Writing summaries of nonfiction

By middle school, today’s students are required to write summaries even though a generation ago this kind of writing began in high school. The Common Core promotes this kind of writing, as does students’ need to be able to write research papers at younger ages than in the past.

Summaries are written for many reasons:

  • Notetaking (listening to a lecture and discerning the important parts, or reading research and paraphrasing the important parts),
  • Understanding a reading passage (rewriting the main ideas to better understand them), and
  • Identifying the main points (turning an outline into a paragraph or two, or gathering information to use for later studying).

Students encounter two problems over and over when writing summaries:

  • How long should a summary be?
  • How much detail should be included in a summary?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers to either question, but here’s what I tell my middle grade students about summarizing nonfiction reading selections:

  • First, read the whole reading selection so you know what it is about and so you can judge what is important and what is not. If you don’t understand the selection, this is the time to ask questions.
  • If a reading selection has eight paragraphs, then (for middle grade students) its summary should have about eight sentences. Summaries are concise versions of the original, with major ideas included and most supporting details eliminated.
  • However, if the first paragraph or paragraphs are there only to hook the reader, then their ideas should not be included in the summary.
  • If a paragraph is a single sentence, perhaps it can be combined with another sentence in the summary. Or perhaps it is not important.
  • If a paragraph is more than five sentences, or if it contains a series of important ideas, then more than one sentence should be written to summarize it.
  • At the beginning, even before the topic sentence, the student should name the piece of writing being summarized and its author, and any particular ideas that would be helpful to the reader. The student writer should let the reader know that he is reading a summary. Sometimes this information can be included with the topic sentence.
  • Even though a summary is not an essay, a topic sentence is essential to help the reader to understand the summary.
  • A conclusion is sometimes not necessary if it would summarize the summary.
  • A good summary should be complete; that is, it should include all the important information in the original. If an author spends five paragraphs on subtopic A but only one paragraph on subtopic B, then the summary should include more information about subtopic A (about five times more) than subtopic B.
  • If the original text shows a point of view on a topic, that point of view should be replicated in the summary (letting the reader know that the point of view is that of the original author).
  • If the original text is factual and objective, so should be the summary.
  • The student writing the summary should not include his own perspective on the topic. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, for example, by using the word “only.”

How to write a summary or a nonfiction reading selection:

  • When I am teaching summaries to a student, I ask the student to write the main idea of each paragraph being read in the margin next to that paragraph or on a post-it note pasted next to the paragraph.  If the reading selection contains chapters, then I ask the student to write the main ideas of the chapter at the beginning of that chapter.
  • After each paragraph’s (or chapter’s) main idea is identified, the student needs to read all those margin notes and ask himself how they relate to the whole. Why did the author include each of those ideas in his passage? From that musing by the student often comes the topic sentence of the summary. That sentence is the most important one, from which all the others flow.
  • Information in a summary should be paraphrased. Occasionally, quotation marks can show the original words of the author being summarized, but direct quotes should be the exception, not the rule.
  • Summaries are usually written in the present tense.
  • If the summary is more than five sentences, remind the reader that this is a summary by using words like, “as author so-and-so says,” or “as article such-and-such relates.” If the summary is several paragraphs, a reminder to the reader that he is reading a summary should be included in each paragraph.

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