Reading is not an easy task for young readers. Children need to practice various reading strategies to become skillful readers. A lot of reading strategies have been shared with educators through professional books and websites. Simple keywords searches on the internet will also bring many resources for teachers, including how-to videos and downloadable worksheets. Indeed, there is no shortage of reading strategies for elementary students; however, teachers need to be mindful when choosing reading strategies.
Serafini refers to Roser and Hoffman’s response activity “What’s cute and what counts?” and reminds educators that we should select reading strategies that count, not the ones that are cute (240). He urges us to think about why we ask children to complete the strategies, and what the strategies do to children. Serafini also offers criteria for analyzing the activities associated with reading and response, including “relationship to literature” and “time ratio.” To be counted as a good reading activity, it needs to have a strong connection to literature. Teachers also need to examine where students spend more time. Are they spending more time making the strategy than reading and talking about literature? For example, after reading Hair Love, if children are making different hairstyles, it may be a cute activity, but it will not be the activity that counts—one that helps children deepen their understanding of the theme of the story.
In this article, I share the reading strategy I created and witnessed working well. It is a strategy that counts when it comes to helping children retell, summarize, and think about the sequence of the events. I named this strategy “Story Train.” Before introducing the Story Train strategy, I will discuss the importance of retelling, summarizing, and sequencing in children’s literacy practice.
Retelling is included as a key reading skill in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts in CCSS.R.L.K.2—”with prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text”—and in CCSS.R.L.1.2—”retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.”
Retelling can be a useful tool when “determining the ‘readerability’ of a text” (Kucer, “Readers’ Tellings” 320) as the reader’s retelling can reveal which parts “are easy, difficult, confusing, puzzling, engaging, etc” (Kucer, “What Retellings” 42). Once the teacher finds out what part of the story children skip retelling, the teacher can revisit that part and assist children with comprehension. It is possible that children may leave a part out when retelling if they do not fully understand the story. Kucer studied 87 proficient fourth graders’ retellings of both narrative and expository texts and found that retellings of narrative texts were significantly longer than those of expository texts. “Background familiarity with text content and structure” may have led to such a result (“What Retellings” 39). Using shorter expository texts, Kucer added, can be a practical strategy when practicing retelling expository texts (“What Retellings” 41).
Interestingly, Kucer found that both stronger and weaker children added nonmatching information which was not presented in the text in their retellings. The children also did not distinguish “what was written” in the text and “what was added” to the text (“What Retellings” 41). Kucer pointed out that when children add information in their retellings that does not match the content of the text, it is not a sign of weak comprehension; rather, it is how children construct meaning of the text. Therefore, teachers need to understand that adding nonmatching information in retellings is “a natural part of the comprehension process” for children (“What Retellings” 41).
Summarizing is listed as an essential skill to achieve in the Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading: “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2.: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.” Reading Rockets, a national multimedia project, introduces summarizing as “teach[ing] children how to discern the most important ideas in a text, how to ignore irrelevant information, and how to integrate the central ideas in a meaningful way.” Summarizing helps children synthesize information and explain the main ideas of the text.
Summarizing can be practiced alongside text organization. In their review of research on the relation between text organization and comprehension, Dickson et al. found that well-presented physical text helps readers identify main ideas and related details, which were central to comprehension. They introduced Taylor and Beach’s study, cited in Pearson and Fielding’s article, in which students who were taught a strategy using headings, subheadings, and paragraph topics to summarize the text recalled information better than students who were questioned about the text or studied longer (249). Therefore, it is important to teach children text organization because when children identify how text is structured, they may comprehend better (255). A long text can be broken into manageable chunks so that children can summarize a small part of the text at a time. Graphic organizers can also be utilized when summarizing. The visual representation of the text information can help children comprehend the text (266).
Sequencing requires children to extract important details and put “important events in the correct order” as they happened in the story (Eilers and Pinkley 15). Eilers and Pinkley examined first-grade students’ use of metacognitive strategies including sequencing. They found that explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies significantly improved children’s reading comprehension. Their study suggests that sequencing needs to be taught explicitly and intentionally; otherwise, children may not use sequencing effectively as a comprehension strategy. Eilers and Pinkley suggest that when teaching metacognitive strategies such as sequencing, teachers should guide children to “write and refer to the words they read in the books” because children may tell protracted stories connected to their experiences instead (28).
