Color Code Your Thinking – Developing Active and Thoughtful Readers

Four must-have resources that will improve your reading instruction

Critical thinking is an integral component during the learning process, so I wanted to implement a system into my classroom reading routine that would encourage my students to activate their higher-order thinking skills during each of their reading experiences. I also wanted to further improve my students’ comprehension by teaching them how to monitor their reading more efficiently and consistently. I wanted my students to always consider the following:

  • “Does the text make sense?”
  • “I understand what I’m reading because…”

To accomplish this and promote the idea that reading is thinking, I developed a system that incorporated six essential comprehension strategies into our daily reading practice. I selected six colored sticky notes and assigned each color to a strategy. We referred to this process as “color coding our thinking.” Students associated each of the following comprehension strategies to a particular color:

  • Make connections = pink
  • Ask questions = orange
  • Make inferences = yellow
  • Make predictions = green
  • Monitor comprehension = blue
  • Make evaluations = purple


During the beginning of the year, I introduced each sticky note as I taught each comprehension strategy. I designed opportunities for my students to practice the skills in isolation since we were focusing on one skill at a time. As my readers progressed through a text, I taught them to periodically pause and think about what they had read thus far. Depending on the focus skill, we demonstrated our thinking through quick note-taking responses we called “stop-n-jots.” I provided thinking stems for each of the strategies, which students used to form their stop-n-jots.

Click the image to learn more about the interactive speech bubble.

For example, if a student made a connection while reading, he or she used a pink sticky note to record their thought. A student might have written, “Pig the Pug, reminds me of my dog. My pug is stubborn, too!”  

Though I taught students how to form their stop-n-jots in isolation, I’m a firm believer that thoughtful readers combine comprehension strategies. We eventually began incorporating several colored sticky notes while reading a single text. My goal was to allow my students time to achieve a level of confidence so they could begin using these strategies during independent reading.

I DID NOT require students to record stop-n-jots during their designated independent reading time, though I always had some students who requested to do so. There were times when the objective for the day was to read a text independently and annotate, however, this strategy was not used during every single reading activity. My goal with this approach was to teach and train my students how to pause periodically and make connections, ask questions, form inferences and predictions, etc. so it would become a natural exercise while they read on their own.

The ultimate goal is to develop active readers who are able to eventually connect and engage with a text automatically without having to annotate. More experienced readers are commonly able to subconsciously make connections, ask and answer questions, and monitor their comprehension. At the second and third grade level, quick note-taking practice helped my students conceptualize this process, making it tangible for them, while also providing informative data for me. I was able to quickly evaluate their level of thinking and adjust my instruction to meet their needs during a particular lesson.

This system was a game changer for both my students and me for three major reasons:

  • My kids enjoyed the self-regulation this approach allows. As they practiced and developed their overall reading comprehension, they became more engaged with a text, while gaining deeper understandings of what they were reading.  
  • Another benefit for my students was the discovery of how much thinking takes place during a single reading session. As they collected sticky notes and placed them in their books or reading notebooks, they were usually astounded, and quite proud, at the number of thoughts/notes they had recorded.
  • For me, it was an effective informative assessment during guided reading. At a quick glance, I was able to read students’ notes and provide immediate feedback or adjust my questioning and/or instruction.


To further assist students in becoming active readers, I created posters and matching bookmarks that reinforced expectations and provided examples.

I also created color-coding kits students used during small group instruction and cooperative reading activities. Through donations from families, we were able to replenish our supply of sticky notes. If you don’t have access to a class supply of colored sticky notes, or are unable to acquire enough donations, students can color code in other ways. They can use colored pencils or pens to write notes, or use highlighters to color code their annotations.

During guided reading lessons or independent tasks, students placed their sticky notes directly on the text. Once we completed a text, students placed their notes in their reading notebooks or on a recording sheet. This allowed my students to consolidate their thoughts in one place so that they could quickly and easily refer back to their notes, while also giving me an opportunity to review and/or assess their level of thinking and understanding.

Are you thinking about implementing this strategy in your classroom but have questions or need further clarification? Check out these Frequently Asked Questions or leave your question in the comment section below.


