Retelling: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Retelling is a short, consistent routine students can use to recall, order, and summarize a text. With this retelling routine, students practice important comprehension skills, including:

You can use this retelling routine to help students retell both nonfiction and fiction texts. You can also use this retelling routine to monitor comprehension. 

Watch: See retelling in action

Watch this video from EL Education to see how a first-grade teacher uses retelling with a nonfiction text.

Download: Printable graphic organizer for retelling

Retelling graphic organizerPDF - 225.4 KB

Download$opens in a new tab

Read: How to teach retelling

Objective: Students will identify, organize, and retell key details of a text to show their understanding. 

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • K (Common Core Literacy RL.K.2: With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details; Common Core Literacy RI.K.2: With prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text)

  • 1 (Common Core Literacy RL.1.2: Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate an understanding of their central message or lesson; Common Core Literacy RI.1.2: Identify the main topic and retell key details of a text)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class

  • Small groups

  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Choose a fiction or nonfiction text (or allow students to choose from a few options). The text should take no more than three to five minutes to read aloud. Make sure to choose a reading level where students can decode the words and read the text fluently. You can also provide an audio version of the text. For English language learners (ELLs), it's helpful to provide the text in a student’s home language, if available. 

Pre-read the text and identify the key details. Before the lesson, take a few minutes to read the text to help you choose which retelling activities to use for this particular text. Pre-reading can also help you figure out what background knowledge students need. As you pre-read, focus on the following: 

  • Fiction: Identify key characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and other key events.

  • Nonfiction: Identify topic, author’s purpose, main idea, and two to four supporting details. 

Consider your students’ needs. Use recent data from formative and summative assessments, like the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), to assess each student’s current retelling skills. This information can help you decide how to best support all your students. See the table below for options for providing differentiated levels of support.

How to teach: 

1. Explicitly model the retelling routine. You can model the routine using a very short text or the first section of a text. 

2. Explain what you expect students to do. You might say, “Today we are going to read a story two times. After we finish the first time, you’re going to tell me about it. Then, we’ll read the story again. When I finish the second time, you’ll do another activity to retell the story.” Pause to check that students understand the activity. Ask, “What are we going to do today?” You can display a list on chart paper as a visual reminder of the steps in the routine.

3. Preview the text. Start by looking at the title and any subtitles or pictures with the students. Talk about whether the text is fiction or nonfiction. Then, activate prior knowledge by having students turn and talk with a partner to answer questions like, “What do you know about this topic?” or “What do the pictures make you think of?”

4. Read or listen to the text. In some cases, you may want students to read. In other cases, you may wish to read the text aloud or give students the option to listen to an audio version. For instance, if students struggle with working memory or attention, you may opt to give them an audio version so they can pause and rewind as needed.

5. Ask students to do an initial retelling. Students can show their understanding by retelling verbally, in writing, or drawing. Don’t use any supports at this point. You want to gauge their initial understanding of the text and find the “gaps” (if any) in their comprehension.

For ELLs: Invite ELLs to retell the text initially in their home language. If you have more than one student who speaks the same home language, put them in a group to talk about the text and then share a summary in English. 

6. Reread the text. Students can read it, you can read it, or use the audio version.

7. Ask students to do one of the following retelling activities with support:

  • Five-finger retelling: Have students hold up one hand. Explain that each finger represents a part of the retelling: who (characters/key figures), what (conflict/key events), where (setting), when (setting), and why (resolution/motives). Ask students to orally retell the five W’s of text — pointing to each finger as they go. For visual support, create an anchor chart that shows a hand with each finger labeled. Display the chart so students can refer to it as they retell. 

  • Picture/props retell: Gather some materials, like printed pictures from the text, puppets, or other related props. Lay the materials in front of students and ask them to retell the text using the materials. (This type of retelling is best for individuals or small groups so all students can actively engage.)

  • Sequence retell: Give students the retelling graphic organizer. Have them point to the sequence word in each rectangle (first, then, next, and last) as they orally retell the story. Or students can draw pictures or write in the boxes for their retell. If students write, prompt them to use 10 words or fewer for each box.

