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Summary writing tips for reading classes

October 26, 2021 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Being able to give a good summary of a story is an important skill for several reasons. Firstly, it is something we do every day: we tell a friend about a book we've read, a film we've seen, some news we've heard, what we've done that day so far. Secondly, it's a skill students will need to carry out research projects and write about them. Giving a summary is both an everyday and academic skill that students need in life and work. Now, let's see how you can use stories to develop this skill in creative and engaging ways. 

The basics

What is a summary?

A summary is a kind of report: it is a short, condensed version of an original text. It generally uses a combination of the summary writer's own words and the original text. It is not an analysis or an interpretation but an objective reworking of the text. A summary can be oral or written or even visual.

What knowledge do you need to give a summary?

Although it may seem easy to give a summary, it requires several important reading and language skills. 

  • Understanding the story.
  • Finding the main events in a story.
  • Distinguishing details from important points.
  • Recognizing different story stages and functions. For example: the description of the setting and characters, narrative structures.
  •  Knowing your audience. Your language may change if you change your audience. 
  • Writing with bias, evaluation or judgement.

What should you include in a good summary?

The main events and themes of the story. Inform your readers about the setting and the main characters as they appear in the plot. If you choose to introduce in your summary after they have been introduced in the story, then make sure their role is clear. Make sure the sequence of events is logical and easy to follow. 

You should not analyze the themes, it is enough to say it is a story about courage (or hope, or depair). Anything else would be an analysis or interpretation.

Activities to develop story summary skills

Young learners

1. Give simple focus points

  • Where is the story set? Or simply: Where?
  • Who are the main characters? Who?
  • What are the most important events? What?

2. Use the illustrations

The Helbling Young Readers and Thinking Train stories, are designed like picturebooks with double-page spreads combining text and illustrations. Each spread focuses on a moment of key action so they help your students recall the main events.

Use the images to summarize the story. Start by giving one sentence about each spread. Then elicit sentences from the students, helping them formulate the main idea.

Teens and young adults

3. Use the reader

Each reader in the Helbling Readers series gives you support and guidance in organizing a summary. You can either rely on the illustrations or the chapter titles to find the main events and plot turns. 

A creative way of summarizing the story is through the characters from the double page at the beginning of the reader. Ask students to say a few sentences about each character, then to organize their sentences in a logical order in order to retell the story.

4. Write a social media post

Ask the students to write a post on the story for their favourite social medial platform. The post should be short and concise and they should always keep their audience in mind. If th eyare sharing it on Facebook, the language can be informal. If they are writing a Tweet, language should be super concise and informational.

5. Write a summary for parents/teachers

Is there a story you have read in class but which your students' parents or teacher may not know?. What sort of background information do they need to fill them up on so they understand the summary? Changing the audience influences both the style and the details you share about a story.

6. Write a summary using emoticons

Ask students to use their phones to write a summary using emoticons. You could also ask them to write the title with emoticons. Can you work out this title from the Helbling Blue Classics series?

7. Write a blurb

First, ask the students to read the blurbs on the back of the books they have read. Then, without looking at or copying the text from the original blurb, ask them to write their own.

8. Write a summary in 6 words

This is a creative writing idea for advanced learners. Make the word limit surprising, for example, use only six words.

9. Film pitch 

Ask the students to write a film pitch for a book they have read. They need to convince the potential producer/studios why this book would make a great film, but they only have 5 minutes to do it.

10. Running commentary

Get the students to use the illustrations or chapter titles, and record a running commentary of the story. They can imagine that they are spying on the characters and telling someone what they see in real time. 

11. Visual summary

If your students are interested in art, ask them to draw a comic strip of the story. They can work in pairs with one student working on the storyboard and the other drawing. What Shakespeare play does this comic strip summarise?

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