The Keys to Writing Good Summaries

Posted by Rod Burnette on

Summary: a brief, concise recapitulation of a previous statement .


Key: something that affords a means to achieve, master, or understand something else; a very important or controlling thing; chief, major, essential, or fundamental

Why have I mentioned these definitions? What does a key have to do with writing a summary?

Teachers know that when we ask a student to write a summary, we want that student to come up with a short statement giving the main points of a paragraph, article, or book. We, as teachers, think students know how to do this. (After all, they innately know how to use all the latest technology!) 

But the fact is that students do not know how to write summaries. We know this because when we ask them to summarize, they either give us one sentence or regurgitate the whole article back to us. Yet, we often assign summaries without really teaching students how to write them. 

So how then should we teach them?  Below are the keys to writing good summaries.

Key #1: Students need to know what you expect when you ask them to write a summary. Tell them, but also find as many well written summaries as you can and let students read them. You can find them on book jackets, in book and movie reviews, on the Internet, or possibly in your own students' writing portfolios. Read the summaries and discuss them. 

Key #2:  Give students a short article or selection to read. All students should read the same selection. Discuss.

Key #3:  Working as a group, have students make a list of five or six important or key words in the article or selection. Explain that key words are the most important words in the selection. These words help the reader understand the selection; if the words were missing, the selection would not make sense.

Key #4:  Still working as a group, have students use the key words to write three or four sentences about the selection. Remind students that they should write the summary in their own words and should not copy sentences from the selection. Also, let them know that it is not always necessary to use all of their key words. Using the length of the article as a guide, you should specify the number of sentences that you want them to write. For a longer article or book, the number might be slightly higher. By giving students a limit, you are forcing them to be concise and focus their thoughts on the main idea of the selection.

Key #5:  Follow this procedure several times with different articles or books that the entire class has read. Then give the students opportunities to read articles, find key words, and write their own summaries.

I have used these keys to teach students of all ages to write concise, thoughtful summaries. You will be surprised at the improvements you will see in your students’ summary writing over a short period of time just by following these five simple keys on a regular basis.


Post by Judith Holbrook.

Judith Holbrook is a retired teacher with 30 years of experience in elementary and middle grade education. She has taught in Illinois, California, and Georgia. She has her BS in Education from Eastern Illinois University and her MS in Early Childhood Education from the University of West Georgia. Judith has published grammar, reading, and writing curricula for grades 1-8; co-published a children’s newspaper; presented many workshops at professional conferences; and taught professional development at schools around the country.


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