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Teaching Students How to Summarize (PODCAST)

Choice Literacy

Emily Kissner is a self-described "summary freak," and the author of Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking. In this podcast with Heather Rader, she talks about her favorite strategies for teaching summary skills to students.

If you would prefer to download a free copy of the podcast, you can access it through Choice Literacy Podcasts at the iTunes store.

A full transcript is below the player. 

 Heather Rader: As a self-proclaimed summary freak, what is your new thinking on summarizing? 


Emily Kissner: Well, it's not really new thinking, but the idea of mental models has been really interesting to me over the past year or so, and it's helped me to think about what's going wrong when kids can't produce a good summary. A mental model is a reader's mental version of the main ideas in the text, and a lot of my kids are reading at the surface level and that means they're not making that mental model. And so when they summarize they tend to use some of those really ineffective strategies like copy and delete, and so part of what I realized is I need to work on building that strong mental model by having them do visualizing, and making inferences, and build background knowledge so that they can have that model of the text so that then, when it comes time to summarize, they have an easier time of it.

Heather Rader: Wow. So when you talked about copy and delete, you know, some of the more surface level strategies, what are they doing when they're doing copy and delete? What does that look like?

Emily Kissner: Well, I got the chance to observe this in my own classroom this afternoon. It was a group of three boys who had read a chapter book, just a very short, little one, and they were looking through, trying to write a summary, and they were going page by page, and they were thinking, "Well, we need to put what's on this page, but we don't need to put what's on this page." And so they were really -

Heather Rader: Oh. I see.

Emily Kissner: Looking at it at a very surface level of going page by page instead of, "What's in my head? What's the story as a whole and how can I communicate that to a reader?"

Heather Rader: That's great. Thanks for clarifying that. That makes a lot of sense. And I know in the introduction of your book you write, "So I was faced with teaching something that I couldn't explain and couldn't assess." So talk us through your early discoveries about summarizing so we have a sense of how you started.

Emily Kissner: I feel like I've come so far since then, and that's a good feeling. Well, when I went through school reading skills like summarizing were kind of taught through the assign and grade method. We were told to write a summary, and we wrote it, and we turned it in and got a grade on it. And somehow I figured out how to summarize, but I couldn't really explain how to do it to anyone. So then when I went back and I found some of the research, like discussions of some of the implicit rules that readers use for summary -- for summarizing, I was able to make some sense of what my kids were producing. So, then, I could see some patterns in it. Instead of just saying, "Oh, my gosh. This entire class couldn't write a summary," I could say, "Well, you know, these kids were using the copy and delete strategy, but these kids were using chronological order text structure when that wasn't the structure of the text, and then these kids weren't able to collapse lists." And so I got to notice how it wasn't all just bad. There were little differences there. And that took me to my next steps, like I could see, "Okay. They're not using the text structure. Well, what does research say about whether kids can use text structure and what they should know about text structure?" And so I was able to kind of find out what I didn't know, and then research from there and learn more about summarizing.

Heather Rader: To create a common language for all of us, thinking about the title of your book, how do you differentiate between summarizing, retelling, and paraphrasing?

Emily Kissner: This is a tough question, and I -- Sometimes I feel a little worried about this because I'm not the arbiter of summarizing terms, and there really is no one answer to this. But what I like to think of with paraphrasing is that it's when you put an author's ideas into your own words, and you can do it with a whole text or you can even do it with just a part of a text. And sometimes there will be a paraphrased version of the text that will be longer than the original text. Last night I was helping my son, who's in first grade, to make a little microwave food, and I was paraphrasing the directions to him because he could read them but it was so short and so terse he couldn't make a whole lot of sense of them. So it would say something like, "Remove contents from wrapper," and I'd paraphrase that to, "Well, you need to take it out of the wrapper. And that's what that means." I -- On the other hand, retelling really should reflect the whole text, and I like to think of it as being something that's an oral activity. And I know there are people who do written retellings, but to me a retelling really has its value when it's spoken because of that shift of ideas from the written to the verbal that helps readers to make so much sense of what's there in the text. And then summarizing has both a narrow meaning and more of a broad meaning. As I was writing the book, the narrow meaning that I was thinking of is that summarizing is that process of creating that shortened version of the original text. In the past few years it's come into some broader use where people are using it to describe any time you use that overarching thinking, when you're collapsing lists, when you're transforming ideas, and when you're saying something -- when you're putting a bigger picture idea on your thinking. So there's both a narrow, you know -- writing that summary. And there's the more broad, any kind of that transformational thinking.

Heather Rader: And I'm sure that as kids are working through summarizing they're moving along that maturity continuum, too. When they start off it can be just that beginning part of, "Oh. It's a shortened version." And then they can move deeper into that bigger, more overarching thinking piece.

Emily Kissner: Right. And, you know, I changed all my summary rubrics this year. And part of it was because I had originally thought it was really important for them to, you know, reflect the ideas in the text in the order in which they appear, but when you're working with some more sophisticated texts, like, for instance, a text that has flashbacks or that uses other narrative techniques or even an expository text, sometimes there'll be a text that'll lead up to a big idea. Sometimes a really skillful reader will summarize those by transforming those ideas and, maybe, to write a clear summary, changing the order around in a way that still makes sense and reflects that big idea. And so I kind of needed to change -- tweak my rubrics a bit to reflect that.

Heather Rader: Oh. That's so great. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense for how to let the different text structures actually fit better for summarizing. And I -- That word, transforming, I think is a really good one too. So one of the more challenging aspects of summarizing that I've found is to help students understand which details are important to keep and which ones need to be deleted. So, in connecting back, that overarching versus what are the things that were just really interesting to them. So what are some strategies that you use to support their learning?

Emily Kissner: One of the things that I started to do after I started teaching fourth grade was I found I needed something very concrete for that, and I found with the younger the kids you have, the harder it is for them to write out things. So I thought, "Okay. What if I put the ideas from the text on little cards, and then they could put them in order to reflect how they appeared in the text, and then sort them more important, less important." And this is really helpful to them because physically sorting was much easier and a lot more forgiving than having to write things out. And when I found out, as a teacher, the kind of conversations they were having as they were doing this, it really told me a lot about what they were thinking and what rules they were using. It took that invisible process that goes on in a reader's head and -- You know, they had something physical to touch and to feel, and once they had their lists of important ideas from the text, once they'd sorted their little cards, they really had the basics of a good summary. For some of my kids with working memory problems, this really helped them because they don't have as much mental work space in their brain to hold all of the ideas at once, and having them physically there for them in front of them kind of freed them up to then think, "Well, what is important? What's not important?"

Heather Rader: Oh. That's so great. Makes me want to run out and try it tomorrow. It's such a wonderful scaffold for that.

Emily Kissner: Now, the first time I tried it I didn't have them put it in order first. So what I learned from that is first you've got to have them put them in the order that they appear in the text.

Heather Rader: Sure.

Emily Kissner: And then sort more important, less important.

Heather Rader: Well, and just that -- Even that process of sorting and resorting for different purposes, you know, that's great thinking right there. 

Emily Kissner: And I found some of them couldn't put them in the order in which they appeared in the text, and then that told me a whole new area of sequencing.

Heather Rader: Yeah.

Emily Kissner: So we've got to work on this, because how can they build a mental model if they can't even find their way through the text?

Heather Rader: Right. And you know that's where they're starting from. Well, one of the takeaways -- One of the many takeaways I got from your book was really, you know, how complex summarizing is, and not in any way impossible to teach. But understanding the complexity has really helped me understand why we struggle to teach it, and why kids struggle too. And so if someone says to you, you know, "Why is summarizing such a big deal?" how do you respond?

Emily Kissner: Well, now I can always say, "Because the Common Core says so."

Heather Rader: There you go.

