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Focus on the Skill: Summarizing

Summarizing is a key skill for reading and thinking. It is a way to measure reading comprehension, but can also help a reader to come to a new understanding of a text. Learners who know how to summarize can learn more efficiently. But what is summarizing? And how can we teach it?

At its most basic, summarizing is the process of condensing a text or an experience into a statement of the most important ideas. Summarizing requires a reader to select the important ideas, delete trivia or irrelevant information, collapse lists, and paraphrase the author’s words. It’s no wonder that many students find summarizing to be a challenge! However, it's also easy to see why summarizing is so often used as a measure of reading comprehension. To summarize a text, a reader needs to thoroughly understand what the author is saying.

Asking a child to write a summary of a short text can provide some interesting insight into how that child is reading and processing text. For example, some children will become sidetracked by the “seductive details” that are so interesting that they pull the reader away from the main ideas. These readers need help with selecting the most important information from the text.

On the other hand, some children write long, detailed summaries that include every piece of information from the text. Readers who can’t distinguish between important and trivial details need help with deleting the trivia and irrelevant information. They can also benefit from learning how to collapse lists (for example, replacing the list “pencils, erasers, pens, bookbags” with “school supplies”).

Summarizing is an important academic skill. When students can summarize, they can manage large quantities of information more easily. But summarizing practice doesn’t have to be the boring drudgery of worksheets! Try these ideas:

  • Check out example summaries: As you read with your child, check out the back-cover copy or the Library of Congress or National Library of Canada summaries that are included on the copyright page of many books. These summaries are the shortest ones around! Talk with your child about whether you agree with the summary. Did the summary capture what was really in the book? Were there any other ideas that should be included?
  • Practise collapsing lists: When you have time on your hands, give your child lists to collapse. “Rubies, emeralds, and diamonds” can be collapsed to “gems.” “Brushing your teeth, putting on pyjamas, and getting a drink” can be collapsed to “bedtime routines.”
  • Look at text features: Text features such as headings often point to the main ideas in non-fiction text. Surprisingly, many young readers skip over these features! Draw your child’s attention to these features and talk about why the author included them. How do they highlight the main ideas?
  • Try rearranging sentences: This is another good one for the car. Give your child a sentence, such as “The meteorologist is predicting rain for next Tuesday,” and ask your child to say the same idea, but in a different way. Kids love to give you sentences to paraphrase as well!

Download this handy chart about the key differences between Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling.

Jessica Pegis has been developing learning resources for kids and educators for more than 20 years. She is the author of five books on subjects ranging from citizenship to media literacy. Delving into how kids really learn and understand number concepts eventually inspired her to create Talk PlayThink, a web resource for parents interested in raising thinking kids. Visit Jess's site for more articles on thinking skills and hot thinking topics, as well as fun, brainy stuff to do with your kids..

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