Slice of Life: I’m missing the big idea

Teaching summary feels like hitting my head against a wall. I have made the argument for it. But today I’m wondering, why. Does directly teaching and expecting kids to summarize, prove or improve comprehension?

Consider what nonfiction reading looks like in my world.  I question, mark pages, underline words.’I’ve been inspired to find out more about a subject, talked to someone as a result of reading. I have blogged about texts I’ve read. I’ve taken action as a result of reading. But what I’ve dissected, analyzed, discussed, and written about after reading was not a summary. I siphoned off what was meaningful to me at the time of reading.

One of the delights of a well-written text is that it meets you where you are.  I had a student who was a football fanatic. He read a text that was “mostly about” the risk young people take when they play competitive sports, but what he saw as important was about football. And while that wasn’t the “main idea” of the text, it was what mattered to him at that point in his life. I contend he was doing exactly what readers do: pulling information that mattered and connected to him. Did he get the whole message? No. But he did get what intrigued him. He noticed, questioned, and read more. That is in fact what readers really do. But his summary did not score well on the rubric.

Rereading a text after a year or two, I’ve seen entirely different things. Did I not comprehend the text in my first read? Am I, a few years later a better reader? I’m a different reader bringing different experiences and needs to the text.  And, I am no different than my football loving student.

I struggle with the idea of summarizing. Students struggle doing it.

If students don’t see “the main idea,” they aren’t ready to see it and by not acknowledging what students do see as valuable I’m not valuing where they are as readers and thinkers. We see texts differently based on who we are and what we are ready to access.

By measuring students’ reading abilities with the summary alone, we take the reader’s interests and needs out of the text. And that bothers me. Because after all, that is the most important part.

English teachers, push back on my thinking. I’d love to see summary in a positive, authentic light. Perhaps I’m missing the big idea.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.


12 thoughts on “Slice of Life: I’m missing the big idea

  1. “One of the delights of a well-written text is that it meets you where you are.”

    We often talk about how difficult it seems to be for many students to summarize. I still think it is important to winnow larger text into smaller understanding, but I also am in tune with you in regards to finding your own kernels of understanding in the small eddies of text, which may or may not relate to the larger intent of the writer but is of utmost importance to the reader.
    Thanks for sharing some of your thinking … and getting me thinking …


    • I appreciate your thinking on my thinking and making me think! Funny how when we look so closely at a skill it loses meaning and purpose. Focusing on the why makes for better teaching and learning.

  2. This . . . “We see texts differently based on who we are and what we are ready to access” is how we collect the bits and pieces that are important to us as individuals. We crave patterns so we look for similarities and differences in our collections – not for the right answer, but for our reactions.

    And purpose . . . “By measuring students’ reading abilities with the summary alone, we take the reader’s interests and needs out of the text.” Summary can only be one of the many measures. Even it out with other “parts” of reading including attention to student responses and all the new learning as well as the learning the reading reinforced. Balancing the measurements will help ease your struggle!

  3. In the Comprehension Toolkit, I really liked the activity of deciding what about the text was “essential” to know and what was just “interesting.” It gave me insight into their understanding of what they were reading better than a summary would have. Thanks for your post!

    • Words matter so much. When we ask students to look for what surprises them and what they are questioning provides access points for them and me as a teacher. “Essential” is an interesting word. That drives me back to the author’s purpose. Ah, reading skills are so intertwined. Exactly what makes interesting. Thank you so much for building on my thinking.

  4. Jen Serravallo’s Reading Strategies Book reminded me of the importance of tell-backs – distilling text’s main ideas in sensible order to show understanding and facilitate next steps in thinking, writing, or discussing. SItes like SMMRY or extensions like TL;DR raise interesting questions about what algorithmic summaries do in relation to how we human readers operate.

  5. Thank you for these sites. I think we need to question and understand our practices on a continual basis. The more we understand purpose the more effective we become.

  6. Your post reminded me of something I was pondering about interpretation. I wrote:
    I was thinking about this story I recall from traveling in Rome. We visited the Coliseum. On the outside, we were walking counter-clockwise and came upon 4 large maps. The first showed Rome as a small city-state and the 2nd and 3rd showed it growing in size. Then the final one showed the Large Roman Empire. Later, we were chatting with this tall, skinny blonde 20-something girl who also toured the coliseum. “Did you see those maps on the outside. No wonder Rome dissolved. It started so big, and got smaller and smaller until the 4th map showed it was so tiny.” I smiled and didn’t dispute her understanding. That conversation stuck with me. She got the big idea – Rome fell as an Empire. Those misinterpreted maps still helped her to teach that big idea. However, the teacher in me wants students to not just take an idea they know and use evidence to support it. I want them to correctly use that evidence. I want to teach them to read the whole map, especially the title, subtitle and key. Then critically compare each map to the one on its left and right. And then connect it to knowledge they have inside them. To question and reread and revise and draw conclusions. I wish I had a photo of those maps. Maybe I need to return to Rome to photograph them!!

    We both summarized the same maps and drew the same conclusion. Comprehension is such a complex skill. And it is a standard I am to teach. And a skill that in VA is assessed by reading a passage and answering a multiple choice question with one right answer. Sometimes the passage is poorly written or it can be interpreted in many ways. All making the teaching of summary/main idea/interpretation hard. However, talking it out is such a great way to get what another is thinking. Maybe a vacation to Rome might help!!

  7. Yep and yep and yep! We’re putting so much emphasis on summary, and I love how you remind us that how we summarize might depend on our purpose for reading. There’s not a formula for it, that’s for sure. The best way to really understand involves doing the work. Love the honesty in your post!

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