Summarizing work with lower-level learners (part 2)

I have recently been running a series of summarizing skills building lessons for the lower-intermdiate level students in the International Course at my school.  The first post can be found here.  Summarizing is a complex skill which rests on students’ ability to read at a fairly high level.  Not only must students read and understand what they write, they also must pinpoint the main ideas and then manage to condense those ideas into a very dense form while retaining the original focus of the article (Johns, 1985).  Kirkland and Saunders (1991) posit that it is perhaps the overwhelming processing requirements needed to summarize, more than any particular lack of language ability, which results in the poor quality of summaries produced by many ESL and EFL students.  If you’re curious just how difficult it is, you can try the following summary evaluation activity with your students:

  1. With the entire class, pick a fairy-tale or story that all the students know well.  I usually use The Tortoise and the Hare.
  2. As a class, construct a 10 to 15 line story, in as simple language as possible, and write it up on the board.
  3. Give the students a few minutes to read the story and if possible interact with it in some way.  For example, you could do a dramatic reading in which students break into small groups, take a character each (tortoise, hare, and narrator) and read the story as if it was a play.
  4. Erase the story from the board, pass out some blank papers and ask the students to write a summary of the text they have been working with.  Stipulate that the summary should be no longer than half as long as the text created by the class.  This should give them plenty of space to produce a decent summary that covers all the main points.

If your students are anything like mine, you will find that what seems like a simple task ends up being very difficult for them, indeed.  Many of my students will simply stare at that ocean of white paper in front of them and complain that they don’t know where to start.  With that in mind, my summarizing lessons have focused on giving learners the tools they need to consciously break the summarizing process down into series of less complex tasks.  The following are some of the activities I’ve used in class with my students over the past few weeks.

Vocabulary Check

In the previous post, I explained how I used tracing letters in place of a regular font and have students trace all the words and phrases with which they are familiar in order to check students’ vocabulary recognition of the text.  When it comes to comprehension difficulties, the problems that arise from lack of basic vocabulary cannot be overstated (Masuhara, 2003, p. 344).  So any work around summarizing with lower level learners should probably, by necessity, start with a way to gauge if students are having vocabulary issues.  Instead of pre-teaching vocabulary, I sometimes use this part of the lesson as an opportunity to have students practice their inferencing skills.  In his booklets Is a Germ Positive or Negative (n.d.a.) and Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Superman! (n.d.b.) John Fanselow recommends having students highlight or underline the words and phrases they do know in a text and then to cross out, or even better completely black out, the words or phrases they do not know. This keeps students eyes focused on the parts of the text which they are familiar.  By focusing on the words they know, students have a better chance at guessing the meaning of the words they do not.  It’s also important to make sure students aren’t focused exclusively on individual words. If possible, try and get students thinking in larger chunks of language when engaged in this kind of work.  Often it is not a particular word which is giving a student trouble, but a phrase.  The other day, my students identified, “put the shapes together,” “reached out and took,” and “manage to get the job done,” as trouble spots.  You can then have students compare texts and teach each other the unknown meanings, let them try and identify parts of speech and word attributes and then use their dictionaries to find the meaning, or simply tell the students the meanings yourself to save time.

Comprehension Activity

Just because a student reads a text and understands all of the words, doesn’t really prove understanding of the text.  Small errors during the reading process such as misidentifying a sentence’s subject, can end up leading to large errors in overall comprehension.  For lower level learners, a step to help clarify what they have read will probably be useful.  You can have students read a paragraph, turn the article over, count to ten so they aren’t just relying on short term memory, and write down what they remember.  They shouldn’t be overly fixated on spelling or grammar, but should just get down what stuck with them.  They can repeat the process two or three times for each paragraph.  As a further check, they can compare what they wrote down with a partner and see if what is leaving a strong impression with them is also what is leaving an impression with their other students in the class.  It’s also a good chance for the teacher to wander around the room, check out what the students are writing, and see if or where students might be going astray.  Another option is to let the students engage in a drawing transformation activity.  After reading the paragraph, students can turn the paper over and draw a simple picture or two of the paragraph content.

