Post Author

Posted by
Annette Whitehead

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

Highlighters have traditionally been used to help us through high school or college by marking areas in text or notes that are important.

Time travel alert to the ‘80s: To save money when I was in college, I bought used textbooks. Yes, this was a big thing back then. Stacks and stacks of them were piled up in the university bookstores, and it was best to get there as soon as possible so that you could get a book that didn’t look like it had survived the apocalypse.

How did I choose the marked up, worn, and tattered book that was to be my companion, teacher, and source of knowledge for that semester, you ask? I looked at the highlights in the book to see if the previous owner had taken decent notes, or if they had just randomly colored in what they thought might work in order to pass the class. Back then the option of colors was more limited.

This is the way many people think of using highlighters, and it is only one way in which they can make a difference. Leaving the ‘80s behind, the shoulder pads, puffy hair, and Adam and the Ants (a popular band of the time), we now look into the present and how my view of highlighters and their uses have changed.

When I think of highlighters now, I view them as one of the many tools I have used with great success and creativity in the classroom and across the younger grades I have taught. They are an extremely effective and easy way to affect learning. It also helps that they come in many different colors and in packs that are easy to afford for teachers and/or parents to help supply. Highlighting is also part of most word processing programs.

So let’s get started on how best to use this tool in all grade levels!

Five Major Uses for Highlighters K – 12

1. AVID – Cornell Notes

What is AVID?

Many schools have adopted the AVID system, Advancement Via Individual Determination, in their K-12 schools to promote learning, establish rigor, and increase student achievement well past high school. This program has many components but I will focus on the one where I believe highlighters have the biggest impact all be it the more traditional way in which they are used.

Cornell Notes

To many teachers who have been trained in AVID procedures, having students highlight their notes is nothing new. It allows students to revisit what they wrote or copied. With continued repetition, we know that learning and memory kicks in.

In the upper grades, many of the students have already figured out that using a highlighter helps the information stand out on the page. It makes it more accessible for daily review than just underlining or circling the important information. Using a variety of colors to highlight the information allows students to start the organizational process in their minds, which will increase retention of new information and solidify retention of older information.

For these reasons, and more, it is important to keep many highlighter colors on hand and teach students how to effectively use them to scaffold the information they have. Don’t forget to have them make a key as to what color is what; ie. blue is the topic, green is supporting facts, and so on. These skills need to be taught explicitly or else you will end up with students highlighting the entire text, or lines and lines of notes reflecting that they have not processed the information at all.

2. Accommodations

We’ve all been there. We need to make accommodations for many of our students in the classroom. When we try to come up with new and exciting ways to do this, many times our brains go blank. We need to understand that making accommodations for one, two, or three students can also help those students that may be on the edge.

Using highlighters in notes as we talked about above is just one way of making these accommodations. The digital world has taken education by storm, especially in the last year. What we know is that more and more students are learning on the computer, working on the computer, and submitting assignments on the computer. Can’t use highlighters you say? Nonsense!

Go ahead and list highlighting as one of the accommodations and modifications you use. Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Pages, and LibreOffice all have highlighting options. This is an opportunity in which modifications and accommodations can be made and benefit all students. Just remember, like all new information, the students have to be taught how to use the digital highlighters and how to choose the colors to best support their learning.

When creating PowerPoints, you can use these highlighting options so that the students can focus on the important points and organize their thinking as you work your way through the information on the screen.

This may be great for online presentations but what about in-person instruction? Give an unhighlighted version of the PowerPoint to the students in the room who would benefit most from this, as well as a highlighter to mark the same items you have marked on the screen. This encourages students to engage in their learning and can be used for all students.

This can also be used for students’ notes. Some students are unable for various reasons to take notes in class. Many modifications or accommodations list the simple idea of providing those students with a copy of your notes to follow along with. Let’s take this one step further.

The same modification as above will help keep students engaged and learning when given a copy of the notes and highlighter. Remember, if you are using this method, pick a highlighter color that you won’t be using in the next few days when applying the principles of Cornell Notes, which also require a couple of colors for highlighting and review.

*Bonus Tip*

You can revisit this assignment later for some or all students to help review the text of the PowerPoint.

3. Modifications

As you are making notes of what you do in the student’s IEP, remember that an accommodation changes how a student learns the material as we have noted above, but a modification changes what a student is taught or expected to learn.

Since each student and situation is different, this is a place where highlighters can shine. When given a paper copy, a highlighter can be used to focus a student’s attention on the points or information they must know and increase learning and attention to the topic. It is a way to include all students without pointing out that these students are only responsible for part of the information.

A sheet with the major points highlighted for students who need modifications can be very helpful when studying for a test or using it for answering questions. This sheet can later be used as open notes for a test, a study sheet, and even to answer questions by matching the colors you used for highlighting information to the choices on the test, depending on the level of modification the student needs.

