Getting Down to Essentials
By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association
Consider for a moment a team of scientists sifting through
mounds of data from a host of experiments. Amidst this wealth of information,
the group of researchers must decide: What does all this mean?
Eventually, after carefully examining and analyzing their data, they will
be able to develop an interpretation, a theory, a definition of the
big picture that emerges from all the disparate slivers of detail.
These scientists, like proficient readers, are able to synthesize.
When proficient readers talk about a piece of meaningful
text a discussion about a newspaper article, for example, or a
book club chat about a novel they dont just repeat what the
text said. In addition they offer their personal take on a
selection: Thats not the way I read it. This is
what I think the author was getting at. I think the character
acted this way because . . . . Synthesizing takes place when a reader
steps back from a text, sums up what is important, and goes on to make
a generalization, create an interpretation, draw a conclusion, posit an
explanation. In essence, proficient readers pause periodically, reflect,
ponder the meaning of a text, and then eventually exclaim, Aha!
I get it!
One key component of synthesizing is summarizing. Students
tend to have a difficult time summarizing what they read. Typically, students
may produce a string of disconnected pieces of information or segments
of a story, but overlook major themes or main ideas. Synthesizing combines
summarizing the ability to focus on the most important ideas and
information with a readers perspective.
Summarizing is a complex activity and involves condensing
information to main ideas in order to establish the gist of a text. To
summarize, a reader must identify the most important ideas and omit details
of lesser significance. An effective summary also includes paraphrasing
reinterpreting what was read, in the readers own words.
The ability to summarize has developmental characteristics.
Students become more able to handle this type of thinking as they move
through the grades. The following steps can help students become more
adept at summarizing, and thus lay the groundwork for a personal synthesis
from a text.
Step 1: As a prelude to summarizing, ask students
to retell what they have read. Initial retellings, especially with younger
students or struggling readers, can take on a rambling quality, a clear
indicator that the teller has not yet developed the facility to cut
to the chase. Likewise, some retellings may be unduly terse; too
much is left out.
To help students focus during retellings, emphasize
that all important elements or ideas need to be included, and that smaller
details can be left out. When they are done, their retelling should make
sense to the listener. Students may also splice in personal commentary
and reflections, so that their summaries begin to incorporate other aspects
Paired reviews can be an excellent classroom vehicle
for retellings. Have partners take turns retelling what they have been
reading (or even watching in a video or listening during a classroom presentation).
Provide time parameters (say, a 2-minute pause) to prompt students to
concentrate on critical points and avoid irrelevant details.
Step 2: Asking students to express their thinking
in writing is a critical step in teaching them to summarize. Writing helps
students realize what they have learned, and it provides them with a visual
record of their thinking. Writing also allows students the opportunity
to continue to refine their thinking as they revisit their thoughts on
paper to clarify and expand their understandings.
Oral paraphrasing practice can help students become
comfortable with composing written summaries. Students also need to witness
teacher modeling of summarizing. Daily classroom activity provides numerous
opportunities for teachers to model and students to practice summarizing.
You can summarize yesterdays lesson, a short text read aloud, or
a news item shared with the class. Students can likewise be solicited
to summarize classroom lessons, or give brief accounts of textbook sections.
Learning log journal entries provide an excellent transition
into written summaries. Classroom journaling encourages students to be
more preoccupied with the dynamics of summarizing rather than the mechanics
of writing. Later, you can move students to more formal written summaries.
Consider the following guidelines for summary writing activities:
- Have students summarize brief passages before moving to more extended
- Stress that key vocabulary terms should be integrated into the summary.
It may be beneficial to brainstorm before writing to determine key terms
that should be included in a successful summary.
- At first, allow students access to texts they are summarizing. This
reduces the burden of remembering information and focuses on the skill
of summarizing. Eventually, students can be asked to create written
summaries from memory.
- Move from relatively unstructured summaries to more structure.
- After writing, solicit sharing of summaries, with partners, or with
the entire class. Students may also meet in peer editing groups to further
revise and refine their summaries prior to sharing or handing them in
as a written assignment.
Step 3: Summarizing leads naturally to synthesizing, which involves
personal judgments and critical responses. Synthesizing can be modeled
to children by using an analogy, such as cooking. Cooks read recipes and
assemble ingredients to prepare a food item, a cake for instance. But
the recipes dont always turn out exactly the same, because each
individual person adds a personal touch.
Some cooks turn out to be great chefs because of their ability to bring
their own ideas and experiences into the mix as they work from a recipe.
Posted December 4, 2001