Summarizing skills are key components of reading for fourth- and fifth-grade students. Determining the main idea or ideas of text and identifying key details are tasks critical to academic success in high school and college. While writing summaries is taught in school, the ability to condense a large amount of text rapidly also helps children develop stronger reading skills as they search for a central theme and the relevant details that support it. The Common Core State Standards Initiative calls for summary skills in the intermediate elementary grades, and beyond.
Verbal Summary Skills
In the early grades, following the reading of a story, students are questioned about the main idea of the selection. These basic question-and-answer sessions help a teacher discern whether the child can recognize the central theme of the book. Because these are verbal exchanges, this conversational method can also be used effectively with older students, providing the teacher with quick, informative assessment of comprehension. Book clubs in which small groups of students read the same title are another way to encourage discussion about themes in reading. To be most effective, these groups should be guided by the teacher, who can ask leading questions that develop summarizing skills. For complex text, an instructor can encourage talk by asking, “Can you explain what we just read in your own words so we all can understand what the author was saying?”
Moving Into Writing
As students move into writing responses to assigned reading, teachers may request succinct summaries without providing enough practice for children on how to do this. Identifying the purpose for writing is critically important in every writing lesson. Students need to know for whom they are writing, and for what reason. As in the discussion method, the teacher can suggest the student write for an absent classmate, or a friend who has not read the book. A brainstorming session might take place in a “pair and share” exchange in which teams of students list important words to include in a short summary. The teacher can further encourage children to work cooperatively by listing suggested words on the board and asking for votes on what words are most important for use in a written summary. All students can then refer to this list when writing individual summaries using words commonly agreed upon by the class.
Highlighting with “Liquid Gold”
Another way teachers can teach and support student work in selecting what details are most important to a short summary is to pass out yellow highlighting pens for use on photocopied selections of text to be summarized. The teacher tells the students that this “liquid gold” is precious and will cost ten dollars for each word highlighted. Students can be given a “budget” of gold to spend on highlighting words necessary for use in a summary about what was read. After words are selected, additional words can be added at a nominal “cost” for a succinct summary. Students may want to peer edit with a buddy to see if the summary can be simplified even further without a loss of key information.
Provide Models for Effective Summaries
Children with limited experience in varieties of text need plenty of models and examples in order to understand what’s expected. Teachers can locate age-appropriate movie reviews for familiar films and also indicate brief summaries from book jackets in the classroom library. Summaries and reviews written by children are especially helpful and can be found on websites such as the Spaghetti Book Club and Stone Soup. Teachers will want to clarify for students the difference between a literary summary and a book review, however. Summary writing does not normally assume the role of critic; it merely provides a non-opinionated way to condense large amounts of information in an alternative, brief form.
Julie Alice Huson is a parent and an educator with a Master of Science in education. She has more than 25 years of teaching experience, and has written educational materials for Colonial Williamsburg. She has also worked in consultation with the California Department of Education. Huson received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2011.