The teacher was feeling a bit overwhelmed. He was assigned a Reading course in which summarizing was one of the goals. Where to start? A colleague suggested a rather arduous process of having students identifying and clarifying the topic of the passage. This would be followed by techniques for finding the most important point the author was making for each paragraph. Then they would practice how to identify supporting points. They would practice recognizing key word and practice paraphrasing those. And on and on.
All those steps above are totally unnecessary.
The easy summarizing-skill technique
Here is the basis for this technique: We always have a reason for summarizing specific information from an article. (In real life, and even mainstream academic courses, are we ever asked to just summarize everything in an article?)
Examples of the technique
Let’s say that your students just read an article title, “Does Social Media Make People Sadder?” (To see the article, see • 1st Free ESL Reading: Does Social Media Make People Sadder?)
Summarizing for a purpose: Example 1.
Summarizing for a purpose: Example 2.
Option: Help students remember information
Since summarizing without looking at the passage isn’t meant to be a test of their memory but rather to discourage directly copying, it can be helpful to give the students some key words from the passage. For example, in the case above about Ami and her friend, the exercise could look like this:
Recommendation for stress-reduction. Before students start their summaries, I always say, “This is not a memory test. If you can only write one sentence, I will read that sentence and tell you if it is a good one.”
A key to making this approach effective: Quality Control
Not surprisingly, the quality of each student’s summary will be different. Some will …
• be great.
• not include important information.
• have unnecessary ones.
• include problems with paraphrasing; some will be confusing.
• show that they hadn’t understood the passage.
To address each student’s unique situation, its best if the teacher can work with them one-on-one to lead each one to understand how to improve the summary. For example, the teacher might say:
• “The article told about the young woman who went to a wedding. Do you remember that? Can you tell me about it? (Student tells about it.) Good. It would be helpful to tell that here.”
• “Look at this sentence in your paragraph. Are these your words or did you copy them?”
• “Look at these sentences in your paragraph. Do you think these details are important here?”
• “I’m not sure that I understand what you wrote here. Could you explain it to me?” (Students explains.) “Good. Now, without looking at the passage, can you revise this part using your own words?”
Finding time to work one-on-one with each student during class is NOT pie-in-the-sky.
By setting up your class using a workshop approach, it will allow you to conference with each student while, at the same time, the other students are actively engaged in reading and/or writing assignments. For more about this approach, see • The Most Effective Classroom Organization for Reading Skills Development (Student-Centered)
More practice with summarizing
Here are two exercises that can help students develop an awareness of how summaries and paraphrases use words and styles that are different from the text. These come from • Stimulating Small-Group Discussion Activity 3: “Does Social Media Make People Sadder?”
Paraphrase fill in the blank
Paraphrase find the mistake.
For a summarizing activity involving all four skills: reading, speaking, listening and speaking, see • Fluency Writing: Reading, Speaking In Triads, And Listening Culminating In A Writing Task
Also, see • Writing class: Dealing with plagiarism (Don’t take it personally)