Strategies for highlighting a text when summarizing

Highlighting a reading selection can be helpful for a student learning to summarize. But many students are not taught what to highlight. May I suggest an approach?

  • First, make a photocopy of the selection so that the student can highlight freely. Even if a student owns a text, making a photocopy of a reading selection when the student is learning how to highlight allows the student to make mistakes without damaging the text.
example of a text to be summarized plus a summary of it

Click on the information above about Ancient Greece to enlarge it.

  • Next, have the student read the selection without marking it in any way. If you suspect he might not understand the selection, question him about it until you are sure he understands it.
  • Third, ask him to find the topic. The topic is a word or a phrase identifying what the reading selection is about. Many times the topic is the title or headline, or it can be found in the first paragraph of a nonfiction reading selection. For a fiction selection, the student might need to infer from the details what the topic is, but usually it is stated. The student should underline or highlight the topic and write the word topic near that word or phrase. Identifying the topic reminds the student what the reading selection is about.
  • Now the student should identify the main idea. The main idea is not the same as the topic. A topic is a word or phrase; a main idea is a statement. From Charlotte’s Web, an early chapter’s main idea might be “Wilbur is lonely so he searches for a friend.” Or from an article about insects, a main idea might be, “An insect’s body has three parts.” The main idea might be found in the introduction of a nonfiction reading selection. Or the student might need to infer the main idea from the facts given. The student should highlight it and mark “main idea” next to it. Identifying the main idea often offers the student a sentence to write to begin the summary.
  • Next, the student should divide the reading selection into sections. This is not the same thing as dividing a selection into paragraphs, but it might turn out that each section is an individual paragraph. However, some sections, or subtopics, extend over more than one paragraph. The paragraphs of Wilbur asking the rat to play would be one section and the paragraphs of Wilbur asking the goose to play would be another section. The student could bracket a section in the margins or encircle all the paragraphs of one section with a single circle. In the margin of each section the student should name it with a word or phrase, such as “rat” and “goose.”
  • If there are important details, they should be highlighted or underlined. For example, if the reading selection’s topic is “Ancient Greece,” and it’s main idea is “Greece gave many contributions to world culture,” then the student should highlight categories of contributions such as poetry, statues, buildings, amphitheaters, democracy, trade routes, wine and plays. If a particular example is outstanding, such as the Parthenon or The Iliad and The Odyssey, they should be highlighted also.
  • Whole sentences should not be highlighted, just important categories or details. Depending on how long the summary should be, most details can be skipped.
  • Sometimes it helps to use arrows from the main idea to the supporting information that will be in the summary. Have the student draw arrows on the photocopy, including the points that should be in the summary.
  • Now the student is ready to write the summary. Start with the main idea, paraphrasing the original if possible. Have the student write it on his paper. Next, add one or more sentences fleshing out this main idea, using the highlighted categories and important details. If the student has done the preparation work, the summary writing should take just a few minutes.

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