Teaching students how to summarize a text is important…

So important that it is part of the CCSS reading standards for literature and informational texts beginning in grade 4 and continuing (with greater rigor) through grade 12.

As educators, we know why summarizing will help students:

  • improve reading comprehension
  • filter main ideas from details
  • follow arguments
  • identify key points
  • understand theme
  • differentiate fact from opinion
  • analyze texts

Here are five ways to teach this valuable skill.



1. Use the right texts

Students can’t summarize what they can’t comprehend.

Be sure to provide scaffolding for students who need it — graphic organizers, comprehension questions, multiple readings, breaking down difficult passages into small sections — whatever it takes.  Don’t ask your students to summarize something they don’t understand.

Use texts you know your students can read.  Even using a picture book can break down the concept of summarizing for students who are struggling.

2. Use a mentor text for the year

Have you read the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum or The Call of the Wild by Jack London?  Using just the first chapter of one (or both) of these books can help students really dig into summarizing (and so much more, but that’s for another post!).

Because both of these texts are in the public domain, you can print an excerpt or provide students with a digital link.  Bringing students back to the same text throughout the year gives them more than just an opportunity to summarize.  It also:

  • provides you with a way to help students analyze the writer’s craft
  • deconstruct how the writer organizes ideas
  • analyze paragraph and sentence structure
  • look at character development

When you use a mentor text to help students summarize, you can refer back to it again and again as the year progresses — students have a reference point.

3. Have some fun with it

What would happen if you challenged your middle school students to summarize a Captain Underpants or Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, or a favorite comic book?  Are middle school students ever too mature for Captain Underpants?!  Ummm…no.  Not only will you be tapping into a bit of nostalgia for them, you can introduce the question “what is the big idea” in the story?

Students will need to filter out the silly details to get to the main ideas of the text.  Additionally, short chapter and easy-to-read books like these make a great opportunity for students to look at the elements of the plot.  Because there aren’t big sub plots, the main points will be clear to your students.

4. Let Sponge Bob (or Lucy) lead the way

Who can resist this iconic I Love Lucy episode?

I love this episode of I Love Lucy.  Not only is it a classic, it is perfect for helping students practice summarizing.  What’s going on here?  What’s the problem?  What are the big ideas of the scene?  Again, students will have to filter out the details and get to the heart of the events.

Another reason to love short video clips:

  • you can view them with your students multiple times.  As I mention in teaching characterization post, students can view first for understanding and then again to analyze.
  • students LOVE watching old TV shows and commercials!
  • so much is left unsaid that students must inference what’s happening.  Just watch Lucy’s face as the conveyor belt speeds up!
  • students can practice the same skills with different videos — as they gain confidence, they can transition to texts.

5. Create a graphic novel page

I love using graphic novel styled pages to help students practice summarizing.  Most graphic novels and comic books that the story through the pictures and dialogue — and the big ideas of the story are featured.

That’s where using comic book or graphic novel pages can help your students practice summarizing:

  • start by analyzing a few pages of a graphic novel.  Students will notice that the story is told in a much different way than a traditional novel or short story.
  • students will notice that if the story were written out, it would be much longer and require more details.  For example, the writer would want to include what the character was doing or feeling.  The writer might want to describe the setting or the action.  In a graphic novel, the author illustrates this.
  • now flip the concept.  Provide students with a short text and graphic organizer.  If they were going to make a graphic novel from the text, what would the panels be?  Before having students actually create the graphic novel page, be sure they understand the big ideas that they’ll be illustrating.
  • allow students to use their ideas to create a graphic novel page.  Since students will only have a limited number of boxes on their graphic novel page, they are limited to just the big ideas.  They must convey the story succinctly — they must provide enough detail to tell the story, but not get bogged down.  The heart of summarizing!

Need more help?

You can use my Summarizing Activities:  Create a Graphic Novel to support this lesson.  Students can use the texts, graphic organizers, and graphic novel blank pages to practice their own summarizing skills.

Reasons this works:

  • students love analyzing short, silly texts and videos!
  • multiple opportunities to practice summarizing skills in a relaxed way.
  • easy to practice multiple times with a variety of texts — really strengthening student skills.
  • additional benefits include inference practice, character and plot analysis, discussion, and problem solving.

What do you think?  Would your students love creating a visual summary?  Would they respond to videos or how would they feel about summarizing a primary-school favorite like Captain Underpants? Let us know!  Share your ideas in the comments below!

With gratitude,

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