Fluency activities to build summarizing skills

In my summarizing skills building posts 1 and 2, I’ve been writing about summaries as if they are all equal.  This is clearly not the case.  In fact, two weeks into my summarizing classes, John Fanselow, the advisor for my school’s English program asked me, “Well, why do you want your students to practice summarizing anyway?”  Which seemed like a pretty valid question.  So I turned it over to my students to see if they had any ideas as to why they might want to work on their summarizing skills.  A number of students said it will help them with the longer readings that appear on most of the university entrance exams and standardized English tests in Japan.  Two students said they thought it would help them take notes in English class.  One student said he thought it would help him remember things better.  I was glad to know that the students did see value in practicing summarizing skills.  And all of those reasons were on my list when I was talking with John.  But there was one which my students didn’t mention.  I believed (and still do) that summarizing, especially when working with less advanced students, is a crucial conversation skill.  When students talk to each other about the books they read in class, the movies they watch in their free time, or chat about the latest TV shows, they need to summarize.  Part of the reason I wanted to get students to work on summarizing skills was to kind of push them to feel a bit more comfortable actually talking about stories as opposed to answering the question of, “How was The Secret Garden?” with pat responses like, “It was good,” or “I really liked it.”

In my class, I’ve used simplified news articles, short stories, graded readers and movie plots as material for summaries.  I didn’t use any scholarly articles and most of the news articles I did use had a strong narrative thread.  Which simplifies the task immeasurably.  Because students are working with something that already has an identifiable beginning, middle, and end, they can hit the key points for each step in the story without spending too much time searching for where certain types of information is in the text.  And at a certain level, stories are better suited for fluency activities, as it’s pretty much human nature to tell the same stories over and over again (sometimes much to the annoyance of people like my daughter who can often be heard saying, “Papa, you already told me that story!).

Fluency activities:

If you want students to get fluent at a skill, they have to use it.  A lot.  In a recent talk at the CLESOL conference, Paul Nation identified adding a fluency component as one of the top five changes he would recommend to improve an ESL program’s effectiveness. Like any other skill, summarizing needs to be practiced and practiced again for the skills to become automatic.  With that in mind here are a few activities you can try out in class to have students engage in a lot of fluency work.

Book Critiques: I have an extensive reading program in my school.  The students get two hours of actual class time a week to read.  Because it’s a reading for enjoyment class, I’ve encouraged students to read texts just a little bit below their level of competence.  Which usually means an intermediate or lower-intermediate students is going to be reading a starter level graded reader or level 1.  And they have a huge stack of readers they have finished by now.  For this activity, students grab a reader they like and summarize the story for each other.  One of the best things about this activity is the students don’t have to struggle with finding the language themselves.  They can talk freely about the book, but if in their summary they don’t quite know what to say, they can just refer to the book and find the language they need.  After they have summarized the book for three other students, they get a new book and start again.  If you want to give the students a stronger sense that summarizing has some value aside from practicing English, you can pass out future reading list worksheets.  As students listen to each others summaries, they can choose to add the book to their future reading list.  In this way, students get immediate feedback on if their summaries are engaging and having a positive influence on the other students in class.

What movie is it: Students write a short movie summary.  You can limit the written summary to a certain number of sentences.  Usually I ask the students to keep to about 10 lines.  After students have written up their basic summaries, they then talk about the movie’s plot with another student.  The point of the game is obviously for the students to guess the title of their partner’s movie.  To make the activity a little more conversational in nature, during the second round of the game, I will ask the students to include personal opinions about the movie after every two lines or so.  Here is an example of a summary a student gave about the movie Real Steel.  The bolded sentences are the student’s personal opinions which were added to the written summary:

A man controlled a big steel robot and had boxing fights.

  I thought the fighting was really cool.

But the man got divorced and the man had to raise his son.

His son found an old robot in a garbage dump.

I liked this part of the movie.  The man and his son could know each


Pictogloss: This is a variation on the dictogloss activity.  First students pick a book or a movie that they would like to recommend to a friend.  You could also ask students to choose from one of the articles that they have read in class.  Students get a few minutes to compose a written summary.  Then, while saying the summary, their partner listens and instead of writing words, draws pictures of key words.  Here is an example of two movie summaries that students produced in pictogloss form.  Can you guess what movies they are?  The written summaries and movie titles are included at the end of this post:

Now comes the confusing part.  The student who originally said the summary takes the pictogloss from their partner and uses that to help give the summary to other students.  This requires the student to engage in a transformation activity, in which the images in the page are translated back into words and then serve as the base for their spoken summary practice.   As a side note, you can do all sorts of activities with written summaries and pictoglosses, such as playing a matching game, having other students in class try to read the pictogloss and decide what the summary is about, etc.  (Shameless promotion #1: if you’re interested in a more detailed look at pictogloss, I will have  short article in the upcoming winter issue of the ETAS Journal in which I go through the process step by step.)

Story Flood: I have 14 short stories I’ve written for ELLs.  Some are available here and here.  For a story flood, I lay out a handful of stories and have the students read the first line of each paragraph until they find a story which they find interesting.  Once they’ve picked a story, they read it through and write up a summary, a critique, and give the story a star rating (1-5 stars).  Then they have four minutes to tell another student about the story as well as to listen to their partner’s summary.  If they hear a summary which seems intriguing, they then go and take that story, read it through and produce a new summary which is then shared with another student.  The activity is a bit chaotic as some students are reading while others are writing and others are talking.  But I find that in a ninety-minute class, students will be able to write and practice talking about three stories.  Here is an example of two students’ summaries with links to the stories upon which they were based:

Summary of “Learning to Call Something from Nothing

Summary of “To Gather Up

A Summary of Summarizing

Doing summary work with upper-level and lower-level students is going to be quite different.  Not just because the level and types of texts will vary, but because of the sense of audience.  By sense of audience in this case, I mean the idea of who will be reading or listening to the student produced summaries.  For a higher-level student in a EAP class, the audience is, eventually, the scholarly community which they are hoping to join.  The act of developing good summary skills is necessary for them to engage in dialogue with this community.  But for lower-level students, there is always the issue of who they are producing their summaries for and just what purpose a summary actual serves in communication.  I’ve tried to make these summary fluency activities as conversational as possible.  I’ve also tried to get students engaged in activities which will, in some way, potential impact the other students in the class.  I wish I had found a better way to emphasize these points at the beginning of this process and would really appreciate any suggestions along those lines.  And while I said this was going to be a 3 part series, I am planning to write one more post on summarizing.  The final post will be a look at an activity to boost student autonomy around summarizing and should be a return to a more reflective practices style of post.

Pictogloss answers:

Special Delivery Witch




5 thoughts on “Fluency activities to build summarizing skills

  1. I love the way I can always really visualise the (great) things happening in your class.Your point about summarising being an oral skill as well is really important, and often overlooked- including by me, so thank you!


  2. Hi Rachel,Thanks for the comments. Nice to know the posts give a good sense of what actually happens in class. And thanks for highlighting that these classes were all about summarising as an oral skill. I know certain skills do transfer from the L1 to the L2, but in my experience, summarizing isn't one of them. Wonder if the same applies to other teachers and other students. Might be a special feature of Japanese English classes.Kevin


  3. Pingback: the activity with no name | Observing the Class

  4. Pingback: My Extensive Reading Blueprint ;) | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

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