Category Archives: summarizing

Start your SAT essay with a one-sentence summary

If you write the SAT essay, you need to do three things well:

  • summarize the essay prompt to prove you understand it;
  • analyze how the author persuades readers; and
  • write your response in excellent, stylish English.

When you write a summary for the SAT essay response, I recommend you start with a one-sentence summary of the whole essay prompt.  Why?  Doing so proves you know what the essay is all about, what the gist of the essay is.  In the few sentences which follow, you can elaborate by stating the supporting main ideas.

For example, suppose you were to write a one-sentence summary of the US Declaration of Independence.  The first section of that document introduces the idea that the colonies are breaking away from Great Britain and that the world deserves to know why.  The second section identifies the legitimacy of such a break by any people who think their government is not supporting their rights.  The third section names the many grievances the colonial people have against King George III and his government.  The last section declares the independence of the 13 colonies.

How to put that all in one sentence?  How about this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to tell the world why the colonies were breaking away from their long established relationship with Great Britain and were declaring their independence, and why they had the right to separate.

All the important information is in this one sentence:  the author, the name of the piece of writing, and the major ideas of the document.

Let’s try another.  How about summarizing Romeo and Juliet in one sentence?   In Italy hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare has two teenagers meet, fall in love, and marry despite a feud between their families, leading to a tragic ending for the young lovers.

Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird?  Author Harper Lee has a precocious white girl, her brother, and their friend taunt a reclusive neighbor while the children’s father defends an innocent black man on trial for his life in 1930’s rural, bigoted Alabama.

In each of these one-sentence summaries, almost all details are left out.  Leaving out major details can be hard for some children.  Even teenagers sometimes can’t figure out what is most important.  That is why writing one-sentence summaries takes practice.

You will have one major help:  the thesis is given to you.  In the paragraph following the essay prompt, the thesis is named.  Many times you can wrap your summary around its ideas.

Scoring higher on the SAT essay

Let’s look at the SAT essay and how you can score higher on it.

Your response to the prompt (a persuasive essay provided in your testing packet) is an essay.  It is judged based on three criteria:

  • Naming the author and title of the prompt; identifying the thesis of the prompt, and summarizing the main ideas in the prompt plus important details.
  • Identifying what persuasive techniques the author of the prompt uses, pointing out examples of those persuasive techniques in the prompt, and explaining why those persuasive techniques work.
  • Writing your response in standard essay format (an introduction, body, and conclusion) while using excellent, stylish English.

Today let’s look at the first of the three criteria, the summary.

Before you read the essay prompt, I would go straight to the paragraph after the prompt ends.  That paragraph directs you to write an essay, but more importantly, it identifies the thesis of the prompt.  You don’t need to figure out what the thesis is because the test information identifies it.  Underline the thesis and in the margin write “thesis.”

(Yes, you can write in your test booklet.  It will be shredded after the test, so no one but you will see it.  Write any notes that help you.)

Now that you know what the essay prompt is all about, you can read the prompt aware of what you are looking for, that is, the main ideas backing up that thesis.  Underline the main ideas as you read and in the margin next to the ideas write “MI1” or “MI2.”  Why?  You need to be able to find the main ideas quickly later on.  Underlining them and annotating them in the margins makes finding them easier

Usually the prompt is five or six paragraphs, so you might wind up with four or five main ideas, one per body paragraph.  But sometimes an author begins the first main idea in the first paragraph and offers the last main idea in the last paragraph.  So read carefully.

Now that you know what the prompt is all about you can write your summary paragraph.  I would make that summary the first paragraph of your essay.  No need for a separate introduction–and no time.  In your first sentence, write an overall summary of the essay, and in the next few sentences, identify the main ideas.  That’s right.  Write a one sentence summary of the article to start your essay.

Remember, the SAT is a test designed to see if you are ready for college.  In writing the summary of the essay prompt, the test is asking you to prove you can read and understand college level material, and to prove that by summarizing the material.

How can you become proficient at this kind of writing without working with a tutor like me?  Go online to a well-written newspaper and read an op-ed article (an opinion essay on the page opposite the editorial page).  Do this several times a week.  Download one copy and mark it for its thesis and main ideas.  Write a five or six sentence summary.  Choose different authors with different writing styles and topics.

Or from your library, take out a book of essays and do the same thing.  Or find a book of essays from a resale book store or Goodwill which you can mark.  Choose persuasive essays because that is the kind you will be tested on.

 

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: exciting writing topics

Students love to talk about current events.  But usually their ideas lack facts—high on “Well, I heard” but low on hard facts.

Here’s a way to give them the facts on Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Harvey—the geography, the science, even the math.

