Highlighting: Yellow Marker Syndrome

Hand holding a piece of paper with Teaching printed on it.

Hand holding a piece of paper with Teaching printed on it.

Text highlighting is a skill

Think back to your days as a college student. For many of us, buying used books was a significant way to reduce expenses. If we weren’t careful, however, we might arrive home with books previously owned by sufferers of “yellow marker syndrome.”

This university malady is easily recognizable: whole passages of text are randomly colored yellow, the legacy of a confused student with a highlighter pen.

College students rapidly discover that one of the most effective learning strategies is to mark as they read. Highlighting, underlining, and annotating can all help students cull what’s important from difficult text and organize it for review.

Unfortunately, this highly used strategy is also one of the most abused – students really struggle with making intelligent decisions about what to mark and what to overlook.

Teaching/Learning Activities

Students need not wait until college to develop effective text marking skills. Although we cannot usually allow students to write in their textbooks, we can help build these skills in a variety of ways. Here are a few great tips:

Step 1: Introduce text marking with activities that help students sort essential ideas from supporting details. One such activity, “Text-book Candidates,” forces students to zero in on key ideas by asking them to consider why certain information is worthy of inclusion in a textbook.

To construct a Textbook Candidate exercise, take several central concepts or facts from a chapter and list some of the accompanying information. Ask students to justify which of the information is significant enough to be a candidate for special attention in a textbook. An example from a U.S. History textbook on the “Rise of Industrialization” might be: Andrew Carnegie deserves a place in your textbook because:

  • he was a Scottish immigrant.
  • he earned $1.20 a week in his first job.
  • he built the steel industry.
  • he hired skilled managers.
  • he lowered production costs by developing one of America’s first monopolies.
  • he became the world’s richest man.
  • he became a philanthropist and started libraries.
  • Have students work in pairs to decide which statements make the best case for including Carnegie in the textbook. Initially, model your reasoning to guide students into evaluating what’s essential and what isn’t:

“Well, lots of people were from Scotland and they’re not featured in the textbook, so that’s not a good reason. It is interesting that Carnegie got such low pay, but so did other people and they’re not in the book. I know that the steel industry is real important because so many things are built from steel so I’ll check that one.

You don’t study people just because they hire skilled workers. I know that monopolies are talked about a lot, so that sounds like a second good reason for Carnegie being in the book. Who was the world’s richest man before Carnegie? We didn’t study him, so that probably isn’t why we should study Carnegie…..”

Step 2: Make a transparency of a section from the textbook and model with the overhead projector how to selectively mark the passage. Use the following guidelines:

  • Quickly read the section first before doing any marking.
  • Re-read, marking only key words and phrases, not entire sentences or paragraphs.
  • Mark essential information, not supporting details.
  • Annotate in the margins or on the text (number items, jot brief comments or questions, use abbreviations).
  • Highlight relationships between facts (cause/effect; compare/contrast; proposition/support; problem/solution; concept/definition).
  • Color code information using different markers (red for main ideas, blue for important secondary information, etc.).
  • Be highly selective!

Next, in cooperative groups of two to three, have the students mark an overhead transparency of another textbook section. Each group then projects its transparency to the class and explains its decisions on what deserved highlighting and what didn’t.

Step 3: Periodically provide students with the opportunity to mark what they read. Supplementary materials that are photocopied for each student are excellent sources for this practice. You may also wish to occasionally give them transparencies of chapter sections, or photo copies from the textbook you use, for marking. Old textbooks no longer used as class sets are also a great resource for marking practice.

One variation of this activity is to assign each section of a chapter to a different cooperative group within the class. Each group marks its transparencies for its section and during the unit has the responsibility for teaching that section to the entire class using its transparency on the overhead projector.

Another variation is to give students blank transparencies and washable markers. They can place the transparency on the textbook page, mark it, and clip it to the page. When they have completed studying the information, they wash off their markings and start anew on the next chapter.

When developing these activities, cue students into the key relationships in the information. For example, students can annotate in margins + (alike) or – (different) for compare/contrast relationships. For a cause/effect passage, they might write “cause” in the appropriate spot in the margin and then number each of the different effects that are subsequently discussed.

Step 4: Another useful activity for helping students hone their marking skills involves using pads of sticky notes. When students cannot write in their textbooks, have them affix a sticky note to the margins. These notes can feature their comments, key information, vocabulary definitions, questions, or summaries of main points.


Adults know that text marking is one of the most powerful and easy to use activities for organizing information for learning. Text marking activities provide students with a number of advantages:

  • Students are encouraged to read actively and selectively, rather than just skim to look for answers
  • Students develop a study system that facilitates review without re-reading entire passages.
  • Students have a chance to experiment with personal preferences for marking (such as underlining vs. highlighting).