Questioning and summarisation to support deep literacy

Written by: Ruth Everett | Published:
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Never assume they know how to do it. Ruth Everett looks at how all teachers can use questioning and the art of summarisation to support deep literacy comprehension

The latest Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) guidance on secondary school literacy (2019) is a must-read for all colleagues working in secondary schools.

The endorsement of every teacher being aware of their own academic discipline’s literacy needs, regardless of subject specialism, is refreshing to read. For example, when a science teacher supports their students’ understanding and learning of polysyllabic, Latinate key terms (90 per cent of these have a Latin or Greek origin in their subjects) they are identifying, then supporting a very specific literacy need in their unique discipline.

However, this must go hand-in-hand with the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies to enable their students to have ownership of their own understanding and learning of challenging knowledge and skills.

In a previous article, I emphasised how two crucial reading comprehension strategies should be embedded in classroom teaching (SecEd, 2019). First, all teachers should activate the prior knowledge of their students on a topic. Second, they should explicitly teach challenging vocabulary prior to teaching a topic.

In classrooms where teachers routinely use these approaches, students demonstrate increased confidence in new learning because they already have a “way in”.

There are two further strategies which support students’ ability to understand what they are reading. First, focused teacher questioning, before, during and after reading a text is vital in supporting students’ comprehension. The most effective teachers use focused questioning automatically and routinely.

However, the most powerful consequence of this approach is when students themselves begin to use questioning to test their own understanding.

When teaching unseen poetry, I stress to classes the need for them to not only “hear” the poem’s words in their heads, but also to articulate questions about its meaning aloud in their heads. For example, “why has the poet chosen that title?”, “what are the connotations of that specific word?” or “how does the tone of the poem affect me?”

Students often despairingly moan to their teacher before the run up to an exam: “I can do it when you’re asking me questions, but I can’t do it when I’m on my own!” This is why we have to explicitly explain to our classes the power of metacognition and self-regulated learning. Once a student realises that, in an exam, they can adopt the same comprehension strategies that their teachers use in lessons, they feel empowered and more confident to face a challenging unseen text or question.

Second, the art of summarisation is a comprehension strategy I would urge teachers to introduce to their students. Summarisation is a more difficult tool to teach, practise then apply, but an important one tested in the English GCSE.

When I was a teenager studying GCE English (some 40 years ago!) my peers and I were taught the art of writing critical précis, a summary of a text written in an expository style with the structure of an essay.

After much practice, I developed the technique described below to ascertain the core knowledge I needed to learn. I suggest teachers regularly live model the deliberate steps taken to condense the content of a paragraph into a few sentences, then a phrase.

The paragraph below could be used as an example to teach summarisation, known when I was a student (yes when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) as the art of précis. It is the opening paragraph of George W Bush’s address to the nation, made on the evening of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.

A teacher could “live model” the following steps to their class.

Step 1: Ask students what is/are Bush’s main purpose(s) in this part of his speech? They could discuss this in pairs before sharing their thoughts.

The answer could then be provided – e.g. it is to set the scene to the rest of his seven paragraph speech: to confirm what happened that appalling day, that thousands of victims from all walks of life were killed in huge buildings in a terrorist attack. However, it is also to reassure his audience that, while violated and in shock, they as Americans will survive and face their future with confidence.

Step 2: Condense the above into the three main intentions of Bush’s message. For example:

  • To put the 9/11 terrorist attack into context
  • To state who the victims were.
  • That America will respond with strength.

Step 3: Summarise these intentions into a couple of phrases or one sentence. For example, America will not be weakened as a result of the massacre of thousands of innocent Americans going about their everyday business. And step 4: Condense to one statement. For example, despite the appalling attack, America is strong.

Over my long teaching career, I have found that many teachers assume their students can summarise the content of what they have been taught. Many students cannot.

They need to be explicitly taught the art of summarisation, how to identify the core knowledge, then how to simplify it into a format they can learn, commit to memory then apply in an exam context.

  • Ruth Everett is a consultant teacher with the Driver Youth Trust, a charity committed to improving the outcomes of young people who struggle with literacy. Visit

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