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A Sponge is a Summary

Heather Rader

When I'm working with a concept that I know may be difficult to grasp, I like to hook kids' attention with a metaphor or an analogy. While doing the dishes, I thought about how a sponge holds water, but when you squeeze it, you are left with the right amount of dampness to wipe down a counter. The point of a sponge is to be moist without being over-saturated. Aha, I thought: a sponge is a summary. We take hold of saturated text and squeeze out all the unnecessary details, keeping only what we need to get the idea across. Although there are limitations to my metaphor, it seems to work for kids until they come up with their own connections.

I'm admittedly a keep-Marzano-by-the-bedside kind of gal, so when a teaching team asked me to come work with them around summarization, I knew just where to turn. "Research tells us that effective summaries involve deleting, substituting, and keeping some information, and that to carry out these processes well, students must analyze the information they are working with in a complex way" (from A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works by Marzano, Norford, Paynter, Pickering and Gaddy).

Talking with the team, I explained the process of rule-based summarization, and asked what students already knew about summaries.

"Not much," was the team's response.

In one of the classrooms of 23 students the results to our pre-assessment were as follows:

"I've never heard of a summary and I can't do it." 0/23

"I've heard of a summary before, but not sure if I can do it." 9/23

"I know the definition of summary and I can summarize." 14/23

How they summarized the nonfiction passage we provided was most telling and helped us plan the next steps in instruction.

Summary of Misconceptions

The nonfiction passage we chose was about George Washington Carver's early life. The paragraph focused on two key ideas - that he loved plants and going to school during that time was difficult for him.

Student Sample #1: The Wordy Summary

One student wrote as many sentences in a summary as existed in the original piece. "I didn't want to leave anything out," Clare told me when turning it in. Misconception #1: Retell and summary are the same thing.

Most people agree: A summary should be shorter than the original text. It is performed speedily and without ceremony. Most students got this idea, but this was an easy misconception that we could clear up for those that didn't.

Student Sample #2: Repeat the First Sentence

Carver was born in Missouri around 1864.

Misconception #2: You can always find a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph. It's usually first. 

Most people agree: Many texts do not have an explicit topic sentence that captures the main idea of the passage. If such a sentence exists, it's usually not the first sentence. Richard Braddock from the University of Iowa studied contemporary writing in 1974 and found "only 45% of topic sentences were traditional, simple topic sentences." I remember learning in school that the first sentence will tell you what the paragraph is going to be about. While that was true for all the paragraphs we read designed for the task, in real life, it would be true less than half of the time.

Student Sample #3: Topic Collector

George Washington Carver's life is what this is about.

Misconception #3: Topics and main ideas are the same thing.

Most people agree: While the topic of the nonfiction passage was about George Washington Carver's life, the main idea was that he loved plants and that it was difficult for him to go to school to study them. Summaries should be simple, but not so simple that the main idea is skipped.

Student Sample #4: Text-to-Self Connector 

George Washington Carver was our first president. I didn't know it but he knew a lot about plants. I wouldn't have liked it if I couldn't go to school. He should've been able to do whatever he wanted.

Misconception #4:Personal opinions and connections matter more than the text. 

Most people agree: In many aspects of literacy the text-to-self connection is important; however, everything you need to write a summary is already there in the text. Like a good therapist, there is no need to personally disclose while summarizing. A summary should include the main ideas of the text -- not the ones you (as the summarizer) think you know, agree with or like the best. In this student sample, the erroneous "Washington as president" elaboration came from something the reader thought he knew and took him away from what was actually written. 

Who is This Teacher and Why Does She Have a Bucket?

Armed with a better understanding of what was difficult for these students, I planned my introductory lesson. Walking in with a bucket, sponge, chart and marker, the students were curious to see what I was up to. When they were gathered at my feet I dipped the sponge in the bucket and said, "This is a sponge," and then I squeezed the water out and said, "I'm summarizing." They reached to feel the damp sponge and I continued, "This is a summary. A sponge is a summary. Stay tuned. You'll be able to tell me why at the end of the lesson."

I told them we'd be using some rules to summarize. We made up kinesthetic motions for:

Keep (pull hands in to chest)

Delete (push hands away from body)

Substitute (cross hands to show movement)

Choose or write (miming pointing and writing)

Then I showed them a paragraph from a recent Time for Kids article written on the chart paper and read it aloud. In my think aloud, I noted how the author seemed to have a main idea about the how the Amazon rainforest was getting smaller and how that was not a good thing. Circling, four key words/ideas I chose to keep:

Amazon rainforest

The rest of the passage I crossed out. "This is what I'm going to delete."

There was no need to substitute in that particular paragraph, but I gave them an example. "If the author wrote 'Birds, reptiles, and amphibians are affected by the loss of forest.' I could substitute the word 'animals' and collapse the list of birds, reptiles and amphibians."

Finally it was time to choose or write. We studied the first sentence and concluded that it did not capture the main idea. "Most paragraphs will not have the main idea stated in one sentence, and less than half the time in the first one. Summaries are shorter than the original text." I wrote my summary sentence from the key words and ideas we kept:

In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is shrinking because of deforestation which is the loss of trees.

At that point I stopped and had them turn knee-to-knee with a partner and explain how I applied the four rules of summarization in that paragraph. I smiled as they pointed at the chart, used the kinesthetic reminders of the rules, and explained how I'd summarized.

During that 50-minute introduction we only got through three paragraphs. For the second paragraph, I asked them for help with what to keep and delete. When they suggested keeping small details, I had them look closely at what the author wanted us to keep that was most important. "Remember," I said, "we pull ourselves out of this. It's not what we think is most interesting or important, we are looking to summarize the author's words."

A hand shot up, "Are you going to substitute where it says 'farmers, ranchers and loggers'?"

"I am," I said, pleased with the application. We decided 'workers' would suffice.

When it was time for the third paragraph, I handed out clipboards, and they circled and crossed out words and phrases as we discussed them. On the blank lines below we wrote our summary sentence. As the lesson drew to a close, we put our three summary sentences together and I said, "The summary is often in the same order as the original text."

At that point I pulled my bucket back out. "This is a sponge." I squeezed the water out and said, "I'm summarizing" and finally, "This is a summary. A sponge is a summary. Why?"

They turned back to their partners and discussed before we shared out in whole group.

"Well, the water you are squeezing out is like the words we are deleting from the paragraph."

"What else?"

"You kept some of the water in the sponge, just like we kept some of the words."

"What else?"

"You didn't add anything else to the summary sponge. It's just water. Like we aren't supposed to add other things we know or what we think is most interesting."

"What else?"

"The sponge and the summary both have a job to do?"

"Wow, you readers and writers really soaked this up, didn't you?" They smiled and groaned.

The sponge lesson is just the beginning, the hook, to explicitly teach how to summarize by gradually releasing the process to the students as they move toward independence. As the text becomes more difficult, so does the process of summarizing. Switching from nonfiction to fiction requires explicitly teaching a different summary approach. 

It's been two years since I worked with this group of teachers and students. Recently I was in the building and a student pointed to me and said, "You are Mrs. Rader, right?" I said I was. As he walked away he said to his buddy, "She summarizes with sponges."


Heather Rader

Heather Rader is an instructional coach in Washington State. Her Choice Literacy publications include the book Side By Side: Short Takes on Best Practice for Teachers & Literacy Leaders and the DVD On the Same Page. You can find her "Coach to Coach" blog at www.heatherrader.com.