Retell, Recount, and Summarize:
3 Essential Reading Comprehension Skills

reading comprehension skills - retell recount summarize framework

As a literacy coach, I typically get asked by 4th and 5th-grade teachers how to teach students to summarize. When this happens, I refer teachers to the ELA Standard 2 spiral progression. We discuss the verbs used in grades K-3 and the student’s ability to retell and recount. Our discussion concludes that retelling and recounting are the foundation of summarizing. 

Retell is the Foundation

Beginning in kindergarten and continuing into first grade, students are expected to retell. But what is retelling?  

  • Retell implies students must tell the story again. 
  • A retelling is most often an informal, oral recall of story elements that include characters, settings, and events.
  • When retelling a story, it is best to put these events in the same chronological order, but not necessary. 

In the later part of kindergarten and first grade, as students become more efficient writers, retelling can be written

To prepare students for the progression to recounting, teachers should focus on helping students identify key details from each part of the story

Story beginnings include characters and setting (and sometimes a problem), the middle normally has a problem with two to three main events leading up to a resolution in the end. 

Tip: Use Graphic Organizers to Scaffold the Retelling Process

For young readers, the cognitive demand to retell is substantial. Simple story map graphic organizers should be used to scaffold the retelling process. Students may use these simple organizers along with visuals or key vocabulary, which allows all students to rehearse before the oral or written retelling. Many are still working on retelling in upper elementary grades. 

Moving From Retell to Recount

In second grade, the terminology changes. Students now must recount. It would seem that the terms retell and recount are synonymous. Right? 

After much internet research, I found many people believe this to be true. However, writers of state standards have intentionally sought to create a distinction between the two skills. That difference fills the gap between supplying a retelling to producing a summary. 

What Is Recounting? 

  • Recount helps students in grades 2 and 3 make the leap to summarizing. 
  • Unlike retelling, recount takes a more formal stance and requires a sequenced ordering of events. 
  • Recounts require sophisticated main idea work related to the central message and providing details to support those ideas. 
  • A recount requires more precise language, concise word choice, and transition words. 

Retelling vs. Recounting

Table 1 illustrates this change in language, focusing on transition words that help sequence ideas and show the passage of time.  

Table 1: Recounting Using Transition Words

Book: The Hare and the Tortoise
The characters are the Tortoise and the Hare.

They are outside in a forest.

The Hare made fun of the Tortoise for moving slow. 

The Tortoise got the Hare to race. The Tortoise won.  
First, the Hare said he was fast and the Tortoise was slow. 

Next, they raced through the forest to see who would win. 

The Hare would run and stop and run while the Tortoise walked and walked. 

Before long, the Tortoise passed the Hare. 

Finally, the Tortoise won the race.

Teachers of grades 2 and 3 must explicitly model, provide instruction in comprehension, organization, language, and writing, by providing instructional strategies like graphic organizers and scaffolds such as writing frames. 

Students will need sufficient time to practice by collaborating with their peers, rehearsing orally before writing, and writing on a daily basis. 

Improve Reading Comprehension Through Summarizing

Students begin summarizing in grades 3 and 4. 

I explain summarizing as telling the most important parts (or main ideas) of a text, in your own words, in a much shorter way. I think it is important to note that summarizing occurs during and after a reading of a longer, more complex text than the texts students read to retell and recount. As text becomes more complex, students tend to have “information overload.” 

Summarizing is a strategy to help students have a better understanding of the text. It improves their memory for what they read and reduces confusion. 

When students summarize, they must synthesize a piece of text by:

  • determining main ideas
  • determining important details that support the main ideas
  • rejecting minor details
  • consolidating important details in one or two sentences

Summarizing for Fiction

Summarizing for fiction requires students to maintain attention on literary elements, including setting, characters, and sequence of events. This is commonly seen in classrooms as Somebody Wanted But So Then (SWBST). This summarizing frame allows students to focus on the impact of characters on the problem and solution of a story. 

Summarizing for Nonfiction

In contrast, summarizing for nonfiction focuses on relevant details in a text. This allows students to determine main ideas, explain relationships, make inferences, and evaluate. Both types of summaries require students to navigate increasingly complex cognitive demands to process text. 

retell rope
summarizing poster

What Is Paraphrasing?

Another skill required to summarize is the ability to paraphrase. Students paraphrase when they restate information in their own words, which requires command and control of both language and thinking skills. As students progress from grades 3 to 4, expectations for paraphrasing will need to build in complexity. Table 2 provides suggestions for how these expectations may be organized to support students’ development of this challenging skill. 

Table 2: Paraphrasing Expectations for Grades 3 & 4

Grade 3Grade 4
Read information and write it in my own wordsMonitor comprehension and reread to clarify information
Recognize that some words and phrases cannot be changed (i.e., names, dates, titles, etc.) Link to prior knowledge using connecting words (i.e., like, then, as, for example, similarly, also, etc.)
Identify important parts of a textReorder the information
Monitor comprehension and reread to clarify informationReplace words and/or sentences using synonyms and key vocabulary from the lesson 
Check the paraphrase against the original textCheck the paraphrase against the original text

Teacher Tip: If students need paraphrasing support, try building background knowledge about the topic by previewing 3-5 essential vocabulary words. Vocabulary strategies can make a tremendous difference when students strive to expand their vocabulary to describe an original text. 

The Takeaway for Reading Comprehension Teaching and Instruction 

As teachers, our lessons should include intentional summarizing points throughout the learning. In your next lesson, include great summarizing strategies such as The Important Thing, Headline Summaries, and $2 Summaries. 

The difference may be subtle; however, going from “tell me everything you can remember about a story” to “write a summary integrating the central ideas and paraphrasing main ideas in order with transition words with the increasingly complex text” is demanding for students and teachers. It requires intentional planning and execution by all teachers! 

Improve Reading Comprehension (and Student Learning) Through Summarization 

All teachers, no matter their grade level or content area, can improve student learning through summarization. Take a first step with one or more of these ideas: 

Summarizing Tips 

Plan summarizing strategies such as non-verbal representations, short responses, long responses, or verbal discourse. 

Questions to Ponder

  • K-1 – How do you explain the difference between retell in Kindergarten and grade 1?
  • 2-3 – How do you explain the difference between retell and recount in grade 2 and grade 3?
  • 4-5 – How can you assess the ability of your students to summarize in grade 4+?
  • 6-12 – How have you explicitly taught students to summarize for a discipline specific text (i.e., lab reports, primary sources, essays, editorials, etc.)?

Next Steps 

  • K-1 – Create benchmarks for how to support students’ development of retell across Kindergarten and grade 1. How is retell different in each grade level?
  • 2-3 – Create a common definition of Retell and Recount for grades 2 and 3. 
  • 3-5 – Create exemplar paraphrases and summaries for specific texts for grades 3-5
  • 6-12 – Create exemplar summaries for discipline specific texts (i.e., lab reports, primary sources, essays, editorials, etc.).

Wanda Humphrey

Wanda Humphrey has been an educator for 30 years. During her career, she has taught grades K-8, been a reading interventionist, school literacy coach and served as a district literacy coordinator. She is dedicated to cultivating literacy for all students and works with administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers to intentionally utilize high-impact strategies during instruction.


  1. Cynthia Wortham on September 6, 2023 at 7:27 pm

    You go girl! Great article!

  2. Penny McNeill on September 20, 2023 at 9:39 am

    I loved this aticle!

  3. Tonja on October 19, 2023 at 7:40 pm

    Great read and the questions to ponder are spot on!

  4. Lisa Ruffin on November 9, 2023 at 11:39 pm

    This makes my heart smile!

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