Teaching ELs to Summarize and Synthesize Texts

Good readers need to learn to summarize text in order to highlight the important information that they read. In my last blog, I talked about teaching ELs how to determine what is relevant in nonfiction texts. They also need to learn how to pick out what is important in a text when summarizing. Many times children will want to recall every small detail.

Here are some hints for teaching ELs how to summarize a story:

  • After ELs read a text, have them work in pairs to answer two questions:  “who” did “what” in the story.  Pair ELs with proficient English speakers to discuss.
  • Teach words to help ELs sequence events in a story. First, next, last, and then. Brain Pop  has some good lessons to teach this.
  • Allow ELs to use sentence frames  or diagrams to support their learning. Beginning ELs may need to draw pictures of the events in a story.
  • Have ELs write chapter summaries on sticky notes after each page or chapter.  These notes can be combined to summarize the entire story.

Teaching ELs to synthesize information

Synthesizing information is the most advanced of the reading comprehension skills to master. It cannot occur if students don’t master the key vocabulary in a text.  Students need to make connections from the text to other parts of their lives so that they find deeper meaning in a book. It entails making mental pictures of what is happening in the story and listening to the voice in their heads. They also need to ask questions about what they are reading. Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmermann best describe the summarizing/synthesizing process in Mosaic of Thought:

“A synthesis occurs as a reader summarizes what has happened and gives it personal meaning. Good readers know how to s important information and add their own schema to the information that they have learned. They take the new information and incorporate it into their schema.”

Very young students can begin to learn how to synthesize information.  It is best to teach this using a book that they have already read. Let’s look at how Mrs. Perez teaches synthesizing to a second-grade class. When students in Mrs. Perez’s class synthesize information, they do more than retell what they have read. They demonstrate understanding of the reading comprehension strategies that they have used. They retell the story from two points of view. One is based on the experiences that they bring to the reading. The other is based on the experiences of the story’s characters.  According to Stephanie Harvey in Strategies That Work, true synthesis  involves that “Aha” moment  that readers have when they really get the text.

Mrs. Perez has students work with a partner to read the text together. ELLs in her class are paired with native English speakers. Each pair must stop and make comments at the end of each page. They take turns sharing one comment about what they have read. Students think carefully about this comment because they are only allowed one at a time. After one student in the pair comments, the partner is allowed one response. Mrs. Perez has already helped students learn language to use in making their comments, such as  “This reminds me of…”, “I felt that…”, and  “I didn’t understand it when…”  Students write down their comments after they have each had a turn.

With a partner, students draw four pictures to depict the main events in a story.  They label each picture with a sentence.   They then incorporate their comments on the story pages by drawing a picture for each. They then insert those pictures into the sequence.

This is the last of a five-part series on helping ELs develop reading comprehension skills. I hope you have found it relevant to what is happening in your classroom.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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