Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Key Ideas? Details?: What’s the Difference?

            Recently, an elementary school principal lamented to me that she was surprised by test results showing students across the grades were not doing well distinguishing between key ideas and details. “Can you help us?” she asked.

            Well, I am no magician but I seem to recall that when I was teaching elementary school, kids found summarizing difficult. Ask them to give an oral summary and you got everything they could remember reading.  It was as if the Declaration of Independence in Reading said that “all facts are created equal.” There was no key idea and there were no details. I think that this is the crux of the problem.

            But . . . there are solutions—or at least sensible steps to take to address the problem.  Here are a few:
1.     Discuss what summary means. It means being brief, concise, and direct. It does not mean telling everything you know. I like to discuss the relationship between “the big idea” and the “terrific specific.” That’s because writing a good summary means finding an important idea to focus on and then giving only the most convincing details to support it. I learned this firsthand when I wrote annotations for the annual Notable Social Studies Trade Books list. We only had about 150 words to write about why we were recommending a book. It was a tough lesson and it forged a lasting relationship between me and the delete key on my computer. I learned to pare down my writing.
2.     Limit the number of words allowed for written summaries. And, while you are at it, limit the time allotted for oral summaries too. In this way, students will have to separate the main idea from the details.
3.     Share writing that has clearly stated generalizations that are illustrated by intriguing details. Not only is this writing more understandable, it is also more interesting.  If you are looking for examples, my all time favorite writer when it comes to clarity, coherence, and descriptive detail is Russell Freedman. Check out any of his books and you will see what it means to write clear, coherent, descriptive nonfiction prose with overarching generalizations. Of course, if you want to be up to date, check out Freedman’s latest book, We Will Not Be Silent, which a Kirkus reviewer wrote “stands out for its focus and concision.” If you can’t wait for this new book, try Immigrant Kids, Kids at Work, or Children of the Great Depression. There is a lot more to choose from. Whichever book you choose, be explicit when showing kids the key idea and the supporting details in these books. Then as you read to them, ask the kids to take over this job themselves and tell you the key ideas and supporting details.
4.     Write summaries or explanations giving key ideas and details. Have students practice by working with partners and then report back to the class on their results. We know very well that reading and writing are connected, so we can expect that if students can find key ideas and details in their reading, they will also begin to use them in their writing. 

            The long and the short of this is that by providing good examples of writing and time read it, discuss it, and write like it, students will learn about the relationship between key ideas and details. 


  1. Empathy is important, too: can the student put himself in the listener/reader's shoes and figure out what would matter to that person?

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