The opportunity to summarize, to process information, is a key strategy to support learning across any subject area. This is a powerful tool for all students, but especially those with weak working memory, weak decoding skills, and weak attention. As neuroscience has informed effective teaching practices, educators should be aware that students need frequent opportunities to pause and process what they’ve just heard or read.
Teachers can neglect this step for many reasons. In my case, providing time for processing/ summarizing information was a real weakness in my early teaching repertoire. Like many teachers, I taught in a manner that was similar to the way I learn. SInce I am a fast processor, I never gave much thought to the time students needed to make sense of new information. Also, my teacher preparation did not include the benefit of the brain-based research available today.
Other factors that impact how much time teachers allow for processing include pressure to “get through” a topic (and sadly, the pressure to assess) along with management issues, such as crowd control when students talk to each other to process information. A pair-share strategy may be implemented, but what if many kids are talking about recess and lunchtime? If videotaping doesn’t capture conversations effectively, it helps to have a familiar adult sitting in the midst of the group during pair-shares. I have been in that role many times (supporting an individual student, for example) and could see that the quality of pair-share conversations was sketchy, at best.
That brings us to another key point. Most students need explicit instruction on the why’s and how’s of summarizing. Using role-playing and videotapes of examples and non-examples is an effective strategy for teaching verbal summarizing while setting high expectations. For summarizing paragraphs and longer passages, model how to create effective summaries on sticky notes. Be sure to include non-examples. Here are two examples from a passage on the value of allowing some forest fires to burn out naturally. Can you tell which one is on target?
Our special needs kids could have much-improved comprehension if they are taught to summarize throughout the reading process. And sticky notes don’t have to be laboriously written. Teach kids to use symbols and abbreviations for their ideas.
To summarize, we learn best when our brains process information in manageable chunks. The chunk size varies by individual, as does the amount of time to process. Some students process best on their own, not with a partner. Other students may benefit from a visual reminder of what they have heard or learned. If teachers discuss and teach this aspect of learning explicitly, it will help create an atmosphere where learning differences are validated.