A Retelling Recounting Summarizing Ladder

Sunday, September 16, 2018

     As a district coach and Literacy Coordinator, I tend to see trends across grades and schools.  About 6 years ago, we saw a trend that kids didn't use the text to answer questions.  We added some strategy lessons to our instruction, and we no longer see that trend.  It's just about noticing and responding.  We are now noticing that we have a common struggle with comprehension, especially with the more complex texts in grades 3-5.  We notice that we teach strategies to decode, and those strategies become habits that lead to the skill of accurate reading.  However, when it comes to thinking about the meaning in the text, those strategies are less often becoming habits of mind for our readers.  They stop and think when we ask them, but not always on their own as a habit.  And, as we all know, reading is meaning.

     For example, as students in our district schools start to read chapter books, we see a common issue.  They start to read longer books without picture support, and they often get all the way to the middle of the book and still not know the problem in the story.  Knowing books and their structure, I know that they just missed it.  But, missing the problem in the story has a dramatic effect on their ability to comprehend moving forward.  Could a more systematic way to introduce how to retell/ recount/ summarize help our students with the most basic form of comprehension?  If we expect students to go deep on a story, don't they need to be able to identify the basic plot first?

Thanks, LEGO.

      It's like when my daughter builds a LEGO house.  She sometimes doesn't want to find the green base, so she builds without it.  While the house initially looks good, as she makes it bigger, it tends to break.  Without the green base foundation, it isn't as solid.  She also can't add those "crafty" details to the house that make it unique, like fences and gardens and other people visiting. Is the ability to retell/ recount/ summarize like taking the time to find that LEGO base?  If we do that, will their overall comprehension of the story be able to do deeper and be stronger?  I personally think it will be, and if we focus on that in K-2, then our 3+ students will be able to build LEGO skyscrapers when they read their novels.  :)

     This is a problem I have witnessed in our upper graders.  4th and 5th graders who are analyzing character traits and motivations, but fail to notice the historical setting that would actually shed light on those motivations.  Or books with multiple plot lines, but because they don't think to identify those multiple problems from the start, they get all confused.  Or, as students get into book clubs, the simple act of not calling a character by their actual name in conversation that leads to confusion by the entire group.  These three scenarios all fall into basic areas: setting, character, problem, solution.  How can we support that?

***Sidenote: There are many reasons comprehension might break down.  Text level, genre, length, background knowledge, context, etc.  Even if we teach retelling/ recounting/ summarizing until it becomes a habit, those factors will still make comprehension change for readers with each text.  This blog post focuses on RL2 because that has been the focus of our common assessment work.  To read more about comprehension in general, you should check out Jen Serravallo's Understanding Texts and Readers.

     Our district is working on common assessments, and we have talked a lot about a vertical alignment of grades as we teach to the Common Core standards.  We prioritized the standards that we want on those common assessments down to the ones that we feel would best support kids as they moved across grade levels.  In addition to early literacy focus on running records and sight words, the comprehension assessments we created in primary focus heavily on RL2: the ability to retell/ recount/ summarize.  But, in isolation, each grade level might not see their smaller LEGO brick piece to the bigger LEGO house.  Each grade level supports the next on our common build.  (Sorry, we speak in LEGO at our house.)

     A common assessment on retelling/ recounting/ summarizing as the grades go from kindergarten to third grade will not help if students just focus on it for the assessment.  The true power to focus on meaning has to start with a consistent few minutes after a read aloud, a consistent few minutes during a reading conference, a consistent few minutes during partner routines, etc.  As students read, they need to think.  Our instructional sequence has to include the ability to read the words, and the expectation that we think about what we have read. 

If your goal for students is to pause and think about the meaning in a book, both while they are reading and after they have finished a book, consider for a moment how your instruction currently supports that goal.

Do kids read the words on the page fluently and independently while they read?
Do kids think about what the words mean, what they mean together as a text, and how that message connects to their world?

To be readers, they need to do BOTH.

     The following are instructional supports that could be used to support thinking during/after reading in K-3 classrooms.  I suggest below a simple suggestion of giving a minute or two after a read aloud, but they could be used in many other instructional ways.  The point I am trying to make is that we should work together as teachers, and expect more, as the texts our students read grow in complexity.  But, if we expect more, we have to model it and give them time to explore those new ways of thinking with explicit strategies taught in mini lessons, and give time for purposeful practice (like after a read aloud or during independent reading) to transfer.  The images below are sort of a ladder to keep in mind as our students progress from Level A/B/C books to level O/P books and beyond.

If in kindergarten, after most every read aloud, we stopped for a minute or two to model our own thinking or give time to think and connect about:
Many texts at this level don't have a problem and solution, 
so keeping them categorized as "events" will be flexible enough 
depending on if you read a leveled text, or a higher level story book.

If in first grade, after most every read aloud, we stopped for a minute or two to model our own thinking or give time to think and connect about:
You'll notice the space to draw.  Modeling your thinking about
the way you would draw is also an important strategy kids 
in first need.  This will also support their ability to illustrate their own narratives.

If in second grade, after most every read aloud, we stopped for a minute or two to model our own thinking or give time to think and connect about:
Here, as we expect those components of a retell in order, 
so it becomes a recount of the story.
We also expect that the problem, events, and solution support each other.

If in second/third grade, after most every read aloud, we stopped for a minute or two to model our own thinking or give time to think and connect about:
This is my favorite way to summarize, and we should start introducing it in 2nd,
because as kids start chapter books, their recounts could turn into chapter books themselves. 
It works will all levels of text that have a problem, and also helps plan for narrative story writing.
When I confer with kids who know SWBST, that's how I start all my conferences.
If you want to read more about this strategy, check out 
When Kids Can't Read/What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers.

I replaced her original characters because of copyright concerns...
Insert Piggie and Gerald in your mind. :)

     As you look at those, you probably see the same graphics used, but applied in a slightly more rigorous way.  Our expectations change as text complexity changes, but that doesn't mean we start all over again.  When I was making these visuals, I consistently used the graphics that one of our first grade teachers had used while making a 5 Finger Retell poster for her team.  While all K-3 teachers don't use the 5 Finger Retell because the books they read are not the same complexity level, the pieces are the same.  Thanks Amelia Workman (@theWorksInFirst) for letting be build on your original work.

     I think that the act of retelling itself is important, but that could occur in someone's head once they know how to do it.  It does NOT need to always be done on paper.  For a common assessment, having children do some word/phrase/sentence level writing is not unheard of if it aligns with your purpose.  But, exercise caution.  Adding a short discussion to the end of a text is very different than expecting a written summary after every book kids read.  Please do not go overboard.  We want children to be able to retell/ recount/ summarize. That does not mean that we have to kill the joy of reading by overusing the strategies above.  We just want that habit of thinking to form.

     Reading is not just decoding.  How can we support making meaning as teachers?  A great first step is talking across your grade levels to see how you support each other instructionally. We are #bettertogether.