Summarization – More Difficult Than it Seems

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Massachusetts fourth graders had to read Strongest of All by Pleasant DeSpain as part of the English Language Arts portion of the 2012 MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exam.  The passage was broken up into 29 paragraphs  with only 582 words – about the length of a typical blog post (this one is a bit wordy).  Different from the multiple choice reading comprehension questions, question 6 asked:

Based on the folktale, explain the most likely reason the author states that “Rabbit was the strongest of all.” Support your answer with important details from the folktale.

Whoa!!  This is something that you can’t flip back to ascertain, because although the answer is factual it requires that you summarize in your own words – what happened that led to this outcome or conclusion.  In other words, comprehend what you read.

According to California middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron, this skill is more difficult than it seems. She says that when she asks her students to summarize, they infuse their voice and opinion. But a summary is just the opposite – it is the distillation of the bare facts of the story without the extra words and/or emotion.  Webster’s calls a summary the “general idea in brief form”.  When you ask your students to summarize, you want them to

  • extrapolate main ideas
  • identify key details
  • demonstrate understanding and usage of key words and phrases
  • disseminate the larger ideas
  • convey the point of the passage
  • take concise but thorough notes

But instead, they

  • write too much
  • don’t write enough
  • write entire thoughts instead of succinct points
  • focus on extraneous details
  • don’t write enough about important details
  • transcribe the passage

Summarization is a skill that we use from the time we are able to articulate thoughts.  Ever come to break up two fighting siblings?  The first thing you ask is “What happened?” They don’t replay the entire 20 minutes that led up to the fisticuffs, rather they tell you succinctly who did what to whom and this is where we landed.  That is summarization.  Or what about Property Brothers on HGTV? (Love that show and those twins!!) They work on a project for weeks at a time, but shrink wrap the start to finish into a 30 minute segment.  They further condense their activities into a 3 minute summary of what they did, room by room with before and after pictures.  How was your day?  Answered with summarization.  How was your meal? Not answered as Robertson Davies did in The Rebel Angels – “We’ll top off with lots and lots of cheese; the goatiest and messiest you have, because I like my cheese opinionated. We’ll need at least a loaf of that crusty Italian bread, unsalted butter, some green stuff – a really good belch-lifting radish, if you have such a thing – and some garlic butter to rub on this and that, as we need it. Coffee nicely frothed.” You just summarize and say it was good.

Given that we will need to properly summarize a multitude of situations in our personal, professional, and- in the case of these and most other students- educational lives, it’s probably best if we figure out a way to teach this deceptively challenging skill.

ReadingQuest.org offers the following suggestions:

  • After students have used selective underlining on a selection, have them turn the sheet over or close the handout packet and attempt to create a summary paragraph of what they can remember of the key ideas in the piece. They should only look back at their underlining when they reach a point of being stumped. They can go back and forth between writing the summary and checking their underlining several times until they have captured the important ideas in the article in the single paragraph.
  • Have students write successively shorter summaries, constantly refining and reducing their written piece until only the most essential and relevant information remains. They can start off with half a page; then try to get it down to two paragraphs; then one paragraph; then two or three sentences; and ultimately a single sentence.
  • Teach students to go with the newspaper mantra: have them use the key words or phrases to identify only Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
  • Take articles from the newspaper, and cut off their headlines. Have students practice writing headlines for (or matching the severed headlines to) the “headless” stories.
  • Sum It Up: Pat Widdowson of Surry County Schools in North Carolina shared this very cool strategy with me. How’s it work? You have students imagine they are placing a classified ad or sending a telegram, where every word used costs them money. Tell them each word costs 10 cents, and then tell them they can spend “so much.” For instance, if you say they have $2.00 to spend, then that means they have to write a summary that has no more than 20 words. You can adjust the amount they have to spend, and therefore the length of the summary, according to the text they are summarizing. Consider setting this up as a learning station, with articles in a folder that they can practice on whenever they finish their work early or have time when other students are still working.

If you are a parent who wants to help your child with summarization, try watching a television show together and asking your child to tell you what happened.  Or, if your child really struggles with summarization or any other English Language Arts standards, consider afterschool tutoring.  In the Dorchester, MA area, I recommend Ann’s Christian Learning Center.

Good Luck, and here’s to the extinction of verbose summarizations!!

 


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