The Best Ways to Help Kids Use Highlighters Effectively

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Learning how to differentiate between the important and the inconsequential in a given text or situation is a life skill that will serve our kids well from elementary school into adulthood. 

So what’s the best way to teach it? A HIGHLIGHTER!

We all know highlighters are cool! They’re available in awesome colors that make our notes look pretty. In addition, highlighters are great for emphasizing important text, and the bright colors help us locate that significant information. 

But simply giving kids a highlighter or two isn’t going to help them. They need to be taught how to use highlighters effectively in context and given opportunities to become proficient.

Learning how to use highlighters effectively takes practice. But whether it’s math problems, reading strategies, finding keywords within the textbook, or studying for tests, color-coded highlighting is the best tool for the job.

Let’s face it. Some students will overuse the highlighter whereas others will not highlight enough. But if we teach them how to use highlighters effectively, no math word problem will be too hard. No reading assignment will be too daunting. 

So here are 20 ways that you can model appropriate highlighting for your students and then provide them with opportunities to practice the skill themselves.

Color-Coded Highlighlighting for Elementary Students

Color coded highlighting for elementary students

Name

Have students highlight their names BEFORE they turn in their homework. 

This is a great way to introduce highlighting, and it will save you A LOT of headaches.

When I was in the classroom, I kept a bucket of highlighters right next to the tray where my students turned in homework. If their names weren’t highlighted, it was an automatic 5 points off.  (Of course, I only took off points after they learned the correct procedure and had time to practice their new skills.)

It helped them to see how IMPORTANT it was for them to write their names on every paper, and this set the stage for learning how to use highlighters effectively in our classroom.

Keywords in Directions

Every assignment or test your kids encounter has directions. So an excellent place to begin teaching them how to use highlighters effectively is with directions.

You can have your kids highlight specific instruction words different colors. This will help them remember to FULLY answer all parts of a question.

In many testing scenarios, students are given multi-step directions. If they do not answer all parts of the question, they will get the question wrong. So helping kids pinpoint the fact that they need to choose the correct answer and then explain WHY they chose that answer is crucial.

When I was in 9th grade, I STRUGGLED in Geometry. I remember my Geometry teacher telling me to find the important words in the directions (that gave me an indication as to what I needed to do) and use my colored pencils to isolate that information. It worked!

Your kids can do the same thing in any subject. Simply have them focus on those important words by highlighting them!

True & False

Another way to practice this newly learned skill is with true/false questions.

You can give them multiple statements with some being true and some being false. As your students read the statements, have them highlight words that indicate a false statement.

Here’s a quick example.

  1. I live on Mars.
  2. Earth is a planet.

If your students understand how to use their highlighters, they will highlight the word Mars. In this context, the word Mars makes the statement false. The second sentence is correct and therefore, nothing should be highlighted.

This is an immediate indication of those kids who have a true understanding of the subject matter and those who occasionally make lucky guesses.

Using Highlighters for Math

How to use highlighters in math

Tally Marks

When you are first introducing the skill of counting tally marks, have your kids use color-coded highlighting. They will highlight the sets of five one color and the individual marks a different color.  

The color difference will be a quick reminder that they need to slow down and look closely at each mark or set of marks when counting. This variation provides the visual cue they need to count the marks as individual tallies or sets.

Operation Words

As your kids begin studying different math operations, confusion is to be expected. They finally understand addition and now you want them to start subtracting!

This is even more prevalent when they begin interacting with word problems. There are a lot of words they need to filter through in order to find the mathematical key words.

So have them use color-coded highlighting to distinguish between the words that indicate addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. This will be pivotal in their math educational journey.

They will begin recognizing specific mathematical keywords such as “all together, have left, in all” and highlighting them in the text. This will increase their confidence in knowing which operation they need to perform to solve the equation.

Multi-Step Word Problems & Order of Operations

As kids become proficient in solving single step word problems, they will begin to encounter multi-step word problems. This will create an entirely new dynamic within their problem-solving strategy.

Encourage them to use color-coded highlighting. They can use one color for the information needed to solve the first step. Then they will change colors to extrapolate the essential information in the second step.

Learning to use highlighters effectively early on in math will have lasting benefits throughout kids’ educational journey because they will be able to attack any unknown math situation with confidence.

Using Highlighters for ELA/Language Arts

How to use highlighters for language arts and ELA

Parts of Speech

This activity is a modern twist on an old skill…diagramming sentences. In this version, kids will use color coded highlighting to find different parts of speech.

To begin, you might have them simply highlight the nouns. Then as they begin to show mastery of that, have them highlight the verbs. This same pattern continues until they are able to use a variety of colors to pick out multiple parts of speech.

To provide consistency, consider creating a highlighting “key” with pink=nouns, yellow=verbs, etc. so that you know at a glance who understands the content and who is still struggling.

Capitalization

Another way you can encourage your kids to practice using highlighters is through capitalization highlighting. Every sentence they write (or read for that matter) should start with a capital letter.