Gouldthorp et al. investigated potential differences in sequencing ability among primary students and found that students with high comprehension showed more accurate sequences than students with low comprehension. The differences among students may be interpreted “as a differential ability to accurately identify the main events” rather than sequencing (102), since children who showed low comprehension ability recalled fewer main events than students who showed high comprehension. Nevertheless, the difficulty of identifying main events may be caused by “poor recognition of causal connections between events and characters”—which is closely related to sequencing (102). The study confirms that sequencing is an essential reading skill for children to comprehend narrative texts. It also shows that identifying primary information, making connections between events and characters, retelling, and sequencing need to be taught explicitly when helping children with comprehension. As Gouldthorp et al.’s study implied retelling, summarizing, and sequencing are closely connected, if we can create opportunities for children to practice all of these reading skills, we may be able to help them improve their comprehension significantly.
The Story Train Activity
Here, I introduce the Story Train activity which is designed to help children practice retelling, summarizing, and sequencing. I came up with the Story Train activity idea because I noticed that the main events were left out when I listened to students’ retellings. I found that not being able to retell the story was one of the reasons for low comprehension. I wanted to offer a simple activity that helped students practice retelling, summarizing, and sequencing in an engaging way.
For the Story Train activity, I broke down the story into several sections. I gave students index cards and asked them to write the main events in each part of the story. I let students revisit the story if they struggled to remember what happened. Once students finished writing a summary of each section, I asked them to mix the index cards, then put them back in the correct order. Once students finished laying the index cards on the desk, they read them to see if they correctly placed them. After confirming the sequence, students connected the index cards with cellophane tape and glued two cut-out circles on each index card to represent train wheels.
During the Story Train activity, I saw that students summarized and retold the story in their own words and organized the events as they happened in the story. Eilers and Pinkley note that it is important for children to “write and refer to the words they read in the books” when making connections to the text (28). Referring to the text happens naturally during the Story Train activity as students retell the story and write a summary. In this activity, a teacher is a facilitator who provides directions, materials, and a time for children to work together. The teacher monitors children while they are doing the activity and provides them with feedback as necessary. This activity is designed to be implemented in a small group, which creates a friendly environment for children. In a small group, children are expected to practice retelling, summarizing, and sequencing with their peers. A small group setting can be helpful for children who are struggling with these essential skills because they get to watch how other children retell and summarize and learn from them. English learners can be paired with other students who can show them how to do the strategy and work together.
I recommend the Story Train activity because I witnessed that children were engaged in practicing retelling, summarizing, and sequencing without realizing they were repeatedly visiting the same story. Children have multiple chances to revisit the story during the activity by listening, reading, and writing. In this activity, they visually represent the text and see how the story is structured, which can lead to comprehension (Dickson et al. 255; 266). However, it should be noted that the Story Train activity does not ask students to discuss the story critically; therefore, critical analysis of the story needs to be added to the lesson.
I tried the Story Train activity with students in other countries in different languages. Specifically, I tried it with 2nd grade children in Korea and middle school students in Chile. Although I found this activity with middle school students enjoyable, I think it is more suitable for primary grades as the teacher gives students specific directions and tell them what to do in every step. I introduced the Story Train activity to U. S. preservice teachers in a literacy methods class at a university. My students tried the Story Train activity with children during their tutoring experience and reported that it was a fun activity that helped children practice retelling and visualizing the sequence of the events. Below is a procedure of the Story Train activity when implemented in a whole-class setting.
The Story Train Activity Procedure
- Read a story—Read the story aloud to students and discuss it with them. Help students identify literary elements and invite them to share their feelings and thoughts about the story.
- Retell the story—Give each small group the same book or printout that the teacher read aloud to a whole group. Students can retell the story together as a group or work with partners. If they do not remember what happened in the story, students are encouraged to look back at the book.
- Divide the story into several parts—Ask students to divide the story into several sections. If four students are in a group, ask students to divide the story into four sections. If there are five students in a group, ask students to divide the story into five.
- Write a summary—Give students index cards. Each student is asked to summarize one part of the story. The group decides who is writing what part of the story. Make sure that everyone is assigned to a section to write a summary. Students who need help with writing can work with a partner.
