The ability to summarize informational text in a clear, concise manner does not come easily to all students. This high-level skill is particularly daunting for students who struggle with reading, oral language and attention.
Assessment data at our Title I elementary school in the Danville Independent school district demonstrated that many students in grades 3-5 lacked the ability to provide a succinct, cohesive summary after reading a passage or text. In order to address this deficit, the instructional coach and 4th–grade language arts teacher developed an action research project that focused on the use of differentiation and scaffolding strategies to improve the students’ ability to summarize.
The project, called “Deepening Content Knowledge through Summarizing Level Text,” was presented at the 2017 Kentucky Reading Association Conference. Our work began in early August after reading data from benchmark assessments (Measures of Academic Progress and Dynamic Indicators Basic Early Literacy Skills) indicated that approximately half of the 50 4th-graders were below grade level in comprehension of informational text, oral reading fluency and retelling fluency (i.e., summarizing). We developed a four-week, intensive unit on summarizing informational text for our learners, beginning with a pre-test on summarizing text in writing.
For the pre-test, students listened to a high-interest informational text read aloud and then were asked to summarize the text in writing. The students’ writing was scored using a holistic rubric that emphasized the importance of the identification of the main idea and supporting details, specific grade-level vocabulary, variety of transitions and restatement of main idea in an interesting way. More than 60 percent of the students’ summaries received a Level 1 (Novice) or Level 2 (Apprentice) score. The data was then used as a springboard for planning the unit.
Each week, an informational text that addressed science or social studies content was assigned during reading stations. Comprehension of the text and progress toward the ability to summarize was developed through a gradual release approach. The gradual release approach shifts the responsibility of the task from the teacher to the learner, often through an “I do, we do, you do” format that builds confidence and competence in the learner.
The following techniques were used to differentiate instruction and scaffold the skill of summarizing informational text.
Empowering Dysfluent Readers
Over the span of the unit, students were asked to read and summarize four books; three were selected by the teachers (“The Biography of Amelia Earhart,” “What Makes Objects Move” and “Dolphin’s First Day”) and one was self-selected by students from a collection.
The teacher-selected texts were audio recorded and posted to the school website for students in need of support to listen along on computers while reading. Providing read-along books as well as leveled books not only made the material accessible to all readers, but it also built fluency in the students by bringing the text within an instructional range of difficulty.
The skill of retelling was modeled orally for the students at several points during the course of the unit through teacher read alouds and modeling. This skill was then transferred to writing through cloze (fill-in-the-blank) summaries of two of the teacher-selected texts. This approach provided a model of the structure and content of a good summary.
The first cloze passage was presented with a word bank and key words missing throughout the passage. The next two cloze passages did not have word banks and were missing phrases instead of single words. This gradual increase in difficulty shifted the cognitive load to the students over time and allowed them to build confidence with summarizing.
For two texts presented in the unit, graphic organizers were provided to help students organize and plan their thinking. Students were given a chart that broke up book sections by page numbers and prompted them to state a main idea for that section.
To motivate students and provide a model for others, the ShowMe app was used for the final product. ShowMe allows student to take pictures or draw representations, then record narration to accompany the visual. Exemplar ShowMe presentations of the books were shared with the whole group to demonstrate how to clearly and concisely summarize text.
The final task for the students prior to the administration of the post-test was the deconstruction of student exemplars. The holistic rubric used during the pre-test was reviewed and students were asked to use highlighters to identify the following elements in anonymous peer writing samples: topic sentence, supporting details, transitional phrases, key vocabulary and closing statement. Student exemplars that demonstrated varying levels of understanding were shared. We were pleased to see that students were able to identify key components of a good summary in their classmates’ writing and were hopeful that this would transfer to their own writing.
Once again, a high-interest informational text was read aloud to the class and the students were asked to summarize the text in their own words. The results of the post-test demonstrated significant gains over the course of the unit.
On the pretest, just 36 percent of students scored a level 3 (Proficient) or a level 4 (Distinguished). On the post-test, however, almost 60 percent of the students reached a level 3 or 4. We noted significant growth in the students’ ability to identify the main idea in a book and provide details to support the topic. However, we noted that the majority of the class still needs to work on the skill of incorporating high-level vocabulary and transitional phrases.
We feel that the gradual release of responsibility for summarizing text was critical to our students’ success. With each experience, students gained confidence in their ability to summarize text. For those who have deficits in reading, oral language or attention, we recommend providing audio-recorded stories, leveled texts, cloze summaries and graphic organizers. Summarizing is an essential skill for college and career readiness and requires explicit, intentional instruction for many learners.
Jennifer Green is a National Board Certified Teacher with 25 years of experience teaching and coaching in elementary schools across the country. At Hogsett Elementary School (Danville Independent), she focuses on literacy in grades K-5 and co-teaches with colleagues to plan units of instruction that address the diverse needs of all learners.
Jennifer Holman has been teaching in the Danville Independent schools for nine years. She earned her bachelor’s in elementary education from Eastern Kentucky University and master’s in education (literary specialist) from the University of the Cumberlands.