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Summarizing to Understand Text

By: Judy Zorfass , Liz Weinbloom , and PowerUp WHAT WORKS

Introduction

As anyone who has ever tried to quickly explain the plot of a novel knows, summarizing a text requires a high degree of comprehension and the ability to organize information. Summarizing both demonstrates and fosters understanding. Learning to sift through text to extract the most important ideas, and learning to weave those ideas into a concise written, spoken, or graphical summary, will help students become college and career ready while addressing the following ELA Common Core State Standards in reading literature and informational text:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Summarizing is one of the most challenging skills for students to master, especially those with learning disabilities. Consider differentiated ways to describe and model summarizing—and differentiated ways to prompt students to try summarizing themselves—in order to engage the widest range of learners. Help readers to understand the purpose of summaries and learn how to identify the main ideas and key details in a text. Use technology to support struggling writers in crafting summaries by encouraging them to present their ideas in different ways.

Teaching summarizing with technology

Help students develop a set of strategies, supported by technology, to help them strengthen their ability to summarize. Teach them to:

  • Skim the text to get a basic idea of what it is about. They can insert short audio summaries at  the end of each section.
  • Mark or highlight key words and details. If they are using digital text, they can mark the text by highlighting, making the text bold, using italics, and/or changing the font size or color.
  • Ignore details that are not important by deleting them or crossing them out.
  • Insert a topic sentence to begin the summary.
  • Take online note taking  while reading.
  • Review and organize the notes using semantic maps and webs.
  • Draft a summary and revise it based on feedback, in written or oral form, using recording devices.

You can help students use these strategies by demonstrating and modeling how to mark and highlight print and digital text, use text-to-speech software to support independent reading, and create a semantic map or drawing. You can also show students how to use features of word processing software to support summarization, such as headings and key words, images, graphs and maps, comments and notes, and tracked changes. The "Using Multimedia to Support Reading in Social Studies" video provides concrete ideas for supporting struggling students.

Differentiation in action

Ms. Bailey plans to teach summarization as a reading strategy in her Grade 6 classroom, and to have students apply this skill by crafting summaries of their social studies reading. Her class is varied in terms of reading level and includes several students with learning disabilities. Ms. Bailey knows she will have to make sure that her students understand that summarizing is a useful skill for students at any reading or writing level, especially when they are working with informational texts. While Ms. Bailey works hard to ensure her students can meet all of the ELA Common Core Standards, this lesson focuses on the following standard in particular:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.2 Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments

Ms. Bailey will make use of the available technology tools. Her students will access a digital social studies textbook, which allows them to mark and manipulate text, and she will use Voice Thread—a program for recording audio summaries and self-critiques. She will also take advantage of Natural Reader, which allows students to have the text read aloud to them. Her students' summaries will be shared on the class wiki.

The chart below outlines Ms. Bailey's lesson plan, which is divided into three sections: before reading, during reading, and after reading.

Lesson Plan

Before Reading
  • Explain the value of summarizing for comprehension across content areas.
  • Define a summary ("a brief restatement of a text in the reader's own words").
  • Tap students' prior knowledge about summarizing  by sharing summaries of weekend activities, movies, or TV shows.
  • Create a "Do and Do Not" chart on summarizing.
  • Upload the chart to the class's website or wiki.
  • Model how to summarize a paragraph displayed on the interactive whiteboard.
  • Compare this summary against the "Do and Do Not" chart.
  • Repeat the process, but make intentional errors for the class to find.
During Reading
  • Direct the class to craft a summary of the social studies chapter.
  • Review the steps they should use to summarize this chapter.
  • Circulate around the classroom to provide differentiated support.
  • Pair students to write brief summaries.
  • Add these summaries to each student's page on the class wiki.
  • Have students record their summaries.
After Reading
  • Have students assess their own summaries and the summaries of their peers against the "Do and Do Not" chart.
  • Have students make revisions, as needed.
  • If needed, give feedback to help students make revisions.

Online teacher resources on summarizing

This article draws from the PowerUp WHAT WORKS website, particularly the Summarizing Instructional Strategy Guide. PowerUp is a free, teacher-friendly website that requires no log-in or registration. The Instructional Strategy Guide on summarizing includes a brief overview that defines summarizing along with an accompanying slide show; a list of the relevant ELA Common Core State Standards; evidence-based teaching strategies to differentiate instruction using technology; another case story; short videos; and links to resources that will help you use technology to support instruction in summarizing. If you are responsible for professional development, the PD Support Materials provide helpful ideas and materials for using the resources on summarizing. Want more information? See PowerUp WHAT WORKS.

Judy Zorfass , Liz Weinbloom , and PowerUp WHAT WORKS (2014)