- Organize the index cards in order—Group members read each index card together and place them in order as the events happened in the story.
- Switch index cards with another group—This step can be skipped, but this can add a fun element to the activity. In each group, students gather all the index cards they used, mix them up, and trade cards with another group. The group reads the index cards together and puts them in order as the events happened in the story.
- Go over the events of the story in a whole group—The teacher goes over the sequence of the events in the story with the whole group. Group members look at their arraignment of the index cards and rearrange them if they do not place them correctly.
- Make a Story Train—Give students cellophane tape and cut-out circles (two circles per index card). Students connect the index cards with cellophane tape and glue the wheels (two cut-out circles) in the bottom of each index card to make it look like a train. The teacher should prepare the cut-out circles in advance so that students do not have to spend time making circles. Decorating the index cards is not more important than practicing the intended reading skills.
With the teacher’s step-by-step guidance, this activity can be implemented with children in any grade. If students do not write well yet or struggle with writing, children can draw instead of writing. Dividing the story into several parts could be confusing and challenging for young readers. If this is the case, the teacher can divide the story for children. The teacher can also write the numbers on the index cards before handing them out. Then, ask a student who has the number one card in each group to summarize the first section of the story. A student who has the number two card can write a summary of the second section of the story and so on. It can be challenging for young readers to mix up the cards and reorganize them in order. If this part of the activity is challenging, the teacher can ask students to look at the number of the cards and place them in numeric order.
For older children, the teacher can increase the number of index cards and make the story train longer. In this case, students can have multiple index cards and write summaries of several parts of the story. The Story Train activity would work well when students read a biography and summarize the person’s life in chronological order.
The Story Train activity requires students to retell, summarize, and identify the sequence of the events. It is an activity that creates multiple opportunities for students to visit the story and visually display the main information found in the text. The visual representation of the text is important as it may help children comprehend (Dickson et al. 266). A variety of group settings—whole group, small group, and individual—can be utilized during the process. The fun display of the Story Trains is a bonus.
Dickson, Shirley V., et al. “Text Organization: Research Bases.” What Reading Research Tells Us About Children with Diverse Learning Needs: Bases and Basics, edited by Deborah. C. Simmons and Edward. J. Kameenui, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998, pp. 239-277.
Eilers, Linda H., and Christine Pinkley. “Metacognitive Strategies Help Students to Comprehend All Text.” Reading Improvement, vol. 43, no, 1, 2006, pp. 13-29.
“English Language Arts Standards.” Common Core State Standards Initiative, http://www.corestandards.org/wp-content/uploads/ELA_Standards1.pdf. Accessed 13 Jan 2022.
Gouldthorp, Bethanie et al. “An Investigation of the Role of Sequencing in Children’s Reading Comprehension.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2018, pp. 91-106.
Kucer, Stephen B. “Readers’ Tellings: Narrators, Settings, Flashbacks and Comprehension.” Journal of Research in Reading, vol. 33, no. 3, 2010, pp. 320-331.
—. “What Retellings Can Tell Us About the Nature of Reading Comprehension in School Children.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, vol. 37, no.1, 2014, pp. 31-44.
Roser, Nancy L. “A Place for Everything and Literature in Its Place.” The New Advocate, vol. 14, no. 3. 2001, pp. 211-221.
Serafini. Frank. “When Bad Things Happen to Good Books.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 65, no. 4. 2011, pp. 238-241.
“Summarizing.” Reading Rockets, https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/summarizing. Accessed 31 Jan 2022.
 See 50 Literacy Strategies: Step-by-Step by Gail Tompkins, The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo, readwritethink.org, and readingrockets.org.
 In this article, I use a reading strategy and a reading activity synonymously.
 Hair Love is written by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. The story features African American girl, Zuri and her dad. Zuri’s dad loves Zuri’s hair and styles it and makes Zuri happy. This book celebrates who you are as you are. It reinforces self-love and sends a positive message that every child is beautiful as they are.
 Kucer used the term “readerability” rather than “readability” when indicating the text difficulty because students’ retellings would tell teachers about both developmental aspects of comprehension and information needed to plan instructional strategies.
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