Tri-Color Poetry Annotations


Today’s post is written by guest author Donna Vorreyer, a 35-year veteran middle school teacher and living poet, currently teaching her last year before retirement in grade 6. She has been a presenter for NCTE, IRA, and worked for many years as a workshop leader for the Illinois Writing Project. She has published two poetry collections with Sundress Publications, A House of Many Windows (2013) and Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016). Her third book Somewhere between Sweet and Grief will be published by Sundress in late 2020. (And since she’ll be retired by then, she’d love to visit #TeachLivingPoets classrooms!) Find her work at

When introducing contemporary poems to middle schoolers (ones that don’t necessarily rhyme or fall into easy narratives), their first responses have a tendency to easily fall into one of two categories– the “I don’t get it” category or the “who cares?” category. I wanted to come up with a strategy that did the following:

logo● encourage multiple readings

● show changes in thought that occur with multiple readings

● focus students on discussion and personal interpretation

This is when I first tried a three-color annotation technique. At its simplest level, it allows for a student’s personal first impressions, a second chance to talk through the poem with someone else, and a third opportunity to ask questions/take notes during whole class discussion. Can students do these things without three colors? Certainly. But using them has been a useful tool both for students and for me.

The Basic Process

1. Read Aloud. When introducing a poem, I always read it aloud to students before I give them a copy of the text. It allows for the poem to enter into their thinking without it seeming like a task.

2. Read Again! I then pass out copies of the text and read the poem again.

3. Color Number One: My First Best Thinking. Students are asked to annotate or take notes using their first best thinking regarding the poem. These could include: marking places they like, even if they are not sure why; noting places of confusion; writing comments about how they feel or anything they notice and don’t want to forget.

4. Color Number Two: Two Brains are Better than One. Students then take their second color in hand for a discussion with a partner. Each partner shares his/her initial notes, helps with confusions, adds new ideas. This makes it easy for students to see that a second reading can produce new ideas and clarify initial confusions.

5. Color Number Three: Instruction & Group Thoughts. Once students have had a chance for a second reading, we move to whole class discussion where I annotate on the document camera. I always start by asking what the students like – since this is a third reading, I often end up marking the entire poem! Then we move to any confusions that are remaining – simple ones, like unfamiliar vocabulary, are addressed first, and any larger issues regarding meaning are re-opened to the whole class. I often ask leading questions at this point, especially if I am trying to use the poem as a model of certain literary elements.

When we are finished, students have a record of their thinking. The colors make it clear how their thinking has progressed through multiple readings. As a teacher, the colors show me how willing or able students were to comprehend the poem’s content alone before discussion and instruction. As the year progresses, the three steps can become more specific: different colors could be used for finding specific literary devices, commenting on form, etc.

The examples below are from an early 6th grade reading of “Hulk Smash” by Greg Santos.

In the first example, the student’s first set of notes are in pink, where she has highlighted the repetition of Hulk and some of the places she has questions or comments. The second set of notes are in black. In discussion with a partner, she has clarified places she likes, recognized some patterns in the language, answered some of her questions, and added some information that came up in their discussion. In her third color (orange), she hasn’t added any new notes, but has confirmed some of her earlier notes in the whole group discussion.


In the second example, the first notes are in blue. This student has spent ample time making personal connections (“I feel this way sometimes…” & “I hate paperwork, too”) and noting questions (“What’s a cubicle?”)  The second set of notes in pink adds more questions, and makes an attempt at something confusing with the partner, guessing that “Joe” is the name of the scientist that is Hulk’s other form.  The third set of notes in black shows that the student was interested in everything that was added in the whole group conversation, including a lively discussion of why Santos chose the game Hungry Hungry Hippos. There were three main arguments: for the sake of alliteration with Hulk, to point out his loneliness since it is a social game, and to give funny visual imagery of him playing a tiny game that requires dexterity.


Each students’ notes are as unique as the students themselves. They are a record of their thought processes and give excellent deep reading practice. Although these examples are the very beginnings of middle school poetry reading, the strategy is easily adaptable to all levels.

Thank you, Donna, for this strategy for encouraging multiple readings and annotating! I will definitely be trying this with my students.

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

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4 thoughts on “Tri-Color Poetry Annotations

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