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 Summary Writing
Home • ~Alexandra Rowe • Summary Writing
Utilizing Process Questions and Summary Writing To Teach Both Reading and Writing

by Glen Rice, formerly of University of South Carolina, currently of Richland/Lexington School District, Columbia, SC

NOTE:  The following began as a presentation at International TESOL and has evolved into presentations given by Mr. Rice in teacher training contexts both in the United States and abroad.  Mr. Rice is an expert in teaching L2 reading to secondary and post-secondary learners and consistently receives excellent evaluations of his teaching from students.  He is a firm believer in the second language improvement resulting from writing summaries.


This teacher has found summary writing to be effective in improving both reading comprehension and writing fluency in intermediate through advanced ESL reading classes.  This is consistent with Grabe (1991) who, in a review of L2 reading research, argues that since reading and writing seem to be “mutually reinforcing,” they should “be taught together in advanced academic preparation.”  Furthermore, Kirkland and Saunders (1991), hold that “summarizing skills are essential to academic success.” In the writing of research papers, for example, the student must be able to accurately summarize source material without plagiarizing.  In addition, this teacher’s students report that summary writing improves not only their reading and writing, but, as they use new words in summaries, their vocabulary as well.

The nearly convinced reading teacher, however, soon asks: “How can we correct all these summaries and still get some sleep?!”  Experience indicates that the greatest benefit in summarizing is from the process itself with as much immediate in-class feedback as possible. Far less learning accrues from the corrected summary returned days later.  This paper presents: (1) a lesson plan format for teaching summary writing; (2) a streamlined method of grading summaries, primarily focusing on content; (3) summary guidelines for students; and (4) students’ comments on the value of summary writing.

Lesson Plan Format for Teachers


A.  Build background or schema for the content of the reading (e.g. brainstorm, use pictures, etc.).  Note:  A Short Course in Teaching Reading Skills by Beatrice S. Mikulecky (Addison-Wesley, 1990) is an excellent resource for ideas in all areas of teaching reading.
B. Pre-teach key vocabulary, phrases, idioms,  and/or cultural information (usually not more than 8-10 items).  Use items in a sentence as well as giving definitions but the sentence you use should be in a context different from the article so as not to give away the main ideas of the article. Make sure items are key (i.e., important) to the comprehension of the article’s main message or thesis.  Also, if there is enough context to guess the meaning of items, use the item in a “guessing vocabulary from context” process question below (i.e., II below) and not in Step I.

C.  Pre-view in order to make predictions/form questions for intensive reading (Step II)
1.Discuss title, subheadings, pictures, graphs, etc. {What questions would you ask at this point to elicit discussion without giving away main ideas?)
2.Have students silently read first paragraph, first sentences of other paragraphs, and last paragraph.  Possibly if you wish, you could follow this up with reading the same out loud, so they can hear correct rhythm and intonation, which often yields greater understanding.  You could also make a copy of the article and “black out” all of the article except the first paragraph, first sentences of “body” paragraphs, and last paragraph.  What questions would you ask, (fairly general, at this stage--more specific questions come in Step II) after, for example, the first paragraph, the first sentence of the next paragraph?  You don’t have to do this for every paragraph.
3.Create one or two scanning questions (e.g., for dates, numbers, names, etc.)

II. INTENSIVE READING:  As students begin to read intensively, put 10 - 15 process questions on the board or distribute a handout with the questions.  Include the following types of questions:
A.  Main idea questions (these should be most of your questions, but also include at least one of the following:)
B  Support of main idea question
C  Reference questions
D.  Guessing vocabulary/idioms from context
E.  Transition words/phrases (these show shifts in the author’s main message)  (e.g., “yet, as a result, on the other hand”, etc
F. Inference/tone question
G.  Possibly an evaluation question (e.g., What is your reaction to the author’s point of view?)

NOTE:  these questions should come in the order of the reading and not be categorized separately—i.e., just ask questions that help students uncover the main idea of  paragraph 1, then paragraph 2, etc.  Then at the end label your questions and see if you’ve covered all the above kinds of questions.  If not, just work in a few more questions.  Try to include one or two true and false questions, as well as open-ended questions.  Answering your questions should give students the main “thread” of the article so that students are prepared to write a summary in the next step.  During the time they are answering these questions, you can circulate to help and encourage students individually.  If a student is lost on a question, underline the general location of the answer and later come back to see if he/she was able to find the answer.

III POST READING:  Several possibilities:

A. Pair up students to see if they agree on answers to process questions above.  If not encourage them to go back to the reading and negotiate the meaning of the text together.  (Sometimes I have students work together Step II, instead of individually.  They say that working together on the questions usually is quite helpful and more interesting.)

B. Have students reconstruct the thread/outline of the author’s main message in pairs

C. Pull students together to answer the process questions as a group or at least reconstruct the thread/general outline of the author, so that everybody is clear.

D. Assign a summary of the article (emphasize no more than one quote per summary—i.e., summarize in their own words)

Grading or Marking Summaries

The value in students writing summaries comes from quantity.  The quality generally improves as they write more and more summaries.  I do not mark every mistake in a student’s summary.  If I did, the students would not get their papers back as quickly as is necessary for learning to take hold, and I would be marking summaries all night!

