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The Power of Highlighting Essays

Posted by on in Assessment
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The highlighter is a common tool in annotating. Themes throughout novels and texts are coded with different colors making grouping of ideas easy for students. Teachers and students, however, tend to put the highlighters down when it comes to essays and miss the opportunity to improve writing through visual learning. Taking time to mark essays slows the students down in their reading and studying of writing and gives them a visual of the construction of an essay. Highlighting or coding essays can be used in several ways.

Teaching the writing process.

Provide anchor essays from College Board or model essays written by students or teachers for students to mark. Choose elements that you want to address and have students highlight these elements. For example, my students typically mark textual evidence in yellow, analysis in green, strong diction or control of writing in blue, literary devices or academic language in pink, and information that is unrelated to the prompt in orange. I like to do this activity before we write because it provides focus for their writing.


Students use highlighting to revise their own writing. If I feel an essay is too general or lacks analysis, I will ask the student to highlight what they have in the paper. Students then have a visual of specifically where the paper is lacking evidence or analysis and is able to revise accordingly.

Peer Editing.

Students are able to edit each other’s papers with highlighters. Again, this slows down reading and causes students to critically think about the writing process. Students can use this to offer feedback to their peers about writing and receive feedback from someone other than the teacher on their writing. I am always amazed at what students find in each other’s writings and the suggestions they are able to give their peers.


At the end of each semester or each grading period, students can look at their past essays and use previously coded essay to note improvement in their writing. By glancing at colors, students will be able to tell if more evidence or analysis is characteristic of their essays or if their style has improved. Students can then assess their own writing and set further writing goals.

Things to remember when highlighting:

Use a variety of model essays. Studying construction of a poorly written essay can be just as effective as a well written essay. Some lessons may consist of only looking at excellent essays while others may compare outstanding essays to mediocre essays.

Use full and partial essays. When working on introductions, pull multiple introductory paragraphs and use coding to compare just those paragraphs. If teaching analysis, code a body paragraph or two to use as the base of a discussion for the different placements of analysis within a paragraph. Use full essays to analyze whether support is consistent throughout the essay or whether style tends to become simplified as the end.

Limit focus to what your students need. This activity can be a mini-lesson focusing on paragraph construction or a full lesson on transitions and progression of ideas through an entire essay. Use your students writing weaknesses to drive and determine lessons.

Use as a pre-writing or post-writing activity. Balance coding in teaching the process as well as evaluating personal writing. 


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I am a caffeinated educator with the incredible privilege of teaching high school English and serving as a school leader. This is my seventh year at Northgate High School on the south side of Atlanta where teach AP Literature and also lower level American literature. Having taught in public, private, and home schooled, I am a believer in the system and striving to be a positive influence among both students and educators. At the end of the day, I am glad to settle down to watching something on Netflix with my husband and three kids.

  • Guest
    anu Monday, 04 May 2015

    Juniors are suitable to blue-pencil per other’s sheets beside highlighters. Encore, this gentles dejected lesson also generates learners to critically deem about the inscription summons.

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Guest Friday, 15 February 2019