Why I love highlighters!

This is a response to Alex Quigley’s excellent post Why I hate highlighers! which I encourage you to read.

Mindlessly colouring in text does nothing to help you remember the words you are daubing in fluorescent ink. I think that we can all agree on that. Mr Quigley sets out an argument to challenge the unexamined use of highlighters. Here, I want to explain how I use highlighting in primary, and argue for it’s efficacy. Hopefully, this will also give secondary teachers an insight into the literacy/English work done by primary school teachers.

This week I’ll be teaching children to write a newspaper report. The learning will roughly follow this structure:

  1. Introduce children to the text type.
  2. Agree on the purpose of the text.
  3. Investigate which techniques help the text to be effective in terms of achieving its purpose.
  4. Gather relevant information associated with the particular text type.
  5. Organise this information ensuring techniques discussed in (3) are utilised.
  6. Write the text type using (1) – (5).
  7. Assess the text type against those features agreed during (3).

No doubts there are problems with such a structure, and I would be grateful to anyone who can point out the more glaring flaws. But the beauty of such an approach is that it can be more or less taken off the shelf and used to tackle any of the text types we write in KS2, whether that be a narrative, non-chronological report, diary entry, set of instructions, etc.

Let’s focus on the text type at hand, though; writing a newspaper report. I’ll begin by showing a model exemplar of this text type. We’ll read it together and decide the purpose of the text type. For a newspaper report, we’ll agree that the purpose is to inform an audience of recent news. We are writing to inform.

How does the newspaper report we are looking at do that successfully? I would give children a few minutes, in pairs, to jot down anything they feel makes the text successful regarding its purpose. Then I’ll collate these features on the board. Hopefully we’ll end up with something along the lines of:

  • Short, effective headline to draw the reader in
  • Factual information (answers the 5 Ws)
  • Organised into paragraphs, with clear opening sentences
  • Quotes
  • Ends with rhetorical questions
  • Uses the passive voice

(If you are unsure which features make a particular text type succesfful, I would encourage you to register with Lend Me Your Literacy and click ‘Resources’ – ‘Genre tick list’.)

This list can later become the ‘success criteria’, or ‘toolkit’, which children will be assessed against. I jot them all onto a piece of flip-chart paper and stick it on the Literacy display for the rest of the week. You’ll notice, too, that as the list goes on the features become more sophisticated. You might expect your more able students to include all features, with your more vulnerable learners focussing on the first three features.

Now, for the highlighters!

I should note that at primary we don’t have the fancy budgets for highlighters, so I dish out coloured pencils. Get the children to jot down this toolkit, and shade each feature in a different colour.

Now, they should return to the model exemplar and colour any examples of the toolkit using the relevant colour. Voila!

After they write their own text, you could get the children to colour code their own writing (or each others) using the same technique. Are there any colours missing? Do any colours dominate? Which colours do you need to add in to improve your work?

When you come to mark the work, you can also refer to the colour coded toolkit, or highlight the children’s work using the relevant colours to show them which features they have effectively included.

I am currently falling way short of using this approach in a consistent manner. But I will endeavour to do so from now on and, if at primary we teach children to use colour coding in this manner, it is my hope that Mr Quigley will eventually end up writing a post entitled Why I love highlighters!



  1. Agree 100%

    Poor use of highlighters is an instructional issue rather than a highlighter design and efficacy issue. It is an indication of poor implementation rather than poor potential.

    When solving familiar/complex problems, analysing text/grapgical representations of information and generally promoting deep learning I am unaware that there is evidence that highlighters are anything less than efficacious when used appropriately.

    I do hear rumour that highlighters were next on Gove’s hitlist due to the damage they do, but as he is no longer with us we will never know.

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