Summarizing

Summarizing teaches students how to discern the most important ideas in a text, how to ignore irrelevant information, and how to integrate the central ideas in a meaningful way. Teaching students to summarize improves their memory for what is read. Summarization strategies can be used in almost every content area.


When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

What is summarizing?

In student-friendly terms, summarizing is telling the most important parts of a text, in your own words, in a much shorter way. Teaching summarizing shows students how to discern the essential ideas in a text, how to ignore irrelevant information, and how to integrate the central ideas in a meaningful way. Teaching students to summarize improves their memory for what they read and acts as a check for comprehension. Summarizing is a complex skill that will continue to develop over time, as students read increasingly complex texts.

Why teach summarizing?

  • It helps students learn to determine essential ideas and consolidate important details that support those ideas.
  • It enables students to focus on key words and phrases of an assigned text that are worth remembering.
  • It teaches students how to take a large selection of text and reduce it to the main points for more concise understanding.
  • Summarizing skills are applicable in almost every content area.

How to teach summarizing

Summarizing can be tricky, even for adults. The leap from retelling — which asks readers to recall the events in a story in logical order — to determining what is important or essential in a story and condensing the information into a summary, is a big one. A good way to scaffold young readers’ growing ability to summarize is to model and practice summarizing routines. The routine or structure that makes the most sense will be different depending on students’ age and experience.   

Less experienced students

Try transitioning from structured routines for teaching story sequence, such as “Beginning, Middle, and End” and “First, Next, Then, Last”, to structured summarizing routines such as “Someone Wanted But So Then” or “Five-Finger (5Ws)” summarizing. These scaffolds give students a visual representation of their thinking and a way to structure their responses while prompting them to think about more than just the sequence of events.

Somebody Wanted But So Then summarizing strategy filled in on classroom flip chart

More experienced students

For students who have had more practice identifying story elements and determining important ideas, try using more open-ended routines such as Sum it Up for $2.00 or other keyword-focused approaches to summarizing. 
For students who are comfortable with the concept of main ideas and important details:

1. Begin by reading or by having students listen to the text selection to be summarized.

2. Ask students the following framework questions:

  • What are the main ideas?
  • What are the crucial details necessary for supporting the main ideas?
  • What information is irrelevant or unnecessary?

3. Have them use keywords or phrases to identify main points from the text.

Watch a demonstration: SWBST lesson (grade 2, whole-class)

In this virtual lesson, the teacher reads Little Chimp and the Termites aloud and models filling out a “Someone Wanted But So Then” (SWBST) graphic organizer. What is so powerful about this strategy is that the SWBST sheet itself, read as a series of sentences, is a summary of the book.

Watch a demonstration: summarization strategies (grades K–2)

The K–2 activities described in this video focus more explicitly on using story elements (characters, setting, problem, solution) as a basis for retelling and summarizing. The K-1 activities include oral summaries, illustrations, and acting out by students. The grade 2 is a small group retelling and summarizing activity with card prompts for story elements that can include a writing component.

Watch a demonstration: summarizing strategy

The teacher explains “Sum It Up for $2.00”, a strategy for summarizing using keywords from the text.

Collect resources

For a comprehensive list of summarizing activities, including a collection of non-written summary activities, see Quick Summarizing Strategies to Use in the Classroom

Get the Gist, a resource from the U.K. National Behaviour Support Service includes many graphic organizers and lesson ideas. 

Here's a lesson plan for helping students learn to summarize using Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Differentiate instruction

  • Provide sentence frames for oral and written summarizing lessons and activities.  
  • Keep in mind that different summarizing routines can be used for the same text. If students are working independently or in pairs, you can vary the method they use to summarize.  
  • Use visuals. Incorporate graphic organizers that use pictures rather than text as prompts and/or have students draw their summaries. 
  • Guide students throughout the summary writing process. Encourage them to write successively shorter summaries, refining their written piece until only the most essential and relevant information remains.
    Have students work together to answer summary questions and write responses. Consider pairing writers with emergent-writers and asking the writers to take dictation. This work prompts discussion about what’s important in the text and lets both students do the thinking work of summarizing.

See the research that supports this strategy

Jones, R. (2007). Strategies for Reading Comprehension: Summarizing. Retrieved 2008, January 29, from http://www.readingquest.org/strat/summarize.html.

Guthrie, J. T. (2003). Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction: Practices of Teaching Reading for Understanding. In C. Snow & A. Sweet (Eds.), Reading for Understanding: Implications of RAND Report for Education (pp. 115-140). New York: Guilford.

Children's books to use with this strategy

Goose and Duck

Goose and Duck

By: Jean Craighead George
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Fact and fiction combine in this story of migrating birds and imprinting behaviors by a well known naturalist.

Your Skin Holds You In

Your Skin Holds You In

By: Becky Baines
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 0-3
Reading Level: Pre-Reader

Everything you never knew you wanted to know about skin is presented in an engaging, light combination of photographs and drawn lines. The result is an informative book that can be shared in layers, demonstrating that "it's your skin that holds you in!"

Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship

Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship

By: Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, Paula Kahumbu
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

When a tsunami orphans a young hippopotamus, a group of concerned Malidi (on the east coast of Kenya) villagers figure out how to capture the 600 pound baby thus beginning his new life in an animal sanctuary with a new and unlikely companion — a 130 year old tortoise named Mzee. Full color photographs and straightforward text are used in this inspiring, appealing and true story told first by a young girl and her father.

Comments

I have never found any site that is so detailed as this. Please continue sharing your ideas to us educators because what you do for teachers like us is a blessing from God. Thank you and God bless.

this is so inspiring i will be using this next week i look forward to it!

I like this format. Instead of starting with a paragraph which might be scary to some students, the exercise asks for a sentence. Students are forced to use words they think are relevant (a lesson in and of itself) and use word economy as suggested by the money idea. This seems as if it's a great start in helping students understand what is fluff and what is necessary for a well rounded and meaningful summary. I am looking forward to trying it.

This was great for my homework, because had a question that I did not understand at all. But this website helped incredibly !!!!X Thank You X!!!!

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"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume