Learning Center


Introduce reader synthesis

April 17, 2017

Teaching students to synthesize their reading is often a challenge. One way to support understanding is to use physical triggers when modeling this concept. Kristina Smekens likes to bring in a boxed cake mix, measuring spoons, and a mixing bowl to compare baking a cake to the steps involved in creating a synthesis.

The video accompanying this article reveals how Kristina Smekens would execute this idea with a short whole-class mini-lesson.

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Reading Voice, Thinking Voice, & Distracting Voice - Comprehension Voice Signs - Smekens Education Originals

As we start today’s mini-lesson, let me first remind you of the voices in a reader’s head. We’ve been learning to use our Reading Voice to sound out the words. But we’ve also got to make sure our Thinking Voice is talking, too; it can have a lot of different thoughts.

So far this year we’ve learned that our Thinking Voice can retell and summarize what we read, it determines the most important information–the main ideas. We can also see things in our minds because we can visualize, even when there’s no pictures. We’ve learned to start asking questions when we read and even make connections. Today, I want to introduce you to synthesizing: the sixth comprehension strategy.

Now synthesis is awesome because it’s so powerful. And to really understand its power, I want to quickly review how the other inferences, or types of thoughts, work.

When we read, we read a few lines, and then we have a thought. We read a few more lines and have a thought. And we keep this Reading Voice/Thinking Voice conversation going on all throughout the text. But every once in a while, we read something, have a thought…and then another thought…and another thought. And we keep thinking about what we just read. We can’t stop thinking about it. And after we’ve had multiple thoughts, we realize something. We’ve learned something. We’ve discovered something we didn’t know before. And when that happens, it’s a synthesis.

A synthesis is a lot like baking a cake. When you first buy a cake mix, open it up, and pour the powder into the bowl, you don’t have much. You just start with powder…until you add the other ingredients. You add the water and then the oil and then the eggs. After adding those ingredients and mixing them up and putting it in the oven, you form a cake.

That whole cake-baking process is exactly how synthesizing works for readers, too. The powdered cake mix is your text. And you open it up, and you pour some in the bowl. That’s you reading and having a thought about what’s been read. And you read a little more, and you think about it. Read a little more and think about it. But, every once in a while, you read something and you think more than just a moment about it. You are thinking about it, and it makes you wonder…

Recipe for Making a Synthesis
Recipe for a Synthesis Visual

It reminds you of other texts you’ve read, experiences you’ve had. It reminds you of things you’ve learned previously and what experts say or other perspectives on this topic. It makes you start to think about nagging questions, things you’re wondering about or curious about. You might think about what was going on in the setting, what was happening in that time period. We’re considering everything about the text, including our emotions. What are we thinking about? What are we wondering about? How are we feeling?

And when we put any of these extra thoughts into our first thought, and we start to mix it and combine it and really consider it, what we have when we’re done is a brand new thought–a synthesis.

Let me show you the difference between a synthesis and the other five inferences. Instead of using print text, though, use a visual text (photographs).

For this portion of the lesson, reveal several photos personal to you.
  • PHOTO #1: Here’s a photo of my three kids, and I could think in the form of a retelling. And I could RETELL about the time our family went to the Hard Rock Cafe.
  • PHOTO #2: Or, I could retell about the time we went to Yellowstone. That’s what I’m reading about or remembering, but oh man, the VISUALIZATIONS that I could create would be fabulous.
  • PHOTO #3: And here’s another text–again of my three kids. I’m making a CONNECTION–a text-to-self connection. I’m thinking about when my parents made me read when I was a kid.

Have you ever pulled out a bunch of old photos and started flipping through them or scrolling through them on one of your devices? Have you ever moved through several photos, having a quick thought about each one? But then, every once in a while, you get to a photo, and you pause. You’re going to be there a little longer. You’re not just having one thought, you’re having several thoughts. This is you having a synthesis.

When I was first going through the photos, and I looked at each one, I had a quick thought and moved on. Until I got to this one (PHOTO #4).

