Parent Tips · Reading · Teaching

Things Good Readers Do: Summarize

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We’re coming down to the last couple of blog posts in this (admittedly long) series!

So far, in part 1, we’ve covered habits that good readers form, and in part 2, we’ve discussed strategies that good readers use automatically when reading.

In part 2, we’ve been using the acronym SQP2RS as a loose guide, saying that visualizing and making connections are things that we do as the 2Rs (reading and responding).

Today, we come to the last strategy we will talk about in this series, even though this list of strategies is certainly not exhaustive:


What is summarizing?

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

Okay, y’all probably are rolling your eyes at the heading, thinking, “I know what summarizing is! I went to school!”

Bear with me just a moment.

Summarizing is actually reeeeeeeeeally hard for kids to learn. It’s also challenging to teach!

Let’s begin by defining what we’re talking because that tends to be helpful for clear communication.

Here’s how I define summarizing for my students:

Summarizing is telling a shorter version of the important parts of the story/text in your own words.

You can think of a summary as giving the bird’s-eye view of the text: you don’t need all the details; just the big picture. It doesn’t mean the details aren’t important. Rather, the details enrich the story or text and give a deeper understanding.

However, when a person can summarize what they read, it means they were able to get into all the details and still manage to zoom out to understand the overall message.

Why teach this?

As I said before, summarizing is actually a tricky skill for students to learn, but it is really important for comprehension.

Why is it so important?

If a reader can’t tell the main points about what happened or what the text was about in their own words after finishing, they probably didn’t actually understand what they read. It’s like being able to list all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, but not knowing that when you mix them and bake them, they actually make a delicious treat.

A child’s summary gives you, the teacher or grownup, a really good clue as to how much they understood and where the holes are in their comprehension. That’s a really important tool you can use to guide your teaching/helping of your young reader!

It’s important to teach how to do this because kids don’t automatically learn how to do this on their own. Yet being able to summarize is also an important skill that they will use their whole life long.

They might pick up on how to do it from keen observation, but they really need to be explicitly taught two important parts of summarizing:

  1. Identifying what counts as an important part of the story/text.
  2. Telling the events in chronological order.

If you’re not a reading teacher, you’d be amazed how many students struggle to tell a story in chronological order, with all the important parts, in their own words.

Actually, consider how well you do recounting a story of something that happened to you, in a shorter version, including all the important parts without backtracking! I know plenty of adults who struggle to identify what all they need to tell their audience in order for them to understand what happened, without saying, “Oh wait, before I tell you that part, let me explain this…”.

Teaching kids to summarize is a way to set them up for success both as a reader and as a person in general.

How I teach this

I struggled to teach this for the first several years of my career – and I still think I have room for improvement. I kept wondering why kids didn’t understand the concept of summarizing until I read This Reading Mama‘s suggestions on the topic. Her blog is such an excellent resource for both classroom teachers and homeschooling parents on teaching reading to young ones.

What really got me was that I have to teach kids how to determine what is an important part before they’ll ever get how to summarize a text.

Again, we have to do lots of modeling and lots of practice before kids get it. The longer or more complex a text is, the more challenging it will be to summarize.

Determining what is important really comes down to understanding the plot of the story. So I teach summarizing concurrently, or at least right after, when I teach about plot elements. This helps kids summarize in chronological order while also determining importance.

Once they know and are practicing identifying the main conflict in the story, I always come back to this question to help them determine if something is important enough to include in their summary:

Is this event/detail helping solve the main problem in the story?

If the answer is no, then kids need to realize it’s not important enough to include in their summary. If the answer is yes, then they do need to include it.

However, this can be a little tricky, because sometimes a whole bunch of details, when added together, are important for summarizing – but not each individual one.

For example, in the story Enemy Pie, kids might say, “They played with his boomerang.”

And I’ll say, “Does that help solve the main conflict?”

And one kid, at least, will say, “Well yes, because it’s part of what he has to do for the enemy pie to work.”

And I’ll say, “But they also played x, y, and z. Do we need to include all of those?”

Some kids will say yes. Some will probably say no.

The problem with including all of those is that turns into retelling the whole story, not summarizing and making it a shorter version.

So I explain that we need to group some details together to make it a shorter version.

For example, saying, “The main character and his enemy played all sorts of things together, like ___ and ___” so they’re giving examples in the summary, but not retelling every detail.

The grouping together of details and saying it more generally (instead of getting into specifics) is really tough. Model, model, model how to do this and let students practice, practice, practice. Guide them as they practice to group things together into one sentence, with only giving one or two specific examples.

I highly recommend, when teaching a new skill, to use a shorter text and one that is familiar for the initial lesson.

One way I do this is to use the same book to teach plot and then to teach summarizing. That way, I can read the text through again to the kids, but they already know what’s coming. The read-through is just a quick refresher on what happens when.

I tend to use Enemy Pie to teach both because it has a clear exposition, rising action, very clear climax, and nice resolution (though very short). Then, too, it has a bunch of details, as mentioned earlier, that make for a good “group together example.”

When initially working on a summary, I have students list things that are important and we write them down on the board.

I haven’t ever tried doing this, but I think using a graphic organizer to show how to group details together could be really effective. I made one really quickly that might be helpful for you. Click on the image to get a copy of the graphic organizer, and feel free to edit as you please!

Generally, we write the first summary together, and then I have them practice other summaries throughout the year and give them feedback.

This is most definitely a skill that requires practice all throughout the year(s) and not just a once a year unit.

Tips for Grownups at Home

Photo by olia danilevich on

Grownups can definitely help kiddos learn to identify what is important to the plot (and therefore summary) by asking simple questions during and after reading.

For example, for fiction:

  • When finished for that reading session, ask them to say what events were important that they read
  • Ask who the main characters were and what the setting was
  • Ask what the main problem in the story was (the more easily they can identify this, the more quickly they’ll be able to determine which events were truly important to the story)
  • Model how to determine importance by thinking out loud as you read about how a specific part connects to the main conflict: “Wow, my reader brain is thinking that this little detail might be important for Susy as she tries to solve the mystery” or “Oh, I know that the big challenge in this book is reaching their destination, so I’m pretty sure this little problem is important because it’s stopping them from getting there.”

For nonfiction:

  • Ask what the text was mainly telling about (this is the main idea)
  • Ask for some of the supporting details, but in a generalized manner.
    • For instance, if the main idea is the life cycle of a butterfly, kids could add the supporting details of the names of the cycles, but leave out the details that explains what each one is.
    • If the main idea is describing a specific culture, the child can add supporting details about food, clothing, and holidays – but generalize without giving details upon details.

Once kids are advanced enough that they’re not reading with you all the time, you can ask the same types of questions. It will feel more authentic for them, too, if they’re summarizing a story that you haven’t read.

Even if you’re not familiar with the story, you can tell if they’re summarizing well because it will sound cohesive to you. If there are holes, or they’re not able to recall something important (like a main character’s name), that might be a sign they’re not comprehending it thoroughly. Rereading, or at least skimming, can sometimes help them put the pieces together better.

The biggest thing is to have them practice this type of thinking. They won’t get it right away (and maybe not even for several years), but the more often you come back to it and practice it, the more their brains will start to be able to synthesize the information and determine what is truly important to the crux of a story or text.

Previous posts in this series:
Series Introduction
Part 1: Habits of Good Readers
Finding Just Right Books
Abandoning Books
Setting Goals & Tracking Reading
Make it a Habit
Talk About Books
Part 2: Strategies of Good Readers
Skim and Scan
Predict and Question
Make Connections

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