Example 1

  • Highlight a piece or pieces of information so students can easily find it in their notes to answer a question.

  • Highlight two out of four of the choices, making it easier for the student to choose an answer.

Example 2

  • Highlight the most important pieces of information/directions to help students answer the questions

*Bakpax Hack!*

Wondering how to make the highlighting work with Bakpax? Wonder no more. Although it is not yet possible to highlight directly in Bakpax’s assignment importer and editing tools, it is possible to copy and paste highlights.

  • First, type the test/worksheet in another word processing document. (Often, I only do a sentence or just what I need at the time.)
  • Next, highlight those things you want to be highlighted.
  • Then, copy and paste each piece into the correct place on the Bakpax assignment editor. The formatting will copy with it!

A test/worksheet can be assigned to the whole class, or as a Bakpax teacher, you can make another classroom in which those students who need greater levels of modifications can access these highlighted test/worksheets and have success.

4. Highlighting and Phonics

With the older grades, using highlighters is almost second nature, but kids as young as five can make good use of highlighters to enhance their learning! Phonics is a major area throughout the first 2-4 years of a child’s educational life. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make it easier for each of them to learn the phonics rules?

Applying AVID Note-Taking Skills

Students can highlight a letter, sound, blend, digraph, etc. in any given printed text. An example would be to highlight all the words with the vowel team ‘ea’ in a practice text. For younger levels, highlight all the words with the short ‘o’ sound.

Don’t have text readily available to use? You can easily print off text from many sites. My favorites are Readworks, Newsela, ProjectGutenberg, or FreeKidsBooks to name a few.

First and foremost, this activity has the students engaged in actively looking for the pattern and then physically highlighting or marking it. Students can read from this text over and over to reinforce the skill that is being taught, giving the brain an instant reinforcement with the colored highlights.

Before using highlighters in my classroom, I would have the students underline these patterns. But I found that highlighting, especially the color aspect of it, is very beneficial in helping to transfer and organize learning in the students’ brains.

There are two simple rules I follow when using highlighters for phonics:

  1. The same color for the same phonics pattern (example: blends are always blue, vowel combinations are always yellow, short vowels red/pink). The highlighting color isn’t important, but consistency is!
  2. Don’t overdo! How much is highlighted in a single text is just as important as to what is highlighted. It is easy to want to highlight up to 6 things in a text, but this will only overwhelm the student. Keep it simple and highlight only what needs to be focused on.

The only time I break any of the above rules is when the students have successfully mastered the rules being presented and we are doing a review. In this case, I would use a completely different color and text.

*Bakpax Hack!*

Wondering how to make phonics highlighting work with Bakpax? When making a worksheet/test on Bakpax, you can use the same copy/paste tactics as mentioned above for highlighting answers.

But wait, there’s more! If you find a worksheet that is just perfect for your classroom in the Bakpax’s Discover content library, copy it to My Content and then open it up and edit it to fit your needs. In other words, if you are focusing on a sound as in the following available worksheet, Review of Short Vowels e, once you copy it to your My Content page, you may copy and paste any of the text into a word processor, highlight, and paste it back into your copied worksheet to individualize it for your class. Rename the worksheet and make it yours to use over and over again!

Highlighting and Sight Words

This is a small shout-out to those who are focusing on sight words as well as the phonics rules. Highlighting the sight words that you are focusing on can be very helpful to students.

Again, you will want to focus on a few in each text and be careful not to overload the students with more than about 5 words to look for. This is very important, as more than 5 words can create confusion when the brain is trying to organize what is being taught. Think of that messy file drawer you keep saying you will get to it later. Soon, it is overwhelming and it never gets organized, because it’s just too hard to start. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen with the students, especially as the text or passages get longer the older a student gets!

5. Kindergarten Highlighting

Last, but certainly not least, is the hack that first blew my mind in teaching many years ago. I’m sure Kindergarten teachers have been using this for years, but the first year I taught Kindergarten and a veteran teacher showed me this, the world of highlighting opened up!

Write the word or the letter you want the student to make with a highlighter and have them trace over it with a pencil. This allows the students to form letters correctly, focusing on height and spacing.

How is this helpful for phonics? This may sound very simple, but when you add in the phonics tricks to the above hack, you can start to train the brain, or frontload, to look for patterns even at an early age. Just make sure to stick to a few colors and keep them consistent!



The use of color in learning is an important tool we often overlook. There are so many ways to help students learn. Using color is an easy and fun fix for the students and you. It is especially important for those students who find reading and learning difficult.

Last Thoughts on Highlighting and Color

When using highlighting or color, it’s important not to overdo. Never use more than three colors in a piece. This may sound like a simple rule, but as teachers and professional learners, we often forget that we can muddy up the works just as easily as we can clean them up. Use highlighters with purpose and clarity and the students will benefit!