Teachers at times tend to believe that summary writing is easy, and students should be able to do it without being taught; teachers will sometimes make an assignment to “read and summarize the article,” for example, without much direction.
However, summary writing isn’t that simple. In fact, it’s a difficult academic skill. As with any new skill, especially a writing skill, students need to be explicitly taught.
What Exactly is a Summary?
A summary is a long text distilled to its essentials, the key points worth noting, without examples and details. The specific form, the sentence structure and the vocabulary, has been changed, but the main ideas remain.
Why Teach Summaries?
Again, summary writing doesn’t come naturally, and when told to summarize, students will often either copy verbatim, write long, detailed “summaries,” or write excessively short ones missing key information. This occurs because students don’t really know what a summary is or how to write one. If they have been told how to write one, it is usually in nonspecific terms, such as “Put the story in your own words.” This is not technical enough to be helpful. Summarizing is actually a specific and technical skill.
Writing a summary is an important skill that students will use throughout their academic careers. In addition, summarizing improves reading skills as students pick out the main ideas of a reading; it also helps with vocabulary skills as students paraphrase a reading, altering the vocabulary and grammar as they do so. In addition, critical thinking skills are improved as students decide on the main ideas of the reading to include in the summary. Finally, writing and editing skills are improved as students draft and edit the summary. Students can also work with peers throughout the writing and revision process, so it also helps with cooperative learning. Therefore, many benefits exist to teaching summarizing skills.
Steps to Teaching Summary
As a class, read a short selection.
This can be either a short essay or part of one. It should be short enough that students can read it in the first part of your class session. Some suggestions are “short –short stories” or biographies of important people like Dr. Martin Luther King. Other suggestions are short expository readings from the fields of science, education, or history.
Have students underline the main ideas as they read.
Take this opportunity to talk to the students about the importance of marking text as a study skill. They can use this marked text as an outline to review later for quizzes.
Once students have their texts marked up, open the discussion of summaries. Discuss what it is. Offer a vivid example of its importance: for example, “How long is the movie Titanic? Yes, over three hours. If someone asked you tell her about Titanic, would you talk for three hours? Of course not! What would you do?” This gets students focused on the notion of summarizing as something they actually do in their everyday lives.
Provide an example. The teacher might consider also handing out an example summary of Titanic or something students have recently read—not the reading they are working on in this lesson—as a model of a summary.
Discuss the ideas. At this point, discuss the ideas students underlined in their readings. Call on students to share the main ideas they underlined and write them on the board.
Focus on 5 main ideas. As a class, decide on the top five main ideas for the summary.
Work on ordering the sentences and connecting them with transition words. Since the main ideas are drawn from different sections of the text and distinct from each other, it is important to connect them. This is a good time to teach some transition words of time or of addition.
Paraphrase the sentences.
An important concept related to summarizing is changing the summary significantly from the original. Model changing the grammar and vocabulary of the sentences, and have the student help with this as much as they can. This is a good way to help expand their vocabularies. The teacher can refer back to the Titanic example at this point as needed: “Would you use the exact words as the film when describing it to your friend? Or would you use different words that mean about the same thing?”
Teach the language of summaries. At this point, the teacher might teach students some of the formulaic language of academic writing, such as the phrase “According to (the author), “ to lead into the main idea and the summary.
Finalize. Put any needed final touches on the summary, such as an overarching idea to lead with. Also teach concluding sentences that restate the main idea.
Give out another short reading selection. Have students work on reading and marking the selection and then writing their summaries by themselves this time or in pairs.
It might be helpful at this point to instruct students to first do the reading and marking, and then close the reading, and without referring to it, tell their partner what it was about. The partner can take notes on the retelling, and then they can compare it to the original, making adjustments, such as adding missed main points or deleting details.
Summary writing isn’t easy and isn’t a skill that comes naturally.
However, it is a skill worth the time and effort as students will use it throughout their academic careers and the benefits it provides in reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+