Summarizing and Synthesizing: What's the Difference?

Summarizing and synthesizing are two important reading comprehension strategies. They’re also skills that students struggle with and often confuse despite the differences. In this article, we review the two skills, discuss the differences between them, and highlight activities that can be used to support students as they develop proficiency with them.


SUMMARIZING

What does summarizing mean? Into the Book, a reading strategies web site for teachers and students, explains that when readers summarize, they “identify key elements and condense important information into their own words during and after reading to solidify meaning.” The site offers a simpler definition for students: “Tell what’s important.”

Why is summarizing difficult for students? For starters, it requires students to apply the skill of determining importance in text and then express the important ideas in their own words. Many times, as students learn to summarize, their first attempts are a collection of details, rather than the main ideas of the passage. Other student-produced summaries are too vague and do not include enough detail. Teachers need to devote time to explicit instruction and modeling on both determining importance and summarizing to help students become proficient with both strategies.

The following resources can be helpful for teaching students to summarize:

Summarizing
This article provides an overview of summarizing as a reading comprehension strategy, and how it can be taught and assessed in an elementary classroom.

Into the Book: Summarizing
This section of the Into the Book web site provides definitions of summarizing for teachers and students, learning objectives with videos, lessons, and a wealth of additional resources. The student area (which requires a key to access) has interactive activities for each of the featured comprehension strategies.

Guided Comprehension: Summarizing Using the QuIP Strategy
This lesson plan, for grades 3-6 from ReadWriteThink, teaches students to summarize information by graphically organizing information in response to questions, then reorganizing their answers into paragraph form.

Lesson 8: Summarizing Information
In this lesson, students practice summarizing by extracting the Five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and the H (how) from feature stories in local newspapers. The lesson could be adapted for use with other texts as well.


SYNTHESIZING

Synthesizing takes the process of summarizing one step further. Instead of just restating the important points from text, synthesizing involves combining ideas and allowing an evolving understanding of text. Into the Book defines synthesizing as “[creating] original insights, perspectives, and understandings by reflecting on text(s) and merging elements from text and existing schema.” For students, the site provides the simpler “Put pieces together to see them in a new way.”

As with summarizing, this higher-order thinking skill needs explicit instruction and modeling. In her book Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Tanny McGregor provides examples of instructional sequences for synthesizing using common objects (nesting dolls), prompts or sentence starters, and a spiral-shaped graphic organizer inspired by the notes written and passed by her students. These activities provide the scaffolding needed to support students as they become familiar and then proficient with the skill and can be used with all types of text.

The following resources can be helpful for teaching students to synthesize:

Synthesizing
This article provides an overview of synthesizing as a reading comprehension strategy and describes approaches for teaching and supporting students as they develop proficiency.

Into the Book: Synthesizing
This section of the Into the Book web site provides definitions of synthesizing for teachers and students, learning objectives with videos, lessons, and a wealth of additional resources. The student area (which requires a key to access) has interactive activities for each of the featured comprehension strategies.

Classroom Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading
Tanny McGregor’s book includes chapters devoted to six reading comprehension strategies: schema, inferring, questioning, determining importance, visualizing, and synthesizing. Heinemann’s page also includes links to web seminars about various strategies (click on Companion Resources).


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

2 thoughts on “Summarizing and Synthesizing: What's the Difference?

  1. This site made my teacher ‘slife for my first graders sooo easy . We had a fun time doing the actiivties together.

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