Highlighting the capitalized first word of every sentence will keep students focused on the importance of this. Then to expand this skill a little farther, have kids highlight proper nouns and the word I within sentences.

Repeating this process over and over will help your kids remember to capitalize the first letter of every sentence, every I, and every proper noun.

Punctuation

When learning and practicing punctuation, there are many rules to remember.  

As you’re teaching these rules, create a punctuation color-coded highlighting “key” that designates specific colors for any of the punctuation marks you are teaching including ending punctuation, commas, colons, semicolons, quotation marks.

Then give your students daily practice with sentences and paragraphs that incorporate a variety of types of punctuation.

Using Highlighters for Phonics & Spelling Patterns

Use highlighters effectively in spelling

Letter Sounds in Words

As our students move from individual sounds to words, they have to learn to read left to right.  Since this is a new concept, sometimes new readers forget to start with the first sound and want to read words backwards.

So a little trick to help them start with the correct letter is for you to highlight the first letter sound pink, the second letter yellow, the third letter green, and so on. While this will start with you highlighting the letters, your kids will be able to take over and highlight the letters themselves after a little bit of practice.

This one simple trick will help them consistently start in the right place. For those children who have a dyslexia diagnosis or those you think might have some type of processing disorder, this is also a very valuable modification.

Word Families

As your kids become familiar with small words, they will start learning word families. To help your students make the connection between all of the words in the word family, have them highlight the ending sounds.

For example if you are working on the -at family of words, kids will have page that includes the words sat, cat, rat, mat, and bat. Then they will highlight the letters A and T.

This will draw their attention to the fact that all of the words within a word family have the same ending sound made up of the same letters. Hopefully this will also help them realize that they just have to figure out the beginning sound since they already know the ending blend.

Syllables

Syllables refer to every voiced vowel sound in a word. However, learning where different syllables begin and end can be tricky. Many students are confused by the vowels their eyes see and not the vowel sounds that their ears hear.

So that’s where color coded highlighting helps!

Teaching your kids to highlight each syllable is the best way to create a visual cue that connects what they see to what they hear.

Using Highlighters for Reading Comprehension

hot to use highlighters effectively for reading comprehension

Beginning, Middle, End

Being able to recognize events in a story is a required skill. So an easy way for students to practice finding the beginning, middle, and end of a text is with color coded highlighting.

They will simply highlight the relevant text to emphasize each portion of text. This will help them develop the initial skills needed to summarize the most important parts of a story or nonfiction text.

Text Evidence

When we think of using highlighters in the classroom, most of us think about text evidence.  This is a common practice in most Reading and ELA education.

Kids are asked a question and required to find a relevant piece of evidence from the text that supports their answer to the question. Some evidence is directly stated within the text while other evidence is merely implied.

Giving students an opportunity to interact with the text they are reading and provide the “proof” they need to support their answers is critical to their success.

Transition Words

Another easy way for your kids to practice finding relevant information with highlighters is identifying transition words.  

When they first begin looking for transitional words, they would want to highlight words like “first, second, third” or any other ordinal numbers in a body of text.  Then after they become proficient at that, they would focus on words like “next, then, finally.”

Highlighting these transition words would show them the progression of the text from beginning to end.

Close Reading Passages

This is another perfect opportunity to look more closely at specific pieces of text and examine what is unique to this particular piece.  

Whether finding supporting details for the main idea or specific evidence to answer a text dependent question, highlighting content will distinguish the important from the unimportant.

Synonyms

Any time your kids are reading a text, encourage them to highlight synonyms.  Obviously they will have to know what synonyms are to be able to find them within a piece of writing. But actively looking for synonyms will require a deeper level of understanding as well as the ability to really dig into the mood and tone of a piece of writing.

New Vocabulary Words

Any time a student sees a new word that they cannot read or don’t understand, they should highlight the word. This allows them to continue reading for comprehension without getting stuck on one word, while also emphasizing the word when they go back to find it after reading.

They can use context clues to help them decipher the meaning of the new vocabulary word or actually look the word up in a dictionary.  This will help them grow a larger vocabulary and help you see which words seem to be causing your readers difficulty.

Character Traits

In stories and novels, characters showcase certain traits.  They might be physical or simply manifested in how they behave.  But, either way, helping your students find these traits or descriptions within a story gives them another opportunity to use highlighters effectively.

Create another highlighting “key” so that your kids know that physical traits are one color while personality traits are a different color. This allows you to pinpoint which kids are mastering the skill and which students are struggling.

Order of Events

The only difference between the order of events and transition words is that this is specific to dates and events in time.  In other words, this would be a great highlighting activity for history texts because it would be an excellent way to visually represent events in time.

Having many opportunities to practice color-coded highlighting will serve your kids well throughout life.  These 20 ways to use highlighters effectively are just the tip of the iceberg.

Now that you have some ideas, I’m sure you will come up with tons more activities for your students. Once your kids understand what they need to highlight and why they need to highlight, they will be more attentive to the material they interact with in all subjects.