  • When I first look at this photo, I immediately go into a RETELLING mode, and I remember when Nana came and visited my kids in 2004. But there’s so much to this photo–so much happening in my mind, that I keep thinking.
  • Like, I start to think about when this happened. I consider the SETTING. I know it was 2004, but she came from Wisconsin. Nana drove two days down from Wisconsin twelve years ago. Look how young my kids are.
  • As I keep looking at this picture, I remember how fun it was. I’m just taking in the EMOTION and remembering how much laughter the kids exuded that day when playing Perfection. Nana would start to scream every time that board popped up, and the kids would laugh.
  • That memory causes me to ponder and pull on some of my own BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE about when I was a kid, and my grandparents came to visit me. But not often–only like one time or two times a year. I didn’t see my grandparents very often. They lived far away.
  • Now some people think that’s kind of sad. Their PERSPECTVE is that I really missed out. But, you know what? It wasn’t sad for me. It was just normal. It’s the way things were.
  • You know what? As I look back, and I think back about that visit and so many others, you know what I’m realizing? You know what I’m synthesizing? I’m realizing there was a kind of perk for grandparents living far away. Yeah, they only visit every once in a while, but those visits are so special. They’re so special because we cram like a year’s worth of fun into just a couple days.
Serving Up Synthesis Set

Did you see it? Did you see what happened there? I had a synthesis. Did you notice how I looked at the picture and had an initial though, But then I paused and another thought came and then another and another and another. I didn’t know how many thoughts were going to come, but after I paused and had several thoughts, I paused once more.

That was me combining, mixing my thinking. It’s when I realized that for me it wasn’t sad that I didn’t see my grandparents very often. In fact, it made it kind of extra special. It was the perk. That was my synthesis! I hadn’t stopped to think about that before. I had this new realization after reading (looking) at the photo and taking into account all of my thoughts.

So today’s lesson was all about synthesizing—it’s the sixth type of reader thought. The Thinking Voice can synthesize. And it’s this powerful inference that your mind can make by simply reading the text and thinking, adding, combining, mixing, and producing a brand new realization. When you synthesize, you learn something you didn’t consider before.


Syntheses start with summaries

Summarizing v. Synthesizing
Summaries Lead to Synthesis
Chocolate Cake Mix Box
Cake Mix in a Bowl
Spoons on a Ring
Synthesize Bowl with Spoon
Synthesizing Cake
Synthesis Spoons - Grades 3-12 - Teacher Resource
Synthesis Spoons - Primary - Grades K-2 - Teacher Resource
Glenda Ferguson's Synthesis Lesson - Classroom Image

Teacher ideas:

To introduce synthesis to her Burris Elementary (Mitchell, IN) 4th grade students, Glenda Ferguson created her own “homemade” synthesis kit. Origin? Betty “Smekens” Crocker! She included old photos to use with the lesson. The image pictured shows Glenda with her cousins eating watermelon. She’s put together everything she needs to introduce synthesis to her students.

Claire Clark's Serving Up Synthesis Bulletin Board

Here’s how Claire Clark, K-5 ESL teacher, of Concord South Side Elementary (Elkhart, IN) helps her students understand how their combined thoughts can create a synthesis. She displays it on her Serving Up Synthesis bulletin board!

Shelly Hamman, teacher at Christian Academy (Louisville, KY) shared the following anecdote about synthesis:

I have been lucky to attend several of your reading and writing conferences over the last two years.

We are circling back through synthesis and 2nd graders always seem to have a hard time with this. I also have two students from our Providence School (students with Down Syndrome) in my classroom, so I try to give them many ways to experience a skill.

Today we had our lunchroom lady walk us through the process of making spaghetti with meatballs. We had read the book, Emma Kate (a book that has a great ‘aha’ moment yesterday and completed a visual tool on how our thinking changed. So today, I thought I would give them another way to see synthesis to help get it into their long-term memory.

I love your baking analogy, so this seemed like a great idea. The students loved this idea and were able to connect how the book Emma Kate and making spaghetti was alike.

“In the book, we thought Emma Kate at first was the one with the imaginary friend, and when we first saw Miss Julie cooking we didn’t know what she was making.”

From one little girl, “We had to wait to see more ingredients.”

They were excited to go back at lunch time to see what the final product would look like. Thanks for encouraging me to make reading more enjoyable!

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