Problem of Practice: “Summarizing the Middle” in First Grade

2010 February 28
by David Jacobson

PS 37Q

A group of first grade teachers at P.S. 37Q in New York City identified an interesting problem that arises in teaching students to re-tell (in writing) the beginning, middle, and end of a story they have read or heard. P.S. 37 is a high-poverty school with a significant English language learner population. Re-telling a story is an important skill that requires that first graders be able to summarize important parts of the story and put these in sequence.

The teachers at PS 37 had already identified this skill as an essential standard (one third of the New York State performance indicators that they have highlighted in bold type). This discussion about why it is hard for some students to learn this skill and how best to support these students took place in the context of a peer review of lesson plans. One small group of 2-3 first grade teachers presented a lesson plan they had drafted to their first grade colleagues using a standard peer review protocol, leading to a helpful diagnosis and a number of teaching strategies to implement.

The teachers presenting this lesson plan described the motivation, vocabulary, many lesson, differentiation strategies, and assessment plans for the lesson. The plan was to read the The Three Little Pigs – chosen for its familiarity and use of repetition — out of order and then have students re-tellĀ  the story in order. The presenting teachers’ colleagues asked clarifying questions and then a discussion around two issues ensued.

The first issue is a basic one that is likely to be familiar to most early elementary teachers: teaching sequencing. To support students in learning to put things in sequence, the teachers brainstormed a number of ancillary activities: using 3-sequence story cards from different stories, emphasizing the sequence of familiar morning classroom routines, discussing the sequence of getting dressed, acting out The Three Little Pigs, putting sentence strips in order, and so on.

One teacher then identified a somewhat deeper issue that stymies students when retelling stories. Re-telling the beginning, middle, and end of a story requires that students be able to summarize the middle of the story. Students can more easily identify one event at the beginning and end of stories; typically a number of events happened in the middle of stories. Students need to be able to identify and/or summarize the main idea of the middle of the story. Summarizing is obviously another important first-grade skill, but not an easy one for some students.

Once they identified this problem of summarizing the middle, the teachers began to brainstorm teaching strategies that may help: graphic organizers that limit students to three events that happen in the middle, modeling summarizing the middle in many different stories over time, working on summarizing before this lesson by having students summarize what 2-3 things have in common, making up very simple stories that have discrete beginnings, middles, and ends as a stepping stone to longer stories, and so on. The group documented these strategies so that all the teachers in the grade could draw upon them as they taught the re-telling skill.

The interesting moment of this discussion was when a teacher moved the conversation from the more familiar issue of teaching sequencing to the somewhat more challenging problem of teaching students to summarize the middle of stories. I’m wondering whether other early elementary educators have ideas for retelling stories and summarizing the middle?

Grade-level teams at PS 37Q

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