Teaching Summaries, Getting Detailed Part 1

Summarizing is one of the greatest skills of good reading, but teaching students how to summarize is a great challenge.

I have found one way that makes it simple: get detailed and get specific. That’s what this post is about. What do you need to detail for students? What specifically do you need to explain and model for students? In this post, you’ll discover how to simplify this important piece of the reading process.

This is part of 1 of 2 for how to teach summarizing. In part 2, I will give you three steps to help your students easily master this skill!


Summarizing is never easy. But this makes it much simpler! #elachatClick To Tweet


Teaching Summaries, Vague is Not Good

Students can kind of pick up some skills. Other skills are mastered with only a small amount of instruction.

Summarizing is not a skill that students just “pick up”.

Summarizing is a skill that takes time. It will take a long time if you teach it in vague or general terms. In some cases, misconceptions will develop. Some students may never learn how to summarize it you don’t get detailed. Here’s a more recent post on Avoiding the Summarizing Headache!

To ensure that all students master this skill quickly, you have to be detailed. You have to be specific about how to summarize and about what makes a good summary (part 2).

Summarizing is a complex skill. Here are just a few of the reasons that students have difficulty summarizing:

  • It has so much prerequisite knowledge.
  • Students must master sequencing first.
  • Students must learn about plot first.
  • Gaps in background knowledge.
  • Discrepancies between students’ reading levels and text complexity.

What are the concepts and skills that students must first master (or at least be aware of)? What is the necessary groundwork?

Getting Detailed with Plot

In elementary and middle school, students need summarizing instruction that is specific.

What is a plot? What are the parts of a story that make the plot? These are basic understandings to teach first…and to teach separately from summarizing. This is where we start.


Plot and Summarizing can Overwhelm

If you teach story structure and plot structure at the same time as summarizing, students will be overwhelmed. This is especially true for upper elementary and middle school.

Plot is a literature concept. It should be learned at a separate time from learning a macro-process. Summarizing is a macro-process. 

Students will not be overwhelmed if you teach plot separately from how to summarize. Students will be able to quickly bridge understandings about plot into learning how to summarize.


What to Teach about Plot

Most primary level students learn beginning, middle, and ending. This follows the basic three part format that has been around since Shakespeare (or probably before).

As readers move into the early and transitional stages (read more about early and transitional readers here), they should master the idea that plot includes a problem and a solution. Then they should understanding the basics of rising actions and turning points.


Sequencing, then plot. Finally, summarizing. That's the recipe. #elachatClick To Tweet


Keep Summarizing Simple, Then Move Up

CCSS and most state standards have a fairly large jump in complexity between telling main idea or main events and crafting a full summary. This usually occurs around 3rd and 4th grades.

Students can move up in this complexity if we bridge the gap.

Keep it simple. We often make things overly complex. We do this because we love our content so much. Teaching is improved when we remember students really don’t love it as much as we do. At least not right now.


Simple Steps Make Reading Instruction More Effective

To help students learn quicker and with greater ease, we need to keep it simple. This doesn’t mean “water down” or “weaken” our expectations. It means to simplify the steps.

Which is easier to climb? 

  1. A ladder with five 6-inch steps.
  2. A ladder with one large, 30-inch step.

The smaller steps is easier to climb. Of course.  Let’s teach plot in the same way.


Simple Steps to Teaching Plot

Teach plot in simple pieces. Plot is made of:

  1. main events
  2. problem
  3. solution

That’s it. Students as young as 8 years old can understand this quite easily. They can read picture books and paraphrase the problem and solution. They can listen to chapter books and determine the problem(s) and solution(s). In doing so, they are beginning to understand plot structure.


Summarizing in Simple, Detailed Steps

Getting detailed doesn’t mean making it complicated. Making it simple doesn’t mean changing the content.

You can find the perfect balance – the simplexity (simple + complex). For plot, the list above does just that. It is simple for students to master. And it is complex enough to use in almost all stories.

Present a variety of plots in different reading formats. Use read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. Students need to see authors use plot in real texts.

Model how to identify the problem and solution. Guide them in doing it. Let them do it. After several rounds of practicing this, they will ready to learn how to summarize. 

That’s what I’ll show you in Part 2: How to Summarize.

You will see summarizing broken down into three specific steps. We will get detailed teaching summaries.

How do you teach Summarizing?

Do you use story maps? Do you use SWBST? Do you use BME? Do your resources scaffold summarizing skills?

Take a look at our summarizing task cards and mini-lessons in our TpT store to see how teaching resources can make a huge difference for students!