Language Practice

When it comes to summary writing, if students don’t have a chance to work with the language in the text, chance are they will become overly-dependant on the text itself and simply lift and quote sentences.  In my last post, I explained personalizing component that can be built into summarizing work.  Another option is have students do some sentence manipulation work.  I will often get students to simply change each statement in a paragraph into its questions form.  Then, working in small groups, I will ask the students to order the questions in order of importance.  In this case, importance means the question that, when answered, will provide the most amount of information contained within the target paragraph.  Once students have ordered the questions, they then go around and ask their top 3 questions to other members of the class.  You can repeat this step multiple times, until students have become relatively familiar with the language.  Personally, I run this activity 3 times in a 4/3/2 format having students ask and answer the questions in decreasing amounts of time, each time with a different partner (Maurice, 1983.  For a more in-depth look at 4/3/2 from Paul Nation, just click here)  The first time through, I let the students refer to the text while answering the questions.  The second time they have to produce the answers without the aid of the text.  The third time, students use their cell phones to record their answers and are then directed to transcribe their answers to a piece of paper.  This gives me a chance to check and see if there are any glaring errors in their production.  It’s especially important as the language students used in this step of the process is going to serve as the bases for their summaries.  One nice thing about this activity is that as students practice their answers to the various questions, those answers change and often times become a bit simpler than the language used in the text.  Basically, they are developing the skills they will need to paraphrase parts of a text without being over-dependant on the language of the text itself.

Group Summary

Once students have the language and the basic material for their summary, they still need a chance to put the pieces together.  At the lower levels, this might best be done through pair or group work.  Once again, an ordering activity can be useful, in which students compare their transcripts and pick the top two sentences to use as the material for their summary of each paragraph.  Another option is to have students write down the main clause of each answer and then to combine the clauses, usually reducing the number of sentences by half.

Recently I’ve gotten quite fond of an activity I call the “human word processor.”  In the Human Word Processor, one student in each group serves as the ‘word processor’.  The rest of the students in the group give word processor commands to the human word processor, working together to edit a text until it has been winnowed down to a more concise form. You will most likely need to write up the word processing commands on the whiteboard.  These can be quite simple.  I usually use, “erase ~”, “insert ~ before/after …” and “exchange ~ for …”.  In my summarizing classes, one student writes down all of the answers she has transcribed during the question/answer phase of the activity on the white board and then acts as the word processor.  The rest of the group works together, giving commands until they are satisfied that what has been edited on the board is an accurate  summary of the original text.  I find it works especially well if you have two large groups, each group using half of the white board.  Then, after each of the summaries is complete, you can compare the two summaries and if possible, even combine them into one large class summary.

Students Summary: Example 1

Over the course of the past three weeks I have used a number of different texts when getting students to produce summaries.  One of the texts was a short story “For One Picture” This is a picture of the final summary as produced by students after the “human word processor activity”:

It’s not perfect.  Students still have some issues with pronoun use and there were a few points from the story which were left out and should probably been included in a summary.  But I think the board-work does show how even intermediate level students can produce a decent summary when given the chance to break summarizing down into its component parts.

Up Next

The previous post and this post contain a lot of activities to help students understand how the process of summarizing works.  But students will still need a chance to practice each of the skills a number of time in order for them to attain any kind of fluency when it comes to summarizing.  I don’t really want my students to have to spend 50 minutes every time they want—or have to—summarize something.  In the next post I will give some ideas from my final summary practice lessons on ways to get students to produce a few summaries within one class period.  I will also have a few suggestions for how to get students working in a more autonomous fashion.  If any teachers out there have done summary work with lower level students, or just have some ideas about summary activities in general, I would certainly appreciate hearing them in the comments.


Johns, A. (1985). “Summary Protocols of ‘underprepared’ and ‘adept’ university students: replications and distortions of the original.” Language Learning 35 (4): 495-512.

Kirkland, M. & Saunders, M. (1991). “Maximizing student performance in summary writing: managing cognitive load.” TESOL Quarterly 25 (1): 105-121.

Fanselow, J. (n.d.h). Is a germ positive or negative: limitations of understanding isolated words

Fanselow, J. (n.d.i). Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Superman!: realizing how yes/no and either or questions can reveal meanings

Masuhara, H. (2003). “Materials for Developing Reading Skills.” In Developing Materials for Language Teachers, B. Tomlinson (ed.). London: Continuum Intl Pub Group.


2 thoughts on “Summarizing work with lower-level learners (part 2)

  1. hi kevin,as always another useful post. i like the idea of forming questions for each paragraph and then using the 4/3/2 fornmat to ask and answer a variation on the give a text a title one could ask sts what filename they would save the text as on their computer.p.s. the link to the Nation fluency.txt is brokentamura


  2. Hi Mura,You know, the idea of labeling a story with a filename is not only geekily cool, but something that only a teacher working with engineering students would be able to come up with. Will try it out in my upcoming class, which is a second in a blitz of story reading. And thanks for the heads up on the link. All fixed up.Kevin


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