Emily Kissner: Summarizing comes up very much starting in fourth grade. It's there in both reading for literature and reading -- you know, and reading informational texts. But, of course, that's not a good reason, in and of itself. Part of the reason why summarizing is so important is just that the act of summarizing can help readers to improve reading comprehension because just that struggle of thinking, "Well, what's important? How is this piece put together? How can I paraphrase it and put it into my own words," all of that is really powerful stuff and that's what we want our students to be doing. But then there's also that thinking of summarizing as making sense of everyday life, and people are actually reading a lot more, not just the actual physical texts but through, like, text messages and tweets and blogs, and you've got to summarize to be able to put all of this together into something.

Heather Rader: Oh yeah.

Emily Kissner: And I was reading an article that estimated that there are 295 exobites of information on Earth, which is 315 times more than the number of sand grains. And in order to make sense of anything you've got to be able to summarize and think, "Well, what is the big idea here? How can I put this into my own words?" And that, I think, is kind of the next step for summarizing: thinking about how it fits in with those twenty-first century skills. Because what I'm trying to do in my classroom is not just do the basic read a page, write a summary, but looking at summarizing texts with some different medium like videos, and then even looking at content that has a mix of different things and trying to synthesize and then summarize that. And that's really going to be a challenge, I think, but it's one we're going to have to do a lot of -- do a lot with in our classrooms in the next 10 years or so.

Heather Rader: Yeah. Absolutely. So when you work with teachers that are brand new to summarizing, where do you start? What are some of the first steps you take?

Emily Kissner: My first suggestion is to give kids a short text, just one page or so, and have them write a summary, and see what happens. I've taught at different schools across different districts, and I've seen that different classes all have various ways of approaching the task. And so once you know your learners and kind of where they're coming from, then you can really figure out where to go from there. And then base your next step on what the kids are producing. If you think that kids aren't really capturing the main ideas, it's really helpful to step back into retelling. I think it's always easier to prune a summary that's too long than to try to, like, put a growth elixir on a summary that's too short.

Heather Rader: Yeah.

Emily Kissner: Because they have to be producing something. And so when they've got those really, really short little summaries that don't really say much, then I like to take them back to retelling, and sometimes we'll even use little figures or pictures from the text to retell. It works just as well with nonfiction as with fiction. And then they've got that. They've got more of that mental model there. They have more of the ideas from the text. Now, if the kids are getting main ideas but they have summaries that sound awkward, what I've found is choosing the best summary activities are fabulous. I usually put like four boxes on a page. One has a good summary in it. And then I write three other summaries that represent some of the common errors that I'm seeing in kids at the time. So I might have one that puts a lot of opinions in or I might include one summary that only talks about -- only focuses on one section of the text instead of the text as a whole. And then what I'm doing with kids this week is they're writing summaries in small groups. And what I like to do is kind of walk around and, you know, have my clipboard, but I look like I'm not really paying attention but I'm really listening to their conversations because their misconceptions about summarizing are just fascinating. And they'll say to each other what they won't come up and say to me. And sometimes I find that some of their confusions are just, like, artifacts of what else we're doing in the classroom. Like we had done an inference chart the week before, and then kids were summarizing and some of them were kind of confusing the two and they weren't really sure what it was that they needed to do.

Heather Rader: Sure.

Emily Kissner: But when they were talking to each other about that, then I could say, "Okay. I've got to fix that in my instructions, figure out a way to make it really much more explicit to them the difference between a summary and some of the other reading tasks that we do." For some teachers that's a challenging thing because they're like, "Oh my goodness. I've been teaching this for two weeks and they still think this?"

Heather Rader: Yes.

Emily Kissner: But, you know, sometimes I see that there is a great chasm between what we think we teach and what the kids actually learn, and I like to find out as much as I can about what the kids are thinking so that I can try to bridge that chasm because, you know, after 15 years I know it's going to be there. I can't hide from it. All I can do is kind of find ways to fix it up and try to build a bridge across it.

Heather Rader: That's so great. Well, Emily I've appreciated all of your thinking around summarizing. I loved your book for a long time, and so the opportunity to get to talk with you and get some of my personal curiosities answered has been wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing with us.

Emily Kissner: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.


Choice Literacy