reading. Oftentimes it starts with a first read, usually read aloud, then the second time students should be looking for something specific. This is when highlighting comes in for my students.

It all depends on the mini-lesson for the day. Perhaps I am teaching mood. I will have students go back in their texts and highlight lines that show strong mood. Sometimes, I will have them look for multiple things using different colors. For example, in my Poetry Unit, they tend to look for multiple pieces of figurative language in poetry. I will have them color-code specific types of figurative language.

Sometimes, I will make it a bit more complex. In this lesson here, I asked students to focus on how a minor character's actions and dialogue say a lot about the character. (Yes, I know the word "pendejo" can be considered a dirty word, but, oh well).

This, below, is from my Investigating Characterization unit.

Sometimes, it's better to highlight on paper or at least, it's good to change it up once in awhile. Here, students are learning how to take notes. I told them to use highlighters to color-code articles, to match colors with similar ideas, and more. I honestly give them a lot of ownership over this and they come up with their own ideas of how and what to highlight!

This was for an argument essay and research unit. It is not up in my store, yet.

Reading Responses

I have a very specific way I teach them to write reading responses, but then some days I want them to write them in different ways. The more formal way is exactly. the. same. all year. Those colors don't change. Yellow is text detail. Blue is explanation. Green is evidence stem. I use these colors in so many other ways. I will often color code text boxes this way. It helps them differentiate what I am looking for specifically. Below is a sample reading response.

If I am not expecting them to do a reading response, my colors may change. I will just provide a key and then they must highlight accordingly.

It's also important to remember that you must model highlighting with your own writing or reading responses. This is super crucial to making all of this work.

End of Unit Assessments

Since I teach units, I always do an end of unit end of unit assessment. I do them digitally. I give the students a short text in the genre of the unit (usually found on Common Lit or ReadWorks). Off to the side, I put digital sticky notes with prompts that focus on the teaching points from the unit. Students read the short text and highlight based on the prompts. The digital sticky notes are color-coded and they must highlight to match the color of the sticky. Within the sticky, they answer the prompt.

The prompts on the digital stickies are statements such as: "This line shows strong mood because..." or "This shows a strong character change because..." They highlight a line that goes along with the prompt, move the digital sticky near the line, and explain their thinking.


Essay Writing

This is where highlighting is HUGE help for students. In 6th grade, I introduce a new format for essay writing. This came to me a few years back when the state test was calling for some pretty intense writing samples. Oftentimes, the prompt would ask the students to compare and contrast evidence across multiple sources/texts while focusing on a literary or non-fiction element. It was so confusing, so I came up with this format to help and have just stuck with it since then.

You can read about it more here, but this format is very strictly color-coded. They must do this for their body paragraphs AND I have them leave the highlights on in their final drafts.

Having students highlight specific components of essays makes my life so much easier when it comes to grading because the highlights automatically zero in on what I need to look for.

This picture below is from my research units.

As I write this, it is my first year teaching 7th grade. I didn't want to have them write exactly the same way, so I ended up using a traditional essay format for argument essay writing (body paragraphs are three reasons), BUT, they still used similar colors as the year before and I added new components to it. (This is not in my TpT store yet. Stay tuned.)

Narrative Writing

With narrative writing, it is a lot more open-ended, so I will usually use highlighting to notice author's craft and style or, like you will see below, I will have them highlight aspects in another student's writing. This is from my personal narrative unit.

Sometimes, it's very specific to a task. My students write a point-of-view story from the perspective of another character in a short story. I have them go back into the original story to determine where the other character was featured and where he/she was NOT featured...then, they comment to determine what could be happening in those behind-the-scenes moments.

Revising/Editing and Peer Review

I don't have much to show for this, but I have the students share their essays with a peer via Google Docs' share option. From there, they can highlight and comment on their peer's story or essay with suggestions. Sometimes, I give them very little direction; other times, I tell them to look for something specific when highlighting. What's great about Docs is there is a feature to allow commenting, so students can just click on that and share their thoughts.

This is what it would look like when a student uses the comment feature of Google Docs. As the teacher, I can see their comments, too. Students have a choice to accept the suggestions or not.

Bottom Line

Use highlighting as much as possible. It really helps students visually comprehend and organize! Plus, it helps you as the teacher grade by being able to focus on specific aspects of writing and reading.


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