Academic Module 1: Creating Academic Content

11 Reading Academic Content: Analysis and Annotations

For many students, it may feel daunting at first to read and analyze content in textbooks, articles, infographics, and so forth. However, there are some useful strategies that students can use to decode, understand, and reflect on such academic content. Some of these strategies include analyzing the structure and the content in terms of levels of information and in terms of audience, purpose, and parameters.

Understanding Levels of Information

The first strategy that we will look at in this chapter is analyzing the structure of the content, whether it is in the form of all text or a combination of text and images. Information in the U.S. is often organized in a linear manner, for instance, from general to specific.

I remember the first time I walked into a grocery store in the U.S. after moving from India to pursue my graduate studies here in 2004. It was overwhelming to walk into the giant store, not only because of the size, but also because the way things were organized in that store was different from what I was used to back home[1]. Feeling lost, I took a step back (literally) and just stood in one place and looked around, trying to make sense of how the space was organized. I observed that the whole space was divided into aisles, and that there were signs above the aisles that listed the items that were stocked there. I located the aisle that said ‘cleaning supplies’ and walked up to it. Next, I noticed that each aisle had shelves that were filled with different kinds of cleaning products organized further into more specific categories. I located the shelf that had dish soap (or detergent, as we say in India) and found the most affordable brand (I was on a strict student budget) by looking at the price stickers hanging from the shelf next to the dish soap.

There’s a reason why I’ve shared this little anecdote here. What I understood that day was that the simple organization principle of a typical chain grocery store in the U.S. is this: it can be seen as levels, from the most general to the most specific. Think about it this way:

  • Level 1 — The grocery store itself
  • Level 2 — The aisles
  • Level 3 — The shelves
  • Level 4 — Items on the shelves

This simple principal can be transferred to academic content as well. Take the example of a simple four-paragraph essay in U.S. academic English. The essay itself can be seen as Level 1, the paragraphs in the essay can be seen as Level 2, the sentences in the paragraphs can be seen as Level 3, and Level 4 can be the phrases or words in the sentences. This is in terms of the structure of the essay. In terms of the content of the essay (which is where it gets more abstract), Level 1 can be the thesis of the essay, Level 2 can be the main ideas in the body paragraphs, Level 3 is the major ideas supporting these main ideas, and Level 4 is the minor details that support the major ideas.

Let’s apply what you’ve just learned.

Think about the structure of this ebook. How is it organized? Complete the following table using the strategies described above. The answers will be discussed in the class. 

Level 1: The book

Level 2: ____________________

Level 3: ____________________

Level 4: ____________________

Once you understand this basic principle of organization using levels, analyzing and understanding academic content becomes a lot easier. In fact, you can use the same principle to organize your own notes as you make sense of an assigned reading or a book chapter. When you make notes in a note book (paper or electronic), you can organize your notes from general to specific as well. You will learn these strategies in more detail in the classroom.

Audience, Purpose, and Parameters (APP)

Now, let’s look at the tasks of annotating and making notes through the lens of audience, purpose, and parameters, or APP.

Let’s start with the first criterion–the audience.

  • When you read an article and annotate it (make notes in the margins) or make notes in your notebook (paper or electronic), who is the intended audience? Generally, students annotate and make notes for themselves. As a result, your annotations and notations are customized for yourself primarily, in which case, you can use specific strategies that work best for yourself, such as using symbols that you are familiar with, adding words or phrases from another language that you may have high proficiency in (e.g. your ‘first’ language or your dominant ‘home’ language), using short forms of words that you can decipher easily (in English or another language), and so forth. These ideas will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. In other words, who your audience is informs what you say and what you write in a college course. Therefore, it is very helpful to identify clearly who the target audience is for any academic assignment.

Now, let’s look at the second criterion–the purpose.

  • When you read an article and annotate it, what is the purpose? Annotations serve many purposes. For instance, students annotate academic texts to make sure that they highlight the key pieces of information, such as the thesis, the main ideas, important facts, and keywords. In addition, annotations can include further explanations and definitions that are important to make sense of the academic material. Annotated texts are very helpful when students need to go back and review the information, say for an assignment or a class test. If you annotate a text properly the first time, you save yourself a lot of time later because you do not have to analyze the text all over again. This is true for infographics, charts, and diagrams as well. Finally, if you annotate a text, then making notes from it and class lectures in your notebook becomes much more manageable. Again, since you are annotating primarily for yourself, you may use more than one language and symbols to ensure that when you read the notes in the margins the next time, you can understand them easily.

Finally, let’s look at the third criterion–the parameters.

  • When you read a piece of academic text and annotate it, you need to stay within the scope of the material that you are adding your notes to. These are the parameters. If you use paper, then of course you may have to stay within the boundaries of the paper (although post-its can be very handy in adding longer notes). However, if you annotate electronic texts, then you have a lot more space to add your notes to (e.g. using comments in a PDF document).

You will learn to use these strategies effectively in the classroom. Make sure to take lots of notes when the professor teaches you how to apply these strategies![2]

Here are some steps that students can follow to analyze the content of the reading in more detail.

  1. Identify difficult or unfamiliar vocabulary: Identify vocabulary items that are unfamiliar or words that you do not completely understand. Underline those words and write the meanings in the margin on the left (and/or in your notes). You may consult your dictionary to find the meanings. Also, if you know the word in another language and understand the meaning in that language, you may write down the corresponding word in the other language in the space available.
  2. Identify important keywords (or key-phrases): Keywords are important words, sometimes collocations, that are connected to the main idea of the reading. Usually, the writer provides an explanation or definition of the key word. Once you identify a keyword, highlight it. Then write the definition briefly next to the keyword as an annotation (within the article) or in your notes.
  3. Identify important facts and opinions: Oftentimes, academic content has many important facts and opinions. Good readers are able to identify these. For instance, identify any data or statistics provided (These are facts). Sometimes, the writer will cite another writer or expert to support their own position (These could be opinions). Make a note of this information in your annotations and/or your notes.
  4. Identify levels of information: As you begin to understand the article more deeply, you will be able to identify the thesis (Level 1), main ideas (Level 2), major details (Level 3), and minor details (Level 4) in the article overall, as well as specific sections of the article. Add these levels of information to your annotations and/or your notes.
  5. Record your reactions and response: As you read the material, you may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with different parts of the text or you may find something surprising or thought-provoking. This is a kind of reader response, and it is an important strategy for understanding any kind of content. You may write your reactions as your response to the reading in the annotations and/or your notes.

  1. Things have been changing in India as well. Now, when I visit Delhi, for instance, I find that the markets in the big malls there look similar to the U.S. in terms of organization.
  2. See also Chapter 17 for more information about how to make notes in the classroom.

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Demystifying Academic English by Rashi Jain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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