Monday, June 20, 2011

Solving the Retelling Problem

It happens at the start of every school year--at least three or four students in my class can't retell. They'll dutifully chug along in a piece, reading every word. When I say, "Could you please retell what happened in the passage?" I'll get--nothing.

Or almost nothing. Sometimes these kids will produce a few sentences, sometimes a backwards account of the story. But the retellings are not quite what I hope to see in fourth grade. With summarizing on the horizon, we need to get retelling taken care of quickly! I think that kids need to be able to retell a story confidently before we can accomplish much with summarizing.

Here are some strategies that I like to use to start with.

Sequence events from the story: Working with a fairly short story (the ones in Highlights work well), I put the events from the story on notecards or strips of paper. After the student reads the story, the student puts the events back together in the proper sequence.
Why it's useful: Kids who struggle with retelling often have trouble with putting ideas from a text into their own words. This activity models paraphrasing. In addition, this helps students to review the sequential nature of a narrative.
Good for the whole class? Yes, with modifications. For kids who are not struggling with retelling, you can challenge them to sequence the events, and then decide which are important or not important.

Link to plot interactive with events

Retell with figures: Using pictures or objects to retell can help a student to match events to characters and objects. Give students a set of pictures that go along with a story that they are reading. As they learn the process, they can create their own pictures and figures.
Why it's useful: You can't act out what you don't understand. When kids have to show the action, they are much more likely to build those bridging inferences that help them create and clarify meaning. One of my favorite parts of the retelling lesson is when kids make those realizations--"Oh, so that's why this happened!"
Good for the whole class? Yes! Everyone can benefit from retelling with figures--and have fun doing it.

Link to story with retelling figures

Retelling frame: Some kids benefit from a reminder sheet about what to include in a retelling. You can use a story map to help students think of the characters, setting, problem, and solution, or your own frame that includes specific parts of the story for your classroom.
Why it's useful: The frame helps students to internalize the important elements of a retelling.
Good for the whole class? This is one that I save for the students who are struggling. The sooner the kids can retell on their own, the better.

Link to SomebodyWanted-But-So graphic organizer

While these don't produce instant results, with time I see some improvement in retelling. What have you found that works well for you and your students?


  1. Your post made me really think about how I teach retelling. I don't have many different ways! I use the story element graphic organizer and Somebody wanted but so strategy but usually in conferences I just ask, "Tell me about your book..." which is really not teaching. I need to work on this! Thank you for sharing all your ideas.

  2. Thanks so much for writing! For some kids, retelling is so's always interesting to find new ways to help them.