Category Archives: summarizing

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.

Writing a summary—How to tell what’s important to include and what’s not

My sixth grade student looked at the 17 paragraphs of a news article, bewildered. Where should she begin to find the main idea in order to write a summary? Was every name important? Did her summary need a hook? How about a conclusion?

Writing a summary is a new skill to many middle schoolers. Compressing 700 words into 150 or even into a single sentence without adding any opinion or outside information is daunting. Here’s how I walk a student through the process, over and over, until she gets it.

  • First, I make sure the student has read and understood the selection to be summarized. I might ask a few general questions to see if she understands the gist of it. Little things which adults spot quickly, like the source of the information, or the significance of it, might never occur to a student. So before writing, the student needs to be aware of the who-what-when-where-and why of a nonfiction selection and which of those five W’s apply. I ask the student to identify the five W’s, verbally, and to form one or two sentences combining that information. I help her refine those sentences, and they usually become the first sentences of her summary.
  • Next we look at the reading selection’s introduction and write on the original, separating the introduction with margin lines or even drawing a large rectangle around that section. For a student new to summarizing, drawing on the “document” can help her to “see” the organization.  If the document can’t be written on, I photocopy it so the student feels free to mark it.
  • I ask the student if the introduction is a hook or is a true introduction. “There’s a difference?” she might ask. I explain that many times the hook attracts readers to keep reading, but it is not the gist of the idea in the selection. The hook can be like the pretty woman selling a car in a TV commercial. Is the commercial really about the woman or the car? The student rereads the introduction and decides if it is hook or important information. If it is hook, I ask her to X it out and we move on to the next section of the reading selection which usually is the true introduction.
  • Sometimes there are subheadings which tie information together. If so, we look at how subheadings are used. Can you organize your summary the same way, I ask, writing a sentence or two about each of the subheaded information? “You mean I don’t have to summarize each paragraph?” No, you don’t. If the paragraphs are details about the same information, figure out what the main idea is in each subheaded section. A summary needn’t summarize each sentence or each paragraph but rather each important idea. At this point the student often rereads the selection, drawing lines around sections which can be summarized as a lump. Then she summarizes each section.
  • We go back to the five W’s. Who? I ask the student if she has said  who is the source of the information she has read? “Well, the newspaper is.” But who is the newspaper quoting or getting its information from. “Oh.” She identifies the “who” (the organization issuing the report, the government agency, the scientist), and if she has not noted this in her summary, she backtracks to put it near the beginning. “What” is usually the main idea, so that should already be on paper. “When?” A general date (last week, during the summer, in November) and setting should be noted. “Where” might be important but it might not.
  • “Why” might not be on the student’s radar, but it needs to be. Why is the information in the reading selection important? The student should be able to find out why somewhere in the reading selection. Stating it is often a good way to end a summary.
  • How about names? Sometimes a name is important, but many times it can be left out in a summary, and a description of the kind of work the person does can be used instead. “Scientists at the ABC organization,” or “angry mothers in Toronto,” or “people studying Shakespeare’s plays” might be a better way to identify who is involved than actual names. However, if the selection concerns a well-known person, that person’s name should be used.
  • How about organizing the summary? Should it go in the same order as the original reading selection? If the original is a news story, then yes, since information in a news story is written in order of importance. For other nonfiction selections, the original structure is probably a good guide, but it needn’t be strictly followed. On the other hand, why not follow it unless it is incoherent?

When my student finished her summary, she glowed, knowing she had left out so much while stating the main ideas in eight sentences. Seventeen paragraphs reduced to eight sentences! Yet I know we will need to do this many more times before she feels confident enough to compress on her own. Like so many writing skills, summarizing takes practice.

Written summaries show reading comprehension

If you want to improve a child’s reading comprehension, one of the best strategies is to ask the child to write a summary of what he has read.

A written summary can tell you, the parent or teacher, if the student understands what he has read. A written summary can also inform you about problems in the thinking of a student, such as an inability to identify main ideas, an inability to rank ideas, and an inability to sequence ideas meaningfully. If the writer has included subtleties in the writing, such as inferences and metaphors, a summary can tell you whether the student caught on or read right over them.

What should you be looking for in a student summary?

  • All the main ideas of the reading selection should be present in the summary. If an idea is missing, ask the child why he did not include it. Did he think it not important? Did it seem more like a detail than a main idea? Did it seem to be included in another idea?
  • On the other hand, some students find it hard to distinguish between a main idea and a detail. Everything is important to them. Long summaries can be evidence of a student who cannot separate main ideas from secondary ones. They need help with this skill.
  • If the reading selection ranked information, did the student recognize this, or did the student report on the information willy-nilly? Perhaps the student missed clues as to the importance of certain ideas compared to others. Perhaps the student was in a hurry and thought naming three ideas out of five was plenty. Most likely, the student will encounter the same problems again and use the same strategies unless you point out the faultiness of his thinking.
  • If sequencing is important in the original reading selection, the child must note this is his summary. There might be chronological sequencing or logical sequencing which makes sense only if it is summarized in the correct order.
  • When inference or figurative language plays a noticeable role in the original reading selection, the student should note this in his summary. He might say, “Although the writer did not come out and say this, he inferred that. . .” Or he might say, “It is important to note that Mercutio spoke in puns throughout Romeo and Juliet, bringing much humor to his scenes.”

Little children who cannot write yet can still provide oral summaries as a way to test their understanding of a reading selection.

The more you ask the student to offer summaries, the better he will become at creating them.

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.

How do you paraphrase?

In the 21st century, middle school students are writing research papers, so they need to know how to paraphrase. Quoting word-for-word is no longer the preferred way to present information in a research paper; paraphrasing is.

So what is paraphrasing? Paraphrasing is saying what someone else said (or wrote) using your own vocabulary and grammar. Paraphrasing turns antiquated writing into easy-to-understand modern writing; paraphrasing captures the essence of a writer’s ideas while ignoring his boring language; paraphrasing avoids plagiarism.

Paraphrasing is not the same as summarizing. In a paraphrase, the writer tries to capture all the important details of the original; in a summary, the writer leaves out most of those details.

How does a student paraphrase?

  • First, read the selection to be paraphrased. If you don’t understand every word and idea, read it again, look up words and ask for help. You can’t paraphrase what you don’t understand.
  • Carefully study the first sentence. Put it in your own words, being careful to use different vocabulary.   In particular, change the verbs if you can, using specific synonyms.
  • Now change the grammar. Try changing the order of the parts of the sentence so the ideas are the same, but they are not stated within a sentence in the same order.
  • Of course, you will need to use some of the same words in the original for which there are no synonyms, or for which alternatives would be cumbersome. If you are paraphrasing rules about how to play soccer, for example, you would need to use “soccer,” “ball,” “goal, “field” “play” and many other soccer-specific words.
  • Move through the selection one sentence at a time. As you get more experience, you can paraphrase ideas rather than sentences, combining ideas in several sentences in the original into one sentence in the paraphrase.  Or you can cut long, verbose sentences in the original into two or more shorter sentences in the paraphrase.
  • Paraphrases don’t need to be exactly the same length as the original, but all the important ideas in the original need to be stated in the paraphrase.
  • Read over your paraphrase to be sure it is clear to the reader.

Notice the difference between the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and a paraphrased version:

The original words:   “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

A paraphrase: Sometimes, one group of people who have been politically connected to another group of people decide it’s necessary to go their separate ways and to become a new country. Out of respect for everyone involved, it’s a good idea for the country which is separating to explain the reasons why the break is necessary.