Order* “Hurricane Irma (or Harvey):  storm graphing, tracking and analyzing.”  With the information provided, students will be able to

  • Plot the latitude and longitude of Irma (or Harvey) on their own maps. Then they can use that data to write about the day-to-day path the hurricane took, where it crossed land, and where it went next (or where it stalled, in Harvey’s case).  This essay would be heavy on geography—what Caribbean islands the storm passed, what waters it passed through, what states, cities or counties were involved.
  • Create bar graphs of the lowest barometric pressure and the highest wind speed of either hurricane. Then students can compare the two graphs and notice how higher wind speed correlates with lower air pressure and with Saffir-Simpson categories.  Numbers are details, and with two graphs plus the Saffir-Simpson chart, the students would have plenty of details to write an essay heavy on science and math.
  • For a comparison/contrast essay, students could interpret a chart comparing Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey. Plenty of facts describe both storms.
  • Or for an expository essay, students could write an essay explaining why Hurricane Harvey was so destructive. All the information is provided.  Students could use this same information to paraphrase one paragraph or several.
  • A different expository essay could focus on why hurricanes form and strengthen, using scientific facts about Hurricane Irma. A shorter writing assignment using the same facts could be a summary or a paraphrase of a single paragraph.
  • What makes for an accurate forecast of a hurricane’s landfall location could be another expository essay, focusing on why meteorologists had trouble pinpointing the landfall location of Irma. All the information is provided.  Or a paragraph or two could be paraphrased.  Or the ideas could be summarized.

I wrote the lesson plans and gathered the facts, focusing on activities appropriate for fifth through eighth graders.

*To check out one or both lessons, click on Irma or Harvey.  The cost is $5 each.

To paraphrase is not to summarize

Paraphrasing means restating, using your own words and grammar to interpret the essence of a document.  Paraphrases contain about the same number of words as the original.  In paraphrases, you write the ideas in the same order as in the original.  You include all the original ideas and details, but you use spot-on synonyms for all key words and you use your own phrasing and sentence structure.  To follow the original sentence structure, merely substituting synonyms for significant words, is plagiarism.girl writing and thinking

Summarizing also means restating while using your own words and grammar.  But summaries are much shorter than the original.  A summary includes all the main ideas, but names only the most important details.  Summaries need not follow the original document  in order of presentation of ideas, though a summary should identify the original method of organization.  Nor does a summary need to include information from every paragraph.  Hooks can be eliminated.

Summaries distill the focus of the original document into concise language.  If your summary seems like a list of data, then it is poorly written.  You should use logic to connect ideas.

Why are summarizing and paraphrasing so important?  If you can paraphrase or summarize an article well, that shows you understand the original.  Paraphrasing is much like translating from one language to another.  You leave nothing out while finding the right vocabulary, grammar and tone to express the original document’s ideas.  Summarizing is also like translating, but for an impatient listener who wants only the important ideas.

Using long direct quotes is frowned upon in both paraphrases and summaries.  The exception is if the original document contains famous phrases or words.  Even then, only snippets of the original should be used.  If you are paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” for example, quoting “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be okay since those words are so identified with the document.  But quoting the whole sentence from which those words should not be done most of the time.

If you are paraphrasing or summarizing a writer or document whose style is important–Hemingway, for example–then showing that style by using direct quotes would be necessary.  Another way to handle that style issue would be to write your paraphrase or summary in the style of the original document and then point that out to the reader.

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

How to use vocabulary workbooks as the basis for writing lessons

Teachers and tutors, do you want to save time and get double or triple use from the same source?  Use your students’ vocabulary workbook to teach writing.

EPSON MFP imageMany of my  students use the Wordly Wise 3000 series (which I recommend).  It has 20 lessons per booklet, one booklet per grade, first through twelfth.  In each lesson is an annotated list of new vocabulary words plus exercises using the words.

Like other vocabulary building series, each lesson also has a reading selection in which each new vocabulary word is used.  These reading selections are followed by many questions asking the student to use one of the new vocabulary words in a complete sentence answer.

But other ways to use the vocabulary and reading selections augment their original purpose and make them valuable as writing tools.  Here are some I have used.

  • Summarizing.  I teach students to underline the most important or key words in each paragraph.  Next, I show how to analyze each paragraph and to write an identification in the margin next to the paragraph.  Those phrases might be “dodo bird’s appearance,” “raising $ for Statue of Liberty base,” or “Renaissance dates and definition.”  Then, using the underlines and margin information, I teach the student to write a summary of each paragraph in about one or two sentences.  When he is done, he has a good summary of the reading selection.
  • Paraphrasing.  Taking one sentence at a time, I ask students to rewrite the sentence, keeping the meaning but changing the sentence structure and, where possible, the vocabulary.
  • Writing RACE responses.  I write a question based on the article.  Then I ask the student to respond using the RACE format (Repeat the question, Answer the question, Cite part of the article used as evidence, and Elaborate on that evidence with more evidence).
  • Writing sentences using new vocabulary words.  So many times students can define a word but they cannot use it properly in a sentence. I ask them to write sentences using vocabulary words. This shows their weakness in understanding certain words and helps me to explain the words better to them.
  •  Writing paragraphs using new vocabulary words.  I ask students to write each new word in a coherent paragraph or two. Writing a paragraph takes more skill than writing independent sentences.  Not only does the student need to know how to use the word, but he needs to know its noun, adjective and verb forms and whether it is the best word in a given situation.  Forming a coherent whole takes imagination and hard work.
  • Writing narratives.  Put a person or animal into the nonfiction situation in the reading passage and write about it. What if you were a dodo bird encountering your first human being?  What if you were a Cherokee forced to say good-bye to your land in North Carolina and trek toward the unknown?  What if you were Leonardo’s apprentice, entrusted to carry the rolled up canvas of the Mona Lisa from Florence to France?

If you are teaching children to write, you know that coming up with a writing topic is tedious.  But by using the reading selections from the vocabulary workbooks, the subject matter is identified, the student has prior knowledge, and the vocabulary words are identified.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

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.