Digital Annotation Tools For Close Reading

One of the components of Close Reading is annotation, in which the students read short, complex text adding annotations as they read. Students might circle words or phrases that are powerful, underline those that are confusing, indicate big events or when a character shows strong emotion, and write questions or thoughts. They use metacognitive markers or “Thinking Notes” as a means to move beyond just highlighting. The text used for Close Reading can be short stories, poems, news articles, photos, paintings, etc. So this post provides digital tools for annotating documents, online text and images, PDF files, and videos.


As a 1:1 high school using Google Apps, one obvious option for us to use for annotating documents is Google Drive. To be able to add annotations using the toolbar in Google Drive, the file will need to be a Google Doc, which could be created by uploading a Word file and converting it, or pasting copied text into a new document. Teachers can distribute the document to students in their Google Drives using Doctopus. This will allow the teacher to conveniently review the students’ work as Doctopus will place a copy of the document in each student’s assignment folder, already appropriately named and shared with the teacher. In order to highlight text, students must use the comment feature. The advantage to this is that students can’t just highlight text.


menuStudents can use underline, bold, strikethrough, or change the color of text for additional annotations. From the Tools menu, they can use the Define option to easily display the definition of a selected word, or the Research option to locate related scholarly articles, images, quotes, and more.

This Google Doc strategy works well on a laptop or Chromebook, and with some limitations on an iPad using the Google Drive app.

Text or Images on the Web

diigo toolbarWhen annotating web pages there are a variety of options. Diigo is an excellent choice as it has a robust set of tools. After installing the Diigo extension for your browser, just click Annotate to highlight and add notes to a webpage. Access the drawing tools by using the Screenshot option. Be advised that the Screenshot tool does not scroll the web page, so you will be able to capture only what is currently displayed in the browser window.


To capture an entire webpage and add text and drawings, students can use Diigo’s Awesome Screenshot app for Chrome. Students can save the annotated screenshot to their Google Drive, or to Diigo. So students could use the Awesome Screenshot app without having a Diigo account, instead saving their annotations to Google Drive. Students could place the annotation work in their assignments folder so that the teacher can access it easily.


Diigo stores your annotated webpages in your Diigo account, which can be indexed with tags. Students can share their annotation using the Share This Page menu option. As a teacher, when “collecting” their annotations, I wouldn’t want to receive an email from each student, so I would create groups in Diigo and require students to share their annotations with that group. Or, if I didn’t want students to see each other’s work, I would set up a Google Form which students would complete to submit a link to their annotated webpage stored in their Diigo account.

Diigo requires accounts, but has a free option. The Diigolet bookmarklet tool or Toolbar will need to be installed in the laptop’s browser. Students can also use Diigo on an iPad by installing the Diigo Web Highlighter Bookmarklet in Safari. Both Diigo and the Awesome Screenshot app will work on a Chromebook. On a side note, Diigo is my favorite social bookmarking tool. In addition to annotating, it is the best way to store and organize online resources.

If student accounts are a barrier (I know…one more password the students can forget), then Markup is the next best option as it does not require an account. It provides tools for drawing, highlighting, adding text, and sharing via a link. It does require the installation of a bookmarklet or the Chrome extension. Unlike Diggo, it won’t save the annotations into an account for easy access in the future. So students will need save the link to their annotated webpage for future reference or editing. This could be done using a Google Form provided by the teacher, as mentioned above. Markup works well on a laptop or Chromebook.



PDFzen is a great free tool that works with Google Drive. First students need to connect the app with their Google Drive (Create>Connect More Apps). As mentioned above, the teacher can distribute the PDF file to students using Doctopus. Students can then access the file in their assignment folder and choose to open it with PDFZen.


PDFzen loads the file with a toolbar with edit options to highlight, add comments, and free draw on the file. Click the Actions button and the sidebar slides open to allow users to save the file back to Google Drive, complete with annotations. PDFzen will work on a laptop and Chromebook.



VideoANT is a free annotation tool that students can log into with their Google Accounts. The process is very easy. After starting VideoANT, students log in, choose to create a “New Ant,” paste in the web address of the video, click Load Video, and then click the Add an Annotation button at various points while watching the video. Users can also choose to enter a title for their annotated video. I would suggest having students include their name in this title as a way to “put their name on their assignment.” The Share tab provides a link to their annotated video, as well as other sharing options. VideoANT works on a laptop, Chromebook, and on the iPad when using the Safari app.

There are many digital annotation tools available. I looked for tools that provide a variety of annotation tools, work well on laptops, are free, don’t require the installation of software beyond browser add-ons. I tried to develop a work flow that limited the uploading and downloading of files by students, avoided student account creation, and used an efficient way to distribute and collect the work from students.

For more details on close reading see my previous blog post, Close Reading Requires Student Effort.