It is first necessary to consider the text globally: find out what is said and who about. Then you have to concentrate on the writer’s choices so as to access to full understanding.
I) Global understanding
1) The characters and the setting
When reading the extract for the first time, it is necessary to find out basic facts such as who does what and where and when it takes place. It is useful to pick up various clues.
Chronological and logical link words give clues as to the chain of events and key moments of the plot. It is thus useful to find out if the events are told according to the chronological order or if there are flashbacks or flashforwards.
2) The narrator and point of view
It is necessary to identify the narrator who tells the story and from whose point of view the story is told so as to fully understand the narrative.
The narrator’s role and stance do affect what the narrative tells and the way it is told. For example with an omnipotent narrator, the reader knows more than the characters, whereas with an objective narrator, the reader knows as much as the characters.
II) Detailed understanding
The use of language (whether formal, colloquial or use of slang), the tone (whether ironical, humorous or tragic…), the atmosphere (whether stressful, conflicting or quiet…) of the extract are equally important and help to understand the main theme·s.
Figures of speech play the same role. Whether they stress similarity, repetition or contrast, they always contribute to spotting the key ideas, themes or features.
Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley
(This full version of the title comprises an allusion to the ancient myth of Prometheus.)
Focusing on how long the sentences are or the tenses used, leads to an in-depth understanding of the extract. For example, short sentences may be used to account for a character’s stream of consciousness.
Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think. The Tell-Tale Heart, by E. A. Poe
2) Unknown vocabulary
You should not panic when there are words you do not understand. Use different strategies so as to deduce what they mean. First observe the word in context: look at the preceding and following words, consider the nature of the word (noun, adjective, adverb, verb…). It gives useful clues to guess its meaning.
You can then consider word formation processes.
What to look for when annotating?
Here are some ideas. Use different colours to underline the text.