How to Write a Book Summary for 5th Graders

A love of stories goes hand in hand with developing the tools to analyze literature.
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Writing a book summary requires fifth-grade students to pay attention to the five elements of literature: plot, setting, characters, point of view, and theme. By doing so, students discuss everything encompassed within a novel and show how each element connects to the others. Unlike a book report, a book summary doesn't include the student's personal opinions of the book. A summary is simply that -- an objective piece that summarizes the key elements of a story.

1 Review the Plot

Help fifth-graders define key plot moments by brainstorming the major events within a story and noting how the author crafts the story around a central conflict. The plot of Lois Lowry's "Number the Stars," for example, can be summarized broadly and simply as, "A Jewish family in Europe struggles to survive during World War II." However, the summary should include a brief overview of the conflict the plot develops.

2 Determine the Setting

The time and place in which a story's events occur is often essential to understanding the meanings of a book. In children's novels where this information isn't explicit, help students analyze context clues to determine the setting. For example, the events in "Maniac Magee," by Jerry Spinelli, take place in a town where use of drinking fountains and public restrooms is racially segregated. Exploring this background with your students through illustrated discussions can help them better summarize the book, as well as deepen their understanding of racism in the book and American culture.

3 Consider Characters and Point of View

The fifth-grade reader needs to consider who is telling the story to make a complete summary -- and for that summary to lead to an enhanced understanding of literary elements appropriate to this grade. In Tolkien's "The Hobbit," for example, the story is told through an all-knowing third-person perspective. Discuss the student's experience of the story through the point of view presented before providing specific guidance for summarizing the book's characters. Help students define and identify the main character and, per common core standards for the grade level, describe how this character interacts with other key characters in the story.

4 Discuss Theme

The theme of a novel is generally what authors want their audience to "take away" from a reading of their work. Here the previous work done in creating the summary can provide a strong foundation for determining the theme -- another key language arts common core standard for fifth grade. Help students look at the major plot points, setting and conflicts between characters for what may be a clear, or perhaps more hidden, message. Encourage fifth-graders to sum up that message in a word or short phrase before elaborating on the book's theme in the summary.

Matt Duczeminski is a before- and after-school tutor and supervisor for the CLASP program in the Cheltenham School District. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz's Master of Science in education (Literacy, B-6), Duczeminski has worked in a variety of suburban areas as a teacher, tutor and recreational leader for the past eight years.