Thursday, October 22, 2015

Summarizing Nonfiction...Again and Again and Again

It's been nine years since I wrote a book about summarizing, and I keep feeling like I learn more and more. This year, as I've moved back into sixth grade, I decided to start the year with frequent summarizing tasks. I'm teaching summarizing, but I feel like I'm the one who is learning lessons!

This year's summaries are based on a set of four expository texts about water. Each text has a similar structure and text features. My goal was to build on repeated experiences and frequent feedback to level up my students' summarizing skills.

Here are some of the things that I have learned (and re-learned!) so far this year.

Provide limited space for the summary
    Conscientious sixth graders want to do well! In many cases, this means that they write summaries that are almost as long as the original text. There are two different profiles for the writer of the long-winded summary. On the one hand, you'll see kids who are proficient readers and have a large working memory produce these summaries. They just have a big capacity for details, and they understand everything in the text. On the other hand, some kids who are struggling but conscientious will create these summaries. They're not sure of which details are most important, but they want to please the teacher and so they put them all in.
    My problem when I get these summaries? I'm too soft-hearted! These kids have obviously worked hard, and at the start of the year it's tough for me to hand them back for the kids to redo.
    When I provide limited space for the summary, though, I let the lines do the heavy lifting. "Make sure your summary fits in the space," I say, and when kids ask for extra paper, I give them a small sticky note.
    How much space should you provide? A good rule of thumb is to think about how much room it would take to write a sentence for each paragraph, and then add 3 or 4 more. This gives kids with big handwriting enough room to write a good summary without going overboard.

Teach students to chunk the summary process
    Some students look at the article and think, "I can never summarize that!" In many texts, though, kids can use the headings to guide them through. This is especially helpful for chunking a summarizing assignment for students with learning disabilities. "Don't worry about the whole thing today," I tell students. "Let's just do this first chunk."
    This also helps students who tend to summarize in a knowledge-telling fashion. These students write everything they remember about the text, in the order in which they remember it. A summary written like this tends to sound like a list of random facts instead of an organized summary. By reminding students to go back to the text, you can give them an anchor for their thoughts.

Beware the "about" summary

    Around about the third summary I start to see the topic-based summaries creeping in. Students are becoming more efficient with their summarizing and decide to take a shortcut.
    These are actually signs of good progress. Usually, I end up writing about twenty times: "Don't say what the article was about--actually include the information!" Once kids see the difference, they realize that the 'about' summary is quite empty of actual facts.

Look for growth over the long haul
    The development of summarizing skill is a long process. As readers grapple with more and more complex texts, they need to see how they can wrestle ideas to the page to write a summary. Students won't necessarily become strong summarizers after one lesson, or two, or even three. However, the good news is that repeated summarizing can build comprehension as well. I like to think of teaching summarizing as test-prep I can live with!

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