In the Margins: Using Social Annotation to Support Reading and Writing

Matthew Luskey

Educational research strongly underscores the interdependence of reading and writing and the social nature of literacy. As Joshua Eyler (2018) claims, “so much of our learning derives from our social nature and our visceral need to communicate with other people” (quoted in Lang and Darby). We learn to read and write in communities. Still, even in the best of times when classrooms and lecture halls brim with discussion, when office hours and student support centers buzz with conferences, and when libraries and coffee houses are filled with students surrounded by books and laptops, the blank page and the blinking cursor can still pose challenges for many student writers. For students and instructors in this global pandemic, the communal experiences of reading and writing can become more isolated and difficult to maintain. One place where we can foster a reading and writing community is in the margins of texts and through the use of social annotation.

What is Social Annotation?

Old Annotation

Social or collaborative annotation involves more than one person making and sharing notes on a specific text, such as a book, journal article, graph, figure, chart, web page, or audio-visual work. Annotations can take various forms—highlights, underlines, small markings—accompanied by a reader’s comment, usually located adjacently or nearby in the text’s margins. The act of creating annotations and marginalia has existed for centuries, often used pedagogically to explicate texts and provide instruction. With social annotations, readers are able to reply to other readers and add additional observations. It can be helpful to think about social annotation as a conversation among readers in the margins of a text. With the use of digital tools and applications, social annotation allows for multiple modes of marking and commenting on texts, such as tagging and aggregating comments with hashtags or emojis, and inserting hyperlinks, images or videos. Many tools and applications—MS Word, Google Docs, Diigo, Perusall, VoiceThread, NowComment, ReClipped, SocialBook, and, to name but a few—can be used for social annotation activities and many are available without cost for students at the University of Minnesota. In the end, it is not so much the tool, but the purpose that matters.

Here are three ways social annotation can be used to support a reading and writing community in your online courses:

1. Use social annotation to model and practice disciplinary thinking

Unless specifically guided, many students new to a field of study may approach reading and writing as a passive or static activity, used the same way across a variety of texts and disciplines. An interactive, social annotation activity can help to challenge passive reading strategies and model new approaches for reading and writing in discipline-specific ways.

Example: A Philosophy instructor assigns an excerpt from a course reading (e.g. Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality“) that is posted as a commentable Google Doc. The instructor highlights a few passages in the document and adds a marginal comment or question that focuses specifically on the philosophical reasoning at work, or not, in the article. Students are asked to read the text in a similar fashion and to make annotations focused on the development of a philosophical argument in the article. The instructor then references the annotated document to address and underscore disciplinary expectations for philosophical argumentation.

2. Use social annotation to prepare for discussion and future writing

A concern sometimes voiced by instructors is that students do not allocate enough time to read in preparation for discussion or in preparation for an upcoming writing assignment. Social annotation creates a visible and durable record of students reading through a text and responding to each other’s observations. In effect, it creates reading accountability without having to rely on punitive pop quizzes. Instructors can reinforce good reading habits by acknowledging the quality and depth of student annotations. With the use of an upvote function, students can identify the questions, passages and ideas that they most want to take up in a subsequent lecture, class discussion, or online forum. Asking students to include hashtags to their comments can also be an effective strategy for identifying specific passages and patterns that students can return to in future writing.

Example: A literature professor’s final writing assignment asks students to track a literary theme that has been developed in readings over the semester. Throughout the semester, students use a tool like Perusall to make and tag their annotations with thematic hashtags (e.g. #subjugation, #emancipation, #whiteness). When it comes to developing drafts of their final projects, students sort through their hashtagged annotations looking for patterns that they can develop in their projects. 

3. Use social annotation to teach rhetorical and genre analysis

When students have a stronger grasp of the rhetorical situations (i.e. the purpose, audience and format) and the conventions at work in a mode of writing, they are better able to draw on effective, context-specific strategies in their own writing. Providing students with opportunities to socially annotate samples of writing they are assigned can serve several key functions: (1) it builds a shared vocabulary for talking about writing in a specific genre; (2) it identifies writerly moves that students may want to consider adapting in their own pieces; (3) it can surface questions about conventions that can be further discussed.

Example: Prior to assigning a mock obituary, a professor of Mortuary Science requires students to socially annotate several examples of published obituaries, culled from various newspapers and communities and collected in a social annotation tool, such as Students make observations about the opening to the obituaries, the careful use of word count, the life story of the person being honored, the tone of the piece, and the accuracy of details. In the margins, the students and instructor discuss the qualities and intricacies of the obituary before students write their own examples. During the drafting stages of the assignment, students are able to draw on the vocabulary they developed in their social annotations to provide specific and constructive feedback for each other.

Our Community of Readers and Writers

There are many ways that social annotation can support reading, writing and community in our classes. If you would like to discuss possible uses, feel free to schedule a Zoom consultation with the Writing Across the Curriculum team. The great support staff at Academic Technology Support Services is also available for consultations. If you have used social annotation in your courses (onsite or online), please share your stories in the comments below.

Further Support

Along with our TWW tips, we are pleased to consult with you on writing assignment–related matters. You can schedule a Zoom consultation, or you can take advantage of our new Writing Assignment Hotline by sending a draft of your writing assignment to [email protected] with specific questions you would like us to consider.


This is a terrific introduction to social annotation, and I think the pedagogical possibilities are incredibly interesting. I think social annotation will do for reading what google docs and collaborative editing opportunities have done for group projects.

It would be really cool to have faculty members read and annotate some of their own research or some of the most important literature of their field and make those annotations public. It's a really cool way to make thinking visible.

"In the end, it is not so much the tool, but the purpose that matters." In the end, this is surely true. But, in the beginning it is ALL ABOUT THE TOOL.

I do not need a laundry list of possible tools -- even if they are all good tools. I do not have the time or expertise to make the appropriate judgement. I need help for the experts... like you all. What tool (note the singular form) should we start with, and what tutorial should I use, and what tutorial should I give to my students? And... This piece got me excited about the concept. I want to include this in my class next term.

I need advice specific advice. Where do I start?

Hi Randal,

Start with hypothesis. It's robust and works with lots of different kinds of text. It will also work well with the group writing you do in your classes. Tutorials and How-To's are available here:

I am happy to consult individually and/or put you in touch with folks at Academic Technology.