If you want to improve a child’s reading comprehension, one of the best strategies is to ask the child to write a summary of what he has read.
A written summary can tell you, the parent or teacher, if the student understands what he has read. A written summary can also inform you about problems in the thinking of a student, such as an inability to identify main ideas, an inability to rank ideas, and an inability to sequence ideas meaningfully. If the writer has included subtleties in the writing, such as inferences and metaphors, a summary can tell you whether the student caught on or read right over them.
What should you be looking for in a student summary?
- All the main ideas of the reading selection should be present in the summary. If an idea is missing, ask the child why he did not include it. Did he think it not important? Did it seem more like a detail than a main idea? Did it seem to be included in another idea?
- On the other hand, some students find it hard to distinguish between a main idea and a detail. Everything is important to them. Long summaries can be evidence of a student who cannot separate main ideas from secondary ones. They need help with this skill.
- If the reading selection ranked information, did the student recognize this, or did the student report on the information willy-nilly? Perhaps the student missed clues as to the importance of certain ideas compared to others. Perhaps the student was in a hurry and thought naming three ideas out of five was plenty. Most likely, the student will encounter the same problems again and use the same strategies unless you point out the faultiness of his thinking.
- If sequencing is important in the original reading selection, the child must note this is his summary. There might be chronological sequencing or logical sequencing which makes sense only if it is summarized in the correct order.
- When inference or figurative language plays a noticeable role in the original reading selection, the student should note this in his summary. He might say, “Although the writer did not come out and say this, he inferred that. . .” Or he might say, “It is important to note that Mercutio spoke in puns throughout Romeo and Juliet, bringing much humor to his scenes.”
Little children who cannot write yet can still provide oral summaries as a way to test their understanding of a reading selection.
The more you ask the student to offer summaries, the better he will become at creating them.