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Retell, Recount, Summary: What’s the difference?

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

Most educators agree that having students of all ages describe text they have read is a helpful comprehension strategy. This includes retelling or recounting, summarizing, and paraphrasing. In reading standard #2, the Common Core Standards require students in grades K-1 to “retell”, students in grades 2-3 to “recount”, and students in grades 4-12 to “summarize”. However, many students and their teachers are not sure about what each term means.

Retell for K-3 and summary for 4-12 are major components of our Key Comprehension Routine and Keys to Literacy trainers are often asked to explain the difference between the two. The main difference is that a retell includes everything (main ideas and details) while a summary is more condensed and focused on main ideas. Students paraphrase when they restate information in their own words, which they do when they retell or summarize.

After the Standards were adopted by most states and added the term recount, we were curious to understand how the Standards interpreted the difference between retell and recount, and it is something teachers continue to ask us when we are providing professional development. We first addressed this topic in an October, 2014 blog post titled “Recount: Is It Relevant?”  in which we concluded that recount was a more sophisticated extension of retell that places more language and thinking demands on students, and a step towards preparing students in grades 2 and 3 to make the leap to summarizing by grade 4. The visual below is from a slide we use in our training to illustrate how students must use increasing complex critical thinking skills and more precise academic language (including transition words and phrases) as they move from Kindergarten to Grade 4.

After reading a blog post by Dea Conrad-Curry titled “Retell, Recount, Summarize? A Common Core Shift from Kindergarten to Fourth Grade”, I decided to address this topic again.

Conrad-Curry notes the following about the Common Core use of the terms retell and recount:

“For some, this seemingly simple verb change indicates no instructional change; but for one who approaches text like a puzzle to be solved, this seemingly simple change is a Columbo clue… the change in wording from “retell” to “recount” has done more than spark curiosity within my brain.”

In her blog, she provides details from her search of literacy sources that began with the goal of finding a clear definition of the distinction between the two words. Alas, Conrad-Curry reports that the results of the probe were inconclusive, resulting her need to make her best professional judgement to interpret what reading standard #2 intends. You can link to her blog to read details from the various sources that she consulted, but here’s what she concluded:

“Retell implies an oral recapitulation of the narrative elements, probably best put in order but not necessarily; as we speak, we may correct our thoughts and provide for that correction in our speaking. On the other hand, recount may be written or oral and requires a clearly sequenced ordering of narrative events. Retelling is less formal and probably told from the point-of-view of the story’s original narrator and in the tense the story was told; recounting, more formal in stance, sets the context for the recount from the beginning and is told in either first person or third person depending on the nature of the recount, but always told in past tense.”

What do you think? Why did the architects of the Common Core make a distinction between retell and recount?

Here are two free related Keys to Literacy video resources:

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founding partner of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy routines. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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