Yesterday I wrote about teaching paraphrasing. Readers need to be able to paraphrase, and to have fun with putting ideas into new words.
Summarizing is a next step. A summary is a shortened version of a text, and follows some formal rules. This blog post includes some activities for scaffolding summarizing, including summary frames, group summaries, and summary selection activities. (You can find other activities in my book, Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling.)
How often should students write summaries? In my classroom, they become fairly routine assignments, with students summarizing texts every two weeks or so.
But I don't grade them all! In fact, I don't recommend any formal assessments of student summaries until they have had at least 3 tries at writing informal summaries in the classroom. Not only will this keep you from having to write the same comments over and over, but it will give students a chance to work through the really hard task of summary writing in a supportive environment. (I do keep some of the first-try summaries so that students can reflect on their progress.)
But just because I'm not grading the summary doesn't mean that I don't give feedback. In fact, I "clipboard cruise" as students work on summaries, jotting down notes of what I notice and which students seem to be working well and which will need more help. And I talk with students about what I see. In the first few attempts, I listen more than I talk--"What did you notice as you wrote this? What was a challenge?" Then I start to offer comments. Here are some of my favorites:
I like to start with "What was hard for you?" to help me gain some insight into the reader's processes. If a student says, "Nothing" then I worry--every summary offers some challenges and I want readers to have control over what they are doing. Sometimes readers talk about the structure of the text, or the difficulty of putting lots of information into a few sentences.
The "Find two sentences that are not needed" comment is one that I usually start to offer in the middle of the year. Many fourth graders fall in love with details! Suggesting that they choose a few sentences to eliminate can help them to think about what is really important. (Some students begin to predict what I will say--"You're going to tell me to take something out, I know it"--which really shows their metacognitive awareness. And my predictability.)
Having two students compare summaries makes the complete circle back to paraphrasing. After all, no two summaries are ever the same. Seeing how their classmates solved the problem of summarizing in different ways helps students to see the dazzling array of ways to express ideas.
Looking for short texts for summarizing? Multi-leveled texts and activities can be found in Paraphrasing and Summarizing Lessons. Also, summarizing activities are included in my text structure units, including Cause and Effect and Description.