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English Language Arts Blog

The home of Vocab Gal and other educational experts K–12 resources

October 7, 2022 ELA K-5, ELA Focus - Reading, ELA 6-8, ELA Focus - Close Reading, ELA Resources - Activities, ELA 9-12

Teaching Students to Summarize

In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at the importance of summarizing as a demonstration of reading comprehension. Additionally, we’ll examine the progression of this skill across elementary, middle, and high school grade levels.

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What is summarizing?

Summarizing is the ability to answer the question, “What is the text about?” A strong summary showcases the important information of a story and filters out the unimportant details. Most summaries answer the “5Ws and 1H” rule of writing: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? In its most simple form, summarizing is the ability to distill the most important parts of a piece of writing.

Download a summarizing activity for students in Grades 4 and beyond.

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What can a strong summary tell us about a reader?

A reader’s ability to summarize highlights their complete understanding of a text. If a reader can note the important information that is explicit in a text (such as the who or the characters) as well as infer the implicit information in a text (such as the why or the motivation of characters), it is a sign of not understanding and misinterpretation of the text.

Exploring summarizing as a skill through the standards

Understanding summarizing and how students exhibit this skill, however, endures subtle shifts as students’ progress throughout the grade levels. In the early elementary years, the state standards for English/Language Arts (ELA) require students to “retell” a text. Many researchers agree that a retelling of a text for early elementary students can be defined as the ability to orally share the important details of a text, ideally in order but not necessarily always denoted in this way. This sequencing of a story, or lack thereof, becomes an important distinction of summarizing as students move from kindergarten and 1st grade and into 2nd and 3rd grade.

Summarizing requires readers to reduce a text to its most important, key points. Through this process readers are underscoring their comprehension of a text-- which is the optimum goal of reading!

In the later early elementary years, the state ELA standards shift their language. No longer are students asked to “retell” information in a text, rather they are asked to “recount” a story. The specific distinction of a “recounting” versus a “retelling” comes down to the sequencing of important events and the form that a summary takes place. Literary theorists often categorize recounting as the ability to share the important events of a story in a text in order of when they occurred. Additionally, this demonstration of comprehension can now be done in oral or written form.

The verb “summarize” appears within most ELA standards beginning in 4th grade. The reason this shift takes place in 4th grade is that at this stage students often undergo a shift from learning to read to reading to learn. One of the ways students can showcase this skill is through summarizing.

In this year, students are asked to share not just the information of a text sequentially, but also those inferential elements of a text that an author may not specifically make clear. Making an inference in a text is the ability to determine what an author is trying to convey indirectly. Strong readers can make inferences by using actions or words in a text coupled with background knowledge. Making inferences in a text can include the ability to successfully determine the following textual elements even when not named directly:

Character Feelings: In lower level, early elementary texts may explicitly state how a character is feeling. As texts increase in complexity, however, they may only connote character feelings through the words and actions of a character. For example, rather than saying a character is sad they may say that the character, “cried with tears streaming down their face.”

Character Motivation: Why a character does something in a text is not always readily stated. A character’s motivation is an important inference readers may have to make. Understanding a character’s motivation can be a lynchpin in understanding their feelings, as well as, ultimately, the key themes an author may want a reader to take away from a story.

Lessons Learned: What a character or reader can learn from a story is often the highest level of thinking that can take place when reading a fiction text. Authors write fiction stories in order to help convey messages about life. Often these lessons are not explicitly shared and must be inferred by how a character’s feelings change or how a problem is solved in a text.

A strong summary at this stage cannot be a literal retelling or recounting of a passage nor can it be a simple copy of a passage. At this stage in elementary school and in this stage of reading, students are asked to embed the most important explicit and implicit details of a text.

In each of these stages, students are asked to take part in an increasing demand of analysis, as well as a more precise and nuanced use of academic language. This shift in cognitive demands and text complexity continues through middle and high school. By these upper grades, readers are asked to summarize long or dense texts that increase the complexity of the information they must extract and infer.

Download the free summarizing activity for students in Grades 4 and beyond!

Summarizing requires readers to reduce a text to its most important, key points. Through this process, readers are underscoring their comprehension of a text-- which is the optimum goal of reading!

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