Teaching Summarizing So Students Actually Understand

Teaching 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade students to summarize so that they actually understand.

Summarizing seems like it should be an easy skill to teach. When students summarize, they don’t have to come up with any of their own ideas – all they have to do is briefly tell the most important parts of a book or reading passage that they read.

Teaching 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade students to summarize so that they actually understand.

Sounds pretty easy…but it’s not.

Teachers have all sorts of cute and colorful ideas to teach summarizing. If you search “summarizing” on Pinterest, you’ll see a huge variety of activities.

There are anchor charts, graphic organizers, the “Somebody Wanted But So Then” method, the SAAC method, the 5 fingered retell, summarizing sentence starters, and more.

So why can’t our students summarize?

Why Students Struggle With Summarizing

Students struggle with summarizing because it is counterintuitive to so many other things we have taught them.

Usually, we want students to incorporate what they already know about a topic. We even take time in class to activate prior knowledge, knowing that students will better understand what they have read if they can relate to it. But when summarizing, students aren’t supposed to incorporate any additional information – only the information that the author chose to include.

Usually, we encourage students to think for themselves. We want students to share their opinions, and to justify that opinion (like in many of my point of view resources that encourage students to distinguish their point of view from the author’s). But when summarizing, students aren’t supposed to have their own opinion – they are simply supposed to explain what the author says and thinks.

Usually, we want students to share as many details as possibly. How many times have you told a student that they need to add more details, write more, or make it longer? The more details students include, the better – except for in summarizing. When summarizing, students are supposed to only include the most important information. Which means students have to have a firm handle on how to find the main idea (check out activities to reinforce main idea with students here).

No wonder students struggle with summarizing!

Teaching Summarizing – A Better Way

Since summarizing goes against what students will naturally want to do, we can’t just tell students what makes a good summary and expect that to be enough. Students don’t just need to see examples of good summaries, they also need to see examples of BAD summaries and be able to understand what makes it “bad.”

Before your summarizing lesson, write several different summaries of a reading passage. Make a couple of these summaries deliberately BAD – include a summary that has all sorts of unimportant information, and another summary that includes opinions that aren’t from the text. Make sure you also have one “good” summary.

After reading the passage with your class (or in a small group setting), show students the different summaries. Have the students discuss in small groups or partners which summary is best, and what is wrong with the other summaries. Repeat this activity several times with different reading passages.

Incorporating “bad summaries” into your summary lessons will keep your students from making those same mistakes when they begin writing summaries. Although writing out extra summaries takes extra prep time, it will keep you from having so many frustrated and confused students later in the school year.

A No Prep Option for Teaching Summarizing

If you don’t have the extra time to prepare both “good” and “bad” summaries (and what teacher DOES have extra time?), then you might like a no prep option. I have summarizing resources for both fiction and nonfiction.

These resources provide reading passages with plenty of “bad” summaries and “good” summaries to help your students develop a better understanding of summary writing. The resources are also hands on, with several cut and paste activities and a scavenger hunt.

Teachers who have joined my membership (find out more here) have access to all of these summarizing resources.

Or, you can find both the Summarizing Fiction and Summarizing Nonfiction resources at my TPT store.

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