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All about that summary

Updated: May 27, 2020

Since the COVID hit, I've been focused on emerging and younger struggling readers; this post is for them, middle and high school readers.

How do you know if your student is struggling? Have them read you something you've already read: a work email (if appropriate), an instructional or motivational article, a piece in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, McSweeny's, People Magazine.

Notice how they read. Clearly, with emphasis? Slowly? Stumbling over multi-syllable words? If their reading is smooth, ask for a summary.

Summarizing is a multi-step skill. If your student is on Twitter, they have this skill. (It's bleeped, but Questlove comes in at 1:43, if you want to skip the cursing.) Getting the gist only transfers with direct instruction, though.

We're starting with skimming, and I strongly suggest you rehearse these steps before sitting down with your student. I do for my client meetings; it's a pain sometimes, but confidence with the material really pays off.

It'll help immensely if your student is invested in the reading: ask them what they're interested in. Start with short articles on that subject. Again, no judgement - if it's sports, great. Food? Sure. Clothes? Alright.

Let them pick a couple of articles and if you can, print two copies of each - you're going to mark it up. Read it aloud. They read it back to you.

Then: what's your purpose here? If you're reading non-fiction, it can be learning something new, getting more detailed information, or simply learning how to read non-fiction. If it's fiction, it can be for fun, finishing a series, character development. Know why you're reading that piece.

Talk your way through these next steps. First up: is this fiction or non-fiction? One is imaginary, the other, factual. How do they know which it is? You may get "I don't know". If this happens, talk through figuring it out. Are there characters, or ideas? Facts, or actions?

Next, skimming: quickly getting an overview of what a text is about. Underline the first sentence of the first paragraph. Find the noun, the person/place/thing in that sentence. There's your key to the entire article.

Now, what do you already know about that person/place/thing? About that character, setting, time period? Give your memory space, letting your prior knowledge surface. Make some notes on the article itself about these connections. If this is a whole new topic or genre, write down questions you have. What made you want to read this? What do you want to find out?

Finally, pay close attention to the first (introduction) and last (concluding) paragraphs; the key points are usually here.

Practice skimming over a few weeks and a bunch of articles or short stories. If you're skimming non-fiction, switch to fiction. If you're starting with fiction, switch to non-fiction. Use it on anything you can get your eyes on that interests you.

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