What I do and what works for me is the following:

Underline a well-expressed phrase, sentence, or correct concept, and put a “+” in the margin.

Underline a missed concept or incorrect interpretation of the reading, and put a “-“ in the margin.

Underline plagiarized words, phrases, or sentences and put quotation marks around them, “…,” and put a “-“ in the margin.

If the student has more plusses (+) than minuses (-), give him/her a “+” or “A,” if more minuses, a “-” or “C.”  If the plusses and minuses are equal or nearly so, give the student a check or “B.”

Summary Guidelines for Students

What is a summary?
        A summary restates the main ideas  of an author (without most of the details)  in your own words.  It is generally about 25% the length of the original.
Why are summaries important?
        In the upper class high school courses and certainly in university courses, you often have to write research papers.  In these papers you gather information from many sources and include this information in your paper.  A few direct quotations are allowed, but generally you are expected to summarize or paraphrase this information in your own words.  (You also have to indicate the source of the information.)  Summary writing gives you practice in this rather difficult task.  Most students also tell me that when they write summaries, their understanding of what they are reading improves.  In addition, by the end of the course many of my students say that they feel their writing has improved as well, and I would agree.  Finally, as students use new words they have learned in their summary writing,  their vocabulary improves as well.  

How do I write a summary? (check off each step as you do it)

__1.  Preview the article (read the title, subtitle, headings, first paragraph, first sentence of the following paragraphs, and the last paragraph.  Get an overall idea of what this article is about.  This is when to use your dictionary.  Look up unknown words that seem to be important from your preview.

__2.  Read the article. Underline (about 20%) as you read.

__3.  Go back over the article and make boxes over just the key words/phrases that you underlined.  The boxes should remind you of the author’s main idea.  (Boxes should equal about 5% of the article).  If I give you study questions to help you find the main ideas, answer those in your own words.)

__4. Find the author’s thesis statement and summarize it in your own words.  You can use headings or the main text of the article.

__5.  Make an informal outline of the article from your “boxes”.  Usually, but not always, you should include in your outline one main idea from every paragraph of the article.  Emphasize the points the author emphasizes.                   

__6.  Summarize the author’s conclusion (last paragraph) in one sentence.

__7.  Begin to write your summary from your outline, without looking at the original article.

__8.  Your first sentence should approximately follow this model: “In his article ‘March on Washington’ (Newsweek, April 8, 1991) Osborn Elliot (discusses, states, argues, describes)...”  MAKE SURE THAT YOUR FIRST SENTENCE GIVES THE THESIS (i.e., main thrust) OF THE ARTICLE.

__9.  At a later point in your summary remind us one more time that you are summarizing another person’s work:  e.g. “Mr. Elliot (or ‘the author’) also (states, believes, argues, etc.)...”

__10.  If you want to, you may directly quote the author once briefly.  Use quotation marks.

__11.  Include a response at the end.  Mark it “ MY RESPONSE”  Here and only here should you include your opinions.

__12.  Go back over your summary and check that you have used your own words and not copied!  (By all means, use new vocabulary from this article in your summary.  Underline these new vocabulary words.)

__13  Now read your summary out loud and make sure that your meaning will be clear to someone who has not read the article.  

__14  Now read your summary out loud a second time, and look for mistakes.  Especially look for mistakes in: (1) fragments and run-ons, (2) verb tenses, (3) articles, (4) spelling of easy words

__15.  Type your summary and use spell-check.  For most of the articles we read in this class your summaries should be not less than 200 words nor more than 250 words.

Students’ Comments on Summary Writing

I did an anonymous survey of the students in one of my reading classes.  These students range from roughly 460 to 480 on the TOEFL.  I asked them to respond to the following question:  “Summaries are [not so good, good, or very good] in helping me improve my reading.  Why?” None of the students chose “not so good,” 36% chose “good,” and 64% chose “very good”.  Some of their comments as to why summary writing was good/very good in helping them improve their reading are as follows:

        *Summaries are good because “in my opinion, I think that summaries can help me thinking about the article more deeply and see how many part I can understand.”

        *Summaries are very good “because when I read I must focus on the main idea to use it in my summary.”

        *Summaries are very good “because I can get a whole or general meaning of a article”

        *Summaries are very good “because I can guess the meaning of words that I don’t know maybe”

        *Summaries are very good “because I learn different style of writing and improve my vocabulary.  When people read can find many words that speaking can’t.  For me summaries are interesting.”

        *Summaries are very good because I can “understand well the articles, read them deeper.  Also, to put this summary in our own words make this activity more difficult for us, but much more useful”

        *The “summary training was very effective to improve my English.”

In addition, I asked the same students to respond to a second question:  “Summaries are [not so good, good, or very good] in helping me improve my writing.  Why?”  10% responded “not so good,” 45% “good,” and 45% “very good.”  Some of their comments are as follows:

        *Summaries are “very good in helping me improve my writing because it makes me look for words in the text, understand it, and try to find a word with the same meaning and put in my summary so I learn how to write and also vocabulary”

        *”It’s a good practice, because I never write so much before.”

        *”because when somebody know more words, can write and use more ways to explain their opinion and they learn to spelling very good.”

        *”because they make me learn how to use in writing the opinion of the  others.”

        *”because I’ll learn new vocabulary and new academic skills which helps me in the future in the university.”