Thematic Threading: A Strategy for Annotating a Text

Why and how do students make annotations in the books they are studying? The act of students annotating a book during teaching and class discussion seems to me one of those orthodoxies within English teaching that never goes unchallenged. I don’t, by the way, necessarily think it should be challenged, but nonetheless it is a part of our teaching that doesn’t get discussed a great deal. This, though, is a wider question for another post. This post is about one strategy we can use so that we are extracting maximum value from student annotation: thematic threading.

Whenever I start a new text with a class, whether a novel, anthology of poetry or play I ask students to find a blank page in the front or back of their copy and write the following: thematic threading.

I explain that we are going to use this space in order to track and think about patterns of recurring images, ideas or words within the text. So, as below, as we read we note certain pages under thematic headings which then grow organically with our discussions. It becomes our own index for all those important images and ideas we notice as we read. Here is an illustrative example of what thematic threading may look like:

This will be useful, I say, for when we come to revise but also, more crucially, to help us to maintain a panoramic view of the text where we are looking at it not just close up but from an interpretative distance too. It allows us to better see the text as exactly what it is: a patterned and intricately woven tapestry of images and ideas. Such a strategy also serves a practical and pedagogic function of providing a specific reason to be retuning to and tracking these patterns. It becomes a kind of waypoint around which we can build our ongoing discussions and by making this process visible and concrete ensures such linking stays at the front of our mind.

And so as we move through the text, reading and discussing it, we return to this index and gradually and organically add to it. Perhaps, I might make a suggestion and we discuss where such an image or thought might best belong or my students make their suggestions too. It offers a way of focussing and directing this kind of macro thinking as well as, as with any taxonomic activity, offering opportunity for lots of debate and reflection: ‘does this fit here or would it fit better under that heading?’ The index becomes a space in which to accrue over time our collective and ongoing reflections about the major patterns or thoughts within the text. This is pedagogically powerful stuff.

Once finished it also becomes a kind of master list of major scenes, images or themes, which can be formalised or expanded during revision. Students could for instance take one of these headings and outline the specific instances in more detail or drill more the language being used. This strategy is especially useful for poetry anthologies or comparative tasks where such a process allows us to better track ideas across different individual texts.

There are a couple of other notable benefits to do this. First, it provides an easy and subtle kind of scaffolding where we are gradually building out a rolling list of key images or scenes. If we were to write, then, an essay on kingship in Macbeth students would have at their disposal already a starting point for their thinking. Plus, this requires no additional work from the teacher and no need to create, say, additional lists with this same information: it is baked into the strategy of thematic threading itself.

Second, it allows us to see at one glance the density of thematic patterns within a given text. We know, by looking at this list, which ideas or images seem to be doing most work within the text and so which are probably deserving of more attention and focus. It might be for example we look at our list, notice one idea or image is more densely references than all the others and so, because of that, decide to build a couple of extra lessons specifically around that topic to really get to grips with it.

More than this though, the great benefit here, as with this strategy more generally, is such a recognition is arrived at organically during our discussion of the text. It is not imposed onto the text, but rather comes about through our collective thinking about it. This means the list may change from class to class and teaching to teaching, but this is not a bad thing, but rather an acknowledgment that a text does change upon each iterative reception of it. The act of thematic threading then offers students an insight, perhaps even without them always knowing it, into the disciplinary traditions of English Literature where the meaning of a text is manifested in the discussion of it and, as readers, they are crucial to shaping this.

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