Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Summarizing Stories with a Shared Read-Aloud

Summarizing a story can be a difficult task for readers of all ages. Not only does the reader need to have a well-developed comprehension of the story, but he or she must also have a flexible vocabulary in order to collapse lists of events and paraphrase story details. (As a side note, I think that Webb really missed the boat in listing summarizing as a DOK 2; like many researchers who haven't studied the literature on summarizing, he discounts the executive skills required to produce a successful summary and conflates summarizing with retelling. But I digress.)

There are lots of ways to build the component skills of summarizing without forcing kids to write summaries every day. Here is a super-simple activity that requires very little prep!

1. Choose a text that all students can access, and that students have read before.

In these pictures, I chose "Nail Soup" from a PSSA item sampler. I liked this story because it was told mostly in dialogue, which makes it more challenging for students to read and summarize. There is also the question of the deceit in the story. This gives it a second layer of meaning and makes a reread a more interesting task.

We had already read this story and worked through the questions, so students came to the summarizing task with some level of familiarity. This is so important if you're working with summarizing! Students need practice with summarizing stories that are well-represented in their minds.

2. Model reading the text as a shared read. 

Make it interesting! I used voices for the dialogue, drew students' attention to the formatting, and paused to share commentary.

3. At each event, use a sticky note to summarize what just occurred.

This is what makes this a summarizing activity. I paused every now and again to ask students, "Is this important to a summary?" Our discussions were great! 

With sixth graders, I emphasized the use of the present tense in writing the summary. (I would probably skip this discussion with younger readers, though.) You could also hand out sticky notes so that students can write their own events. In my case, I wanted students to focus more on the conversation than in copying what I was writing.

4. Use the sticky notes to produce a group summary.

 I alternated colors in my summary to show that the different sentences came from different events. The word-smithing of the summary took center stage in this case, as it was later in the year and the kids were pretty solid with the basics of writing events.

I also bring up the issue of writing our own opinions in the summary. "Can I write, 'This was a great story!'? Why or why not?"

There are some who claim that a summary must be free of reader inferences. This is ridiculous! Readers have to make inferences and many of those inferences are key to story cohesion. In the case of this summary, calling the characters "clever" and "stingy" is perfectly reasonable, as they are referred to by those traits in the text. Other character traits might be a stretch. Talk about this with students!

Notice that the summary starts with what I call an "executive sentence" that encapsulates the whole essence of the story in one sentence. Readers who learn how to write this smooth introductory sentence are at an advantage.

If you've never done this before, I recommend that you try to summarize the story on your own before trying it with students. It's surprisingly difficult to summarize on the spot, especially as you're trying to manage the class and keep an eye on everything else that's going on!

Next steps

As students summarize stories on their own, many of them take the sticky note strategy to try on their own. I love to see that shared activities become part of a set of strategies that students can use flexibly on their own!


This Summary and Analysis set includes a story that is great for summarizing practice.

If you want to give your students an additional challenge, use this Summary and Analysis set to have them try summarizing a drama!

Aimed at younger readers, this set includes a variety of summarizing activities, including practice with collapsing lists of events and summarizing dialogue.

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