How to write a summary with clear examples, a template, and a formula to help you teach summary writing to your elementary students.
It’s the first day of school. You’ve given your students the classic summary writing assignment : “What I Did Over Summer Break.”
One student dives in and begins writing a personal narrative to rival War and Peace.
Another (maybe more than one) groans and lays their head down in despair.
You’ve seen this, right?
This summer vacation prompt might be one of the most difficult assignments we can give some of your elementary students. For others students, it might be the easiest.
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The Summary Writing Assignment From Days of Yore
This year, instead of giving the typical summary writing assignment, perhaps you could read an interesting article or story together, and have your students write a summary about that.
Now, in all honesty, and with full disclosure, I have to admit this assignment isn’t always the best choice either. Why? It’s because at the beginning of the year, students are out of practice with writing, and some may not have learned how to write a summary yet.
This blog will help you with a simple system to teach summary writing with ease, using templates, graphic organizers and a step-by-step plan.
How to Start Teaching How to Write a Summary at the Beginning of the School Year
First of all, define what a summary is for your students. Next, define what it isn’t. Last, don’t let them start writing until you’ve modeled the process and done a think aloud with them.
Teaching how to write a summary isn’t a one and done lesson. You’ll be revisiting pieces and parts of the summary time after time. You’ll know when your students finally have it, because they’ll be able to write a summary in just a few minutes.
How Fast Can a Student Write a One Page Summary?
It was the beginning of the year. My student cried and laid his head in his hands. He struggled with writing, didn’t like it, and gave some push back with every assignment.
Gradually, with accommodations, scaffolding, and several meetings in small group writer’s workshops, his writing began to emerge. His eyes sparkled every time he showed me how much his writing had improved.
One day, I gave an assignment, and this student turned it in inside of Google Classroom in about ten minutes.
I said, “Hey, I don’t think you could have done a stellar job so quickly.”
The student assured me, “Yes, I did my best, I edited and revised it, and I think it’s perfect.”
Not wanting to seem curmudgeonly, I pulled up the document and read it out loud with the student. I was so surprised and pleased because it was absolutely the best summary they had turned in that year. Wow!
At that moment, I knew the student understood how to write a summary that sparkled!
Things to Include in a Summary
- Main idea of the article in one sentence.
- One or two important details.
- Transition words.
The students must read the article, once, twice, possibly three times before writing the summary. It all depends on the text complexity and the reading level of the student. You can read it with students, too.
If you choose to read it with them, read it once to get the overall ideas. Read it a second time to annotate important points. Read it a third time to clarify any doubts and to really get to the understanding of the text.
What NOT to Include in a Summary
- Thoughts or reflections about the content.
- Conclusion statements are optional.
It’s important to make sure your students understand that summary writing and opinion writing are two different things. I use the acronym, JTFF.
Just the Facts, Friend!
If a student starts writing includes opinions, reminiscences, comparisons with their own experiences, etc., all you need to say is,
Grading tip: If a student adds opinions or personal thoughts to a summary, simply write the letters JTFF over that part of their writing. They’ll know what you mean.
Using a Template or Formula to Teach Summary Writing
- Graphic organizer to use while reading.
- Sentence stems for the introduction.
- Format to follow like a step-by-step guide
- Use scaffolds
This is where we get to the meaty part of the lesson. I’m going to lay out the parts of my simple system for teaching summary writing. You want to simplify writing a summary as much as possible, and this is how you can do it. It’s not a bad thing to use a template or formula.
In addition, have an entire blog post dedicated to some of the most effect Scaffolds for Teaching