Teaching History Students to Annotate: Reviving the 5 W’s

A MiddleWeb Blog

history_logo-bBy Aaron Brock

In our previous joint post about annotation, Jody Passanisi and I both wrote about the potential we saw for this particular strategy in our history classrooms. However, we felt like our first experiments fell short of this potential.

Over the summer, a colleague and I overhauled our lessons, with an emphasis on student interaction with the texts. For the majority of students in my urban middle school, the primary concern is reading comprehension. Marking the text should, ideally, help our struggling readers to better understand the narrative.

To achieve this goal, the mechanics of annotation must be straightforward and clearly articulated. Our method of annotation needed a more intuitive foundation than last year’s effort, which was complicated even for our more proficient readers.

What we came up with was about as revolutionary as Czarist Russia: the 5 W’s. While history should never be taught as a laundry list of facts, understanding a historical narrative does require that one can differentiate between people, places, times, events and motivation.

All of my students are familiar with the concepts of Who, Where, When, What and Why, but often fail to apply those labels to new terms and ideas while reading. Using the 5 W’s as the framework for annotation is one way to force them to be more attentive and self-reflective as they read.

The Method

Five Ws: Who? What? Where? When? Why?The 5 W’s framework for annotation is extremely simple. Students identify a set number of W’s (Who, Where, When, What and Why) in the text by underlining them and writing the appropriate labels in the margins.

For example, students might see George Washington come up several times in the text, so they would underline the sentences in which his name appears and write his name in the margins. They have now found one “Who.” I do not place any restrictions on the type of W’s students may find in the text, other than that they must be important to the story or come up repeatedly.

As with the previous annotation assignment, students will eventually turn their annotations into a set of reading notes that they can use when writing their essays or studying for formal assessments.

Who, Where and When

Who, When and Where are exactly what they sound like. These are the established facts of any history text: people (including groups), places (including regions), and times (specific or eras).

While these elements are only important in the context of the greater narrative, they are generally essential to understanding that narrative. The American Revolution cannot be effectively understood if one does not know who the British are, what a colony is and what was different about the world 250 years ago.

When reading a new text, many of my students attempt to skip over names and terms with which they are unfamiliar. They see no meaningful difference between place names, titles and new vocabulary. It does not occur to most of my students that the purpose of reading a text is to understand it.

two-students-writing-featureSimple categorization forces struggling readers to pay enough attention to what they are reading to identify the difference between one fact and another. This in turn requires that they establish the relationship among those facts, which usually means rereading the text and conferring with other students in their group. Whether they are aware of it or not, this process gets students to monitor their own learning and identify the elements of a text that they do not readily comprehend.

All of this makes it significantly easier for me to give students targeted assistance. In prior years the phrase “I don’t get it” was ubiquitous in all my classes. This puts the onus of establishing what the student has failed to understand on the teacher, turning the student into a passive observer as the instructor tries to learn for them.

Now when my students ask for assistance, the question will be along the lines of “Is this a Who?” Ultimately, the goal is to get students into the habit of asking targeted questions, regardless of the current task or context.

This is especially important for the lowest-level readers, who often give up on assignments because they believe they understand none of it. Being able to identify two or three specific concepts that they need clarified implies that they have understood other elements of the text, and that can be very empowering for students who have become accustomed to frustration and failure.

What and Why

green w on banner 360What and Why are open to interpretation. For my students, I have identified What as a catchall for events, ideas and achievements. Why, in my classroom, deals with the motivation of historical characters, or specific historical causes and effects.

These two W’s are the most essential for my more advanced students. Students who understand the basic elements of the story after a single reading can go back and analyze interrelation between various historical events and the relative significance of one action against another.

When writing in the margins, students who identify What’s and Why’s must create 2- or 3-word labels for what they have underlined. A label that short requires a sophisticated evaluation of the essential aspects of a particular historical event or phenomenon.

Other uses of the 5 W’s

While many of my students still struggle with reading comprehension and knowledge retention, nobody has any difficulty with the 5 W’s method itself. Everybody knows what to do when I ask them to annotate a text, even if not everybody does it well.

This is in stark contrast to last year, when many students were struggling with the mechanics of annotation all the way to the end of the term.

t bk rows brown pink croppedMy students are so familiar with this method of categorization, that I have started using the 5 W’s with non-text lessons. Students take notes on video clips by first identifying all of the W’s that they see or hear, then going back and explaining what the video told them about those W’s. When doing online research for a project, students used the 5 W’s to break down complicated social and political concepts into comprehensible chunks.

As the developers of the Common Core State Standards frequently remind teachers, there is little new in the CCSS. Anybody who has adhered to good teaching practices over the past few decades should see little or no change in their curriculum as the standards are fully adopted by their school district.

It is a good reminder that, as we look for new and exciting ways to facilitate learning for our students, there are plenty of existing structures which can be modified to suit the needs of 21st century teaching. The 5 W’s is hardly an innovative concept, but I am finding that it is a very effective platform atop which I can build new and exciting lessons.

Aaron Brock

Aaron Brock entered teaching in 2008 and teaches middle school social studies in California's Compton Unified School District. He has a BA in History from California State University Northridge and received his teaching credential through UCLA’s TeachLA program. His love of history dates back to his own adolescence, and it is his goal to help students discover the aspects of history about which they can get excited. Follow Aaron on Twitter @HistoryBrock.

3 Responses

  1. Hi, Aaron–Thanks for sharing your approach. Just curious: Why don’t you also include “How”? I designed a graphic organizer for the 5Ws and H (Reading Informational Text Standard 2.1, incidentally) that may be of use, which can be downloaded for free here: http://theliteracycookbook.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/approaches-to-the-common-core-how-to-teach-rit-standard-1-in-elementary-school/

  2. This is so simple, yet it gets to the heart of most history lessons and seems like a great way to help students dig deeper into the text. I really appreciate this post and might start implementing the 5 Ws in my classroom curriculum.

    Feel free to connect with me at instructomania.blogspot.com.

  3. Aaron Brock says:

    Thanks for the reply. I do use “How” as a matter of fact. In my classroom, how refers to the particular literacy skill used to identify W’s or analyze the text. For my students, explicit comprehension tricks are included as part of most lessons. Scaffolding reading and writing for students who struggle with literacy is a whole set of potential posts (some of which I have already posted to the site). I wanted to focus. Thanks for the resource.

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