When should I implement this approach into my classroom?
Any time students are reading – small group, cooperative groups, whole group, or independently.

What kind of prep should I expect?
1 . When prepping small or whole group activities, I had questions prepared so I could scaffold if necessary. I would mark my text with stopping points so I remembered where I wanted to model. At these same stopping points, I would typically prompt students to record their own stop-n-jot.

2. Make sure to introduce thinking stems before hand or during the introductory lesson for each strategy. During the beginning of the school year, we created anchor charts for each skill set, which included thinking stems. We also had a large speech bubble where we displayed thinking stems and stop-n-jots for reference (click HERE to learn more about using an interactive speech bubble). The anchor charts remained on display, so students were able to reference and select a stem quickly during reading activities all throughout the year.

3. I organized all of our sticky notes in bins so students were able to retrieve the color they needed. Preparing kits helped reduce prep time overall as well. Once they were made, students were able to grab and go!

What if I can’t get enough sticky notes?
There are alternatives! We were always able to replenish our supply through parent donations. If this isn’t an option for you or you’re unable to maintain a class supply, your students can:
1. Use colored pencils to write stop-n-jots
2. Record annotations in pencil and highlight the notes in the corresponding colors.
3. Record annotations in colored pens (recommended for older students)
4. Record notes on response sheets that have been copied on colored paper (I’ve provided response templates in my resources pack HERE)

Ready to get started now? Get all of the resources HERE.

Now go get your color-coding on!


3 thoughts on “Color Code Your Thinking – Developing Active and Thoughtful Readers

  1. Amy says:

    Incredibly thorough blog post. I really enjoyed this. i love how you paired helpful information with actionable steps. Not only are your products pleasing to the eye, the rigor is also there. Impressive :o)

  2. mom4larsens says:

    BETTER TO TEACH READING THIS WAY when they are younger so it is a habit then when they go off to college. You can use this as an example if you need. Just because kids can read words on a page, it doesn’t mean they understand. A standardized test or a progress monitoring tool is short and many kids can power through it. This is a lifelong method.

    When I saw your product on TPT while looking at your fonts, I almost bought it just so I could leave a review, then I saw your blog and decided I’d rather spend money on something of yours I could actually use ( like fonts) and coffee drinks. So, here is my comment.

    Context: I teach high school math. The last of my 4 kids just went off to college and this child happens to be a liberal arts instead of a stem major. While I have always taught at a small K-12 (public) school where we focus on teaching, my own kids went to a large comprehensive high school with a good AP program. The first thing my daughter learned when she went to college, after taking AP Language and AP Lit, was to READ. They learned to read with sticky notes, in a similar manner to what you have in this product.

    I tried to teach my daughter how to read this way as I too struggled in high school to read for details. She thought I was “stupid” because I teach math, so what do I know.

    ELL/Free & Reduced: I share this because in my small school, the high school English teachers teach students how to read this way. The teachers then followed up by questioning in a similar manner and giving assignments and projects that required this level of processing. Our small school with 70% ELL and 70% free and reduced lunch kiddos have some of the higher test scores in the state.

    Advanced Placement: Teachers who work with reading, even at the ADVANCED PLACEMENT level, need to know that they actually need to teach students HOW to read. Their AP scores would go up if they would do this.

    Autism: My middle son, who just graduated from college with a degree in applied math, stats, and economics, struggled to learn to read. I wish I would have known about this system. I had these conversations with him from the third through 9th grade until this system became intuitive to him. Color coding would have been so much simpler.

    I just thought I would share my one experience from the outcome end of the spectrum. I am not trying to open up an educational debate on pedagogy or anything else. This is just a comment from an experienced math teacher and parent of 4 ( 3 sons and a daughter – 3 AP scholars with distinction and 1 AP scholar) where learning how to read has been an issue.

    I know in math, elementary teachers don’t always see or remember what happens to the basics and why the basics are important when a student reaches Algebra 2, precalculus or calculus. I just thought I would add some insights regarding reading.

    Again, this is brilliant. It would have saved all of my kids, and especially my liberal arts/business daughter countless hours of work, reduced her stress, and given her a bit of free time had one of her teachers taken the time to teach her to actually read. They had great teachers. None, however, taught this.

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