My daughter reads fast, but when I ask her to summarize, she can’t explain well. What do I do?

Occasionally a read-a-holic student will have lower than expected reading grades. The parent is baffled because the child always has a book in her hands and goes through novels voraciously. When I ask such a student to read aloud for me, she shows many of these behaviors:

dhild running with book in hands




  • She doesn’t slow down for commas or stop for periods.
  • Her sentences merge and keep going for as long as she can read without taking a breath, and when she pauses to breathe, it might be in the middle of a sentence.
  • She may skip a line of reading when moving from the end of one line to the beginning of the next.
  • When she comes to an unfamiliar vocabulary word, she bulldozes it, pronouncing it any which-way, and continues reading.
  • Her inflection is flat, like that of an auctioneer.
  • She does not self-monitor; she doesn’t pause to consider that she didn’t understand what she just read.
  • When she answers questions about the reading selection, she does not remember important details and she doesn’t take the time to search for them in the selection.
  • She misses inferences and more subtle figurative language like metaphors.When asked to restate the main idea in a sentence or two, she talks around the subject but doesn’t nail the point the author is making.

What’s going on?

For such a student, speed is the important value. Finish quickly. Move on. (Notice if she is slap-dash about her piano practicing, dressing or cleaning her room. This is a personality trait, not just a reading trait.) In reading, this behavior might develop as she reads novels of her choice. She doesn’t care if she understands every nuance; she would rather understand enough to enjoy the story without slowing down for details.

This kind of reading might work for leisure-time reading, but it doesn’t work for most school reading, especially the kind of reading being tested under the new Common Core Standards. Common Core is trying to break such bad habits by forcing a reader to name the paragraph in which the answer is found, to define a word, to distinguish between fact and opinion, to restate an idea, to infer and to summarize.

What to do to improve fluency and reading comprehension?

  • Ask your student to read aloud. She will fume because it takes longer to read aloud. But make her do it. Silently read along with her and note the kinds of errors  which she is making.
  • If she is ignoring punctuation, stop her and ask her to reread and pause appropriately. She will hate this, but making this one change is half the battle.
  • Ask her to use inflection now that she can hear the sentences correctly. Model it if necessary.
  • If she slides over longer words she doesn’t know, stop her immediately and ask her to sound out the word. If she can’t do it on her own, cover a prefix and a suffix; ask her what the root means, or if she knows another word with that root. Then reassemble the word and pronounce it.
  • Sometimes it is not the long words which stump students; it is the idioms or the secondary meanings of short, familiar words. Stop your student when she encounters such words to be sure she understands them.
  • If she skips lines of reading, have her use her finger to keep track, or an opaque book mark.
  • At the end of a paragraph or a few paragraphs, ask her to explain what she just read. If she has missed something significant, go back and show it to her and together figure out why she missed it.
  • Many times, ask what the main idea is. If she can’t nail it, have her reread while you point out clues to the overall meaning.
  • Model self-monitoring by stopping her now and then to take stock of what was read and what to expect next.  Let your student hear you talking to yourself about what you just read.
  • Lastly, let her read her leisure-time reading undisturbed, bad habits and all. You can only fight so many battles; let her win that one small skirmish.

2 responses to “My daughter reads fast, but when I ask her to summarize, she can’t explain well. What do I do?

  1. Hi – I was this child. I was put in reading help for years when I didn’t need it. While some of these suggestions are smart strategies, it’s frustrating to read the negative tone of this article. Here you have a student who is a bookworm, who loves reading, and who will take context clues for words. These are not “bad habits”, they are amazing. A student’s brain may function differently and may not fit the common core cookie cutter, but doesn’t mean that is wrong.
    Some things that would help (and did help me) were expanding my vocabulary, thinking about the emotions I felt after reading, and talking through the metaphors and main ideas collaboratively with others. I emphasize vocabulary because I often didn’t have the right words to express my complex thoughts on what I was reading and understanding as a child. Every so often I’d hear a word and things would click (Oh! There’s a word for that, it’s “malignant” or “cognitive dissonance”, for example). Simply asking an elementary schooler to summarize the main idea of a paragraph in isolation can also be overwhelming. The themes of one paragraph are often influenced by the themes of a larger passage, and many kids know this even if they can’t articulate it. Additionally, at least for me, reading aloud meant I could no longer hear my inner voice and would lose a lot of comprehension skills as well.
    A bit about me – in elementary school I was in reading help. My teachers took books away from me and warned my parents I may never graduate high school. They also treated me with distain because of my adhd diagnosis, using it to justify why I wasn’t smart (I was. In fact the psychologist who diagnosed me tested my IQ as very high for my age). I graduated high school with a 4.4 GPA and was accepted into a prestigious university. I now am in school for my MS in Engineering, having graduated with an undergraduate engineering degree with high honors. I regularly recieve compliments on my advanced level of reading and writing, and scored a perfect score on the grammer section of the SAT. Moral of the story – don’t judge kids for being different.


    • Thank you for your long reply. Once a person learns the phonics of reading, the best way to continue to improve is to increase vocabulary, which you did. Thank you for pointing out a negative tone in my blog. I didn’t intend that. For some people the usual circuitry of reading is bypassed. Perhaps this happened to you. But you did learn to read. Maybe your teachers were not reading experts, so could not appreciate your less typical approach to reading. Good luck with your engineering career.


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