8. Provide differentiated levels of support. Use this table for options to support your students during retelling activities:

Students’ retelling levelSupports
All students (Use regardless of current skill level)
  • Provide a retelling graphic organizer or an anchor chart of sequence words (first, next, then, last).

  • Allow students to refer to the text as needed.

  • Allow students to write down or draw important details.

Simple (Includes key details, describes major events, retells text in order)

  • Preview sequence words or story plot lines as needed.

  • During text reading, pause as needed to prompt students by asking, “Then what happened?” (After repeated practice, students can prompt each other or themselves.)

  • Provide a word bank with key vocabulary and/or pictures.

More complex (Has all of the above skills, plus use of key vocabulary and details not directly stated in the text)

  • As needed, provide students with a word bank of key vocabulary. 

  • Develop targeted questions to prompt students to make complex inferences, predictions, or elaborations. These questions can also be printed on handouts or notecards for students to use on their own or with a partner. Examples: 

    • “Why did the character do that?” 

    • “How did that action help the character?”

    • “Can you tell me more about X detail?”

    • “What do you think will happen next?”

Most complete (All of the above skills, plus makes connections to prior learning, elaborates on important details, and evaluates the text)

  • At the end of the retell, prompt students to evaluate the text by asking questions. Examples:

    • “Why do you think the author wrote this story?”

    • “What lesson does the reader learn from this story?”


Understand: Why this strategy works

Retelling is a complex skill. It takes knowledge of text structure, understanding of vocabulary, and the ability to recall and summarize. It’s a valuable skill, too. Research has found that retelling promotes comprehension and vocabulary development. 

For students who struggle with memory, attention, or language processing, a predictable retelling routine — with support — helps them internalize the skill. Because students know what to expect, they’re more likely to check their understanding while they read or listen. 

When students follow the retelling routine, they engage with the text more than once. That’s particularly helpful for students who struggle with working memory or language processing. When they read the text the first time, they can read for a general understanding. Their first retelling can help you find any gaps in their understanding and be ready to ask specific questions. When students read the text for a second time with support, they can focus more on the details — making them more likely to experience success.

For all students — and particularly for ELLs — previewing the text and reading multiple times gives them many chances to interact with new vocabulary and text structures. Pictures (including images from the text), props, or word banks all give students vocabulary practice in different formats. Also, when students retell, they have to use words they read or heard in the text. This means more chances for oral and written language development, as well as practice building comprehension skills.

In an upcoming email or newsletter to families, tell them how they can practice retelling at home. Or you might model the activity at a family event so they can see it in action. You can use language like this:

In class, we are practicing how to retell what we’ve read. That means we read a short text (fiction or nonfiction). Then, students say in their own words what they have read. Being able to retell is an important reading skill.

You can practice retelling at home with any book (or even just a few pages of a book) you read with your child. You can do this in as little as 15 minutes in one sitting. Here are the five easy steps:

  1. Preview the book. Talk about the title and pictures with your child.

  2. Read the book. You can read the book, your child can read the book, or you can read it together.

  3. Ask your child to retell what they read. Don’t give too many hints or ask too many questions. The retelling will give you a good idea of what your child understood.

  4. Reread the book.

  5. Ask your child to retell again. This time, ask your child to hold up one hand to do the five-finger retell. For this activity, your child will use different fingers to represent five different parts of retelling the book: who (characters/key figures), what (conflict/key events), where (setting), when (also the setting), and why (resolution/motives). Your child will point to each finger while retelling. If your child has trouble, look back at the book for clues. 

If you have a chance to practice this week, write back and let me know how it went. If your child has trouble with retelling, I can give you some other ideas to practice. Together we can help your child become a better reader.

Research behind this strategy

“Children’s story retelling as a literacy and language enhancement strategy,” from the Center for Early Literacy Learning

“The power of story retelling,” from The Tutor

“The effects of storytelling and story reading on the oral language complexity and story comprehension of young children,” from Early Childhood Education Journal

“Comparison of the effectiveness and efficiency of oral and written retellings and passage review as strategies for comprehending text,” from Psychology in the Schools


Read next