Teaching Summaries, Getting Detailed (Part 2)

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How to Teach Summary

Teaching Summarizing (Part2)

In Teaching Summarizing Part 1, we discussed the importance of getting detailed.  I covered the background knowledge that is needed for students to be ready for summarization. Essential prerequisites are learning about plot, problem, and solution.

In part 2, we will roll up our sleeves and look at three steps to teaching how to summarize. These three steps will help students learn to summarize quickly and simply.

(Teaching Summarizing) Knowing how to avoid the wrong path is a quick way to learn the right path.Click To Tweet

Step 1: Teaching Bad Summarizing

In its most basic form, a good summary tells the problem and the solution of a story (expository summaries are different). No summary is complete without paraphrasing the plot’s problem and solution. With the foundation work discussed in part 1, students will be ready to learn this. And they will do it well.

Summarizing is not just Retelling

Longer summaries also give main events from the beginning, middle, and end. But summaries are different than retelling a story – and students should be taught this. A retelling is like talking to a friend about a movie, but a summary is much shorter.

Summarizing is not just BME

Often students only learn that a summary is the “main events from the beginning, middle, and ending.” There is a problem with this as students get older.

What is the problem with BME?

Strong readers usually end up retelling the whole story. Struggling readers get overwhelmed by all the events and freeze up. They may only accidentally understand the plot.

There is a better way.

When teaching how to summarize, students benefit if:

  1. Start by teaching them that there is such a thing as a “good” summary.
  2. Then contrast that with a “bad” summary.
  3. A good summary is not retelling all the events from the beginning, middle, and ending. A good summary doesn’t leave out the problem and solution.

This may sound basic, but students don’t know it unless we teach it. Be specific.

Not all students magically “get it”. Explicit instruction is required for students to learn the bad summary. This is the first step, so let’s look at how to get a little more detailed with a bad summary.

5 Keys to a Bad Summary

Here are five things that make a bad summary of literary text:

  1. Plot: It is missing either the problem or solution – or both.
  2. Overload: It has too much information.
  3. Sequence: Events are told out of order.
  4. Incorrect: It has wrong information that didn’t happen.
  5. Copy: The summary uses the exact words of the author

When students understand what makes a bad summary, it becomes so much easier for them to formulate a good summary. Knowing how to avoid the wrong path is a quick way to finding the right path. That’s the purpose of step 1.

You can't teach plot, problem, solution, and summary all at the same time.Click To Tweet

Step 2: Getting Specific about Good Summaries

After learning about bad summaries, students are ready to learn what makes a good summary. Along the way, you may have already mentioned it, but now they are ready to learn it. The contrast to a bad summary makes the learning occur quickly.

There is no reason to make it complex. The skill is already complex, our job is to make it simple.

A Simple, Yet Good Summary

A good summary includes two parts. It paraphrases the plot – the problem and the solution.

Yes, you’ve heard that before (see the previous post on teaching summaries). Students learned what the problem and solution are when you teach plot.

Here’s the big catch – the mistake that is often made…you can’t teach plot, problem, solution, and summary all at the same time! It makes it too complex and too much for students to process. There needs to be scaffolding.

Keep it simple. A good summary tells the problem and the solution of a plot. When students understand that the problem and the solution are the backbones of a good summary, they’re ready to take the third step – making summaries better.

Students can and will learn how to summarize very quickly when you get specific about teaching summaries.Click To Tweet

Step 3: Making Summaries Better

How do we deepen student understanding of summarizing?

…because they need to master this before 6th grade!

Make a Good Summary Better

There are a few details to add to the summary, especially when summarizing longer texts. Step 3 is great for upper elementary and middle school where students are summarizing chapter books. A good summary has the problem and solution.

Questions to Scaffold Better Summarizing

A better summary also includes important details about the main character. These details come from the beginning, middle, and end of the plot. They focus on character development. A few questions to ask students are:

  • What was the character like at the beginning of the story?
  • How did the character change when trying to solve the problem?
  • What were the results/effects at the end?
  • Who/what else was impacted by the solution in the plot?

Character Analysis is Essential for Advanced Summarizing

Getting specific in step 3 requires learning about characters, their overarching interactions, and changes they undergo.

  • How does a character feel?
  • How does the character react to the challenge faced?
  • Who was affected by the problem?
  • Who was affected by the solution?
  • What lesson was learned?

These are questions that lead students to the right details to include in a better summary.

Yes, summarizing is a complex skill. You can empower them to understand how to summarize. These three steps ensure that you are specific in your instruction. At the most basic level, students can and will learn how to summarize very quickly when you get specific about teaching summaries.

If you are looking for great resources for teaching reading, click here (to TeachersPayTeachers) to take a look at our task cards, mini-lesson PowerPoints, and other teaching materials for summarizing. 

What makes a good summary - How to teach summarizing


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