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Getting Down to Essentials

By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association

December 2001

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 don’t just repeat what the text said. In addition they offer their personal “take” on a selection: “That’s 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 reader’s perspective.

The Strategy

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 reader’s 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 of synthesis.

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 yesterday’s 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 texts.
  • 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 don’t 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

Education News