Students break longer selections into smaller parts and summarize each part in as few words as possible. By summarizing in this headline-writing fashion, readers sort out main ideas from details of a text.
- I can break the reading into smaller parts.
- I can summarize the parts as I read.
Getting started: What is a summary?
What is a summary and what is a retelling? Stay with me here! The answer is not as easy as it looks.
I started my search to distinguish between retelling and summarizing by consulting the K-2 assessment in my state. Retelling is defined there as telling a story from one's point of view. When teachers listen to students retell, we (either mentally or literally) tick off key points: main characters, understanding of character and sequence of plot. The student pretty much tells the whole story, not in a memorized rendition, but in her own words.
However, that sounded like a summary to me. I was confused because I associate summary with the book-jacket kind. To me, it seems like publishing companies retell when they condense stories to the main characters, setting, and main points (beginning and middle, but not end).
Next, I turned to Mosaic of Thought by Keene and Zimmermann (p 231). They wrote, "... we are asking for a succinct retelling of the key points of the text in the order in which they were presented." Huh? So, a summary is shorter than a retelling?
I continued my investigation. I checked the Merriam-Webster dictionary: Retelling is defined as "telling a story in one's own words." And, Harvey and Goudvis' considered a retelling to be "a more detailed summary" in their book Strategies That Work.
As a result of my study, I decided to use these definitions in my classrooms:
- Retelling - a detailed telling of the story in one's own words that includes characters, setting and plot told in sequence. It is an in-depth re-accounting of the facts.
- Summarizing - the gist. Webster defines it as "covering the main points succinctly." A summary is a statement of the main idea of the story, its very essence, its core - "in just a sentence or two (Harvey & Goudvis)."
Armed with my new understanding, students couldn’t tell me everything when summarizing. Instead, to truly summarize, they must cover the main points succinctly, interpret the details, and boil them down to just the gist. When taught in this way, I understand how summary is a part of synthesis.
We used this new kind of summary I invented. I challenged the students to write summaries in a headline fashion, limiting the students to 3-6 words: "Dog Rescues Man from Burning Building." I didn’t require sentences. If kids had difficulty, I asked them to start by condensing the story to, "WHO, Does WHAT?"
For example, these headline summaries work for the movie Shrek.
- Shrek loves Fiona.
- Shrek finds true love.
- Shrek decides outside beauty doesn’t matter.
So, summarizing became an important strategy when discussing texts, even long novels, nonfiction articles, and textbooks. Apparently, if students can summarize, they can distill large texts down to their very smallest but important crystals, which allows students to store the information in long-term memory.
Thinking about summarizing and retelling might be confusing, especially when talking with colleagues and reading different definitions like I did. Since it is such an important skill, I suggest you work with your co-teachers to create a working definition of summary for your class and school.