Paragraph shrinking: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Have you ever asked your students to read a text, only to find that their understanding of the main idea was completely wrong? Or have you seen students focus on unimportant details and miss the “big picture”? If so, you know that identifying the main idea of a text can be a challenge for many students. 

Paragraph shrinking is a routine students can use to practice finding the main idea by summarizing a text. You can use paragraph shrinking with students at any reading level and with any text.

Using this routine, students work with a peer or an adult partner to:

  • Read or listen to the text. For instance, ask students to read the beginning of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

  • Say or write down the name of the who or what (the main person, animal, or thing) of the text. In this case, the who is Goldilocks. 

  • Tell or write the most important information about the who or what, such as an action or a feeling. For example, the most important thing is that Goldilocks found bowls of porridge, tried them all, and ate the one that was not too hot or too cold.

  • Say or write the main idea of the text in 10 words or fewer. For instance, “Goldilocks tried all the porridge until one was just right.” 

  • Receive feedback from a partner along the way. For example, if the reader says that the house is the who or what of the story, the partner might say, “I thought it was Goldilocks. Let’s go back and look at the text.”

Watch: See paragraph shrinking in action

Watch this video to see how peers work together to use the paragraph shrinking strategy. 

Read: How to use this strategy

Objective: Students will name the most important points about a short text and summarize those points in 10 words or fewer. 

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • Grades K–12 (Common Core ELA Literacy CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas) 

Best used for instruction with: 

  • Partners

  • Individuals

How to prepare: 

Pair students. Pair up students who have different reading abilities. If a student will be working with an adult partner, determine that ahead of time as well. Keep students in the same pairs for several lessons so they can build their skills together. You’ll also want to change partners periodically based on skill and specific needs. (See “How to teach” below for tips on how to do partner work during times of social distancing.)

Choose texts. For each pair, choose a text at the average level of the two readers. You can also offer several texts for pairs to choose from. Some students may benefit from an audio version of the text. This way, they can listen, control the rate and volume, and rewind as needed. For students who struggle with decoding, this option allows them to focus on the higher-level process of summarizing.

Divide the text into sections. After you’ve picked the text, choose short sections of around six to eight lines for students to read and shrink. The exact length will depend on a text’s genre and complexity. Think about natural breaks in the narrative or places where the topic changes. Mark these sections before giving the text to students. If students will be using an audio version, note the time markers where they need to stop the recording.

Try it yourself. On your own, follow the paragraph shrinking steps for the text. Write down the who or what, the most important information, and the 10-word summary. By trying out the steps yourself, you’ll know the answers to listen for when you drop in on student conversations.

How to teach: 

1. Model the strategy. With a co-teacher, paraprofessional, or volunteer student, model how to do the paragraph shrinking steps. If this is the first time you’re showing the strategy, make sure your model is explicit. Also, be sure to: 

  • Explain the benefits of the strategy and expectations for partner behavior.

  • Remind students that making mistakes is part of the learning process. Model having difficulty as the reader, so that your coach can prompt you to look at the text again or to fix a mistake. 

  • Provide sentence starters to help students who may need help answering or coaching, such as “The ‘who’ of this story is ___.”

2. Match up partners. Use your partner list to put students into pairs. Make sure the partners know their roles — either coach or reader — for the first round. The stronger reader should be the coach first. (If an adult will work with an individual student, the adult is the coach for the first round.) Give all students this card as a reminder of the steps. 

3. Partners work through the routine. The first reader in each pair reads or listens to the section of the text. The coach guides the reader through the steps of naming the who or what, the most important thing about the who or what, and the main idea in 10 words or fewer. For students who prefer to write or draw their answers, provide them with paper or digital tools. As the reader shares answers, the coach gives positive, corrective feedback. If the students’ answers differ, they should go back to the text to find evidence for their answers. Then, partners switch roles. The new reader will continue reading the next section of the text.

During times of social distancing, you’ll need to change how partners work together. The classroom may be too loud if everyone is talking at a distance at once. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Do the partner work in shifts or meet with students one-on-one to reduce the noise.

  • If you have access to devices, students can read their own copies of the text silently and then use a shared document to do the paragraph shrinking.

  • If you have access to devices and headphones, students can use a video call platform for the entire activity. You can also do this in shifts to reduce the noise.

4. Circulate the room to observe. Listen to each pair, referring to the answers you wrote down ahead of the lesson. Look out for answers that don’t fit with your responses. Prompt students to explain why they chose the answers they did. Encourage coaches to do the same. 

5. Wrap up. After partners finish, come together as a class. Have students share their answers. If there’s not a lot of time, discuss one of the tricky spots you noticed as you circulated the room. (For instance, several students may have had trouble keeping their summaries to 10 words.) You can also share examples of constructive feedback you heard coaches give. 

Teaching tip: For many students, the most challenging part of this routine is giving feedback. It can take time for students to learn how to offer real, substantive feedback. Specifically, students with lower reading skills may struggle with providing the correct feedback. Or they may be hesitant to do so. Build up these feedback skills by modeling different types of feedback each time you model the routine. Talk about what makes the feedback most useful. During partner work, provide targeted support for students who need help giving feedback. 

Understand: Why this strategy works

Research shows that all students can benefit — both socially and academically — from peer-assisted learning strategies like paragraph shrinking. Working with peers is especially beneficial for English language learners because they may find peers more accessible and easier to understand than teachers. 

Paragraph shrinking helps all students by making the process of summarizing explicit. It gives students an easy-to-learn set of steps to find the main idea. And when students can find the main idea, they build meaning about what they’ve read.

Because the routine uses short sections of text, it’s especially beneficial for students who have trouble with working memory. These students often struggle with seeing the connections from one idea to the next. They may lose track of information presented earlier. Paragraph shrinking gives them a way to review a short section, retain it in their memory, and then move on to the next section.

In general, students who struggle with reading often focus on irrelevant information, which makes it difficult to find the main idea. This is especially true of students who have trouble with focus. Each time students do paragraph shrinking, they practice weeding out information. Other students who may not have trouble weeding out unimportant details will enjoy the challenge of trying to fit as much information as possible into 10 words. 

Teaching tip: If students continue to struggle with focusing on irrelevant information during paragraph shrinking, you can break down the text into even smaller sections. Or you can have an adult partner work with students to go sentence-by-sentence to find the right who or what and details along the way. 

Paragraph shrinking gives families (including parents, caregivers, and even older siblings) a simple, easy-to-follow strategy for checking that kids understand what they’re reading. 

Explain the strategy to families using the four simple steps. (You might even send home the same reference card you’ve given to students.) Family members and their kids can take turns as coach and reader. By following this strategy, families will extend and validate what their child is learning in the classroom. 

Research behind this strategy

“Peer-assisted learning strategies: Making classrooms more responsive to diversity,” from American Educational Research Journal

“PALS: Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies,” from the Fuchs Research Group at Vanderbilt University

“Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction,” from the National Reading Panel

“Peer-assisted learning strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities,” from Exceptional Children


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