Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Three ways to improve student summaries

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of pulling out my presentation suitcases and doing a presentation about summarizing. I've been presenting on this topic for about five years now, but each time is new and interesting. There are just so many nuances to teaching summarizing, so many things to consider as I try to find that right match between reader and task.

I decided to structure the presentation in a new way this time, looking at several ways that classroom teachers can easily build summarizing skills in students. Here are three that work well for me in my classroom.

I love retelling as an instructional strategy for any grade level. For students who seem to be having trouble remembering information from a text, retelling with a partner can be a good place to begin. I especially like having students use pictures or props to retell a text.

Don't neglect retelling nonfiction. Here are some simple directions that I give to students as they retell nonfiction.

Written paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is simply restating an author's words in a new way. This can be a difficult task for students who lack a wide bank of vocabulary words. Working with shorter pieces of text helps to build these skills a little at a time.

I like to project a page or a paragraph from a text and have students paraphrase the events or the information. This is pretty quick, and it lets us talk about the challenges that the text poses. What lists do we need to collapse? How can we find other ways to arrange the sentences? Besides helping students to improve their summarizing skills, paraphrasing parts of texts will also help students to put together text evidence to support their answers to open-ended questions.

(More specifics can be found in my paraphrasing and summarizing unit or in the book Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling)

Scaffolded summaries
A scaffolded summary is like a writing frame. The teacher provides part of the writing, and the students provide the rest. Scaffolded summaries can offer more or less support, depending on student needs. Here is a highly supportive summary that I gave to students as a first step into summarizing. Notice that I combined the summarizing task with a vocabulary task, putting a word bank at the top of the page. (The text is from the fourth grade Fluency Formula book.)

With a highly supportive scaffolded summary, it's important to keep the task from becoming just a fill in the blanks activity. Doing a choral reading of the entire summary can help kids to hear the academic language. (In my classroom, kids like alternating reading with boys reading one sentence, and girls the next. They also enjoy "reading like spies"--reading aloud as if every sentence ends in a deep, dark secret.)

Another way to make this an engaging task is to show students a summary with wrong answers filled in. Why are they wrong? What details from the text can show this?

As students become more skilled in summarizing, the frame can offer less and less support. Here is a scaffolded summary frame for students to use as they summarize chronological order nonfiction text. Notice that this frame is not text-specific, but can be used with any text that goes along with this text structure. (This frame is included in my text structure unit on chronological order. Frames like this are included in all of the other text structure units as well.)

Teaching students to summarize is hard. The most important thing to keep in mind, however, is that summarizing must be revisited again and again. It can't be a single unit that you teach once and then put aside. Instead, students need to see summarizing activities with every text. Whether you are retelling, paraphrasing parts of text, or using a scaffolded summary, ongoing activities will help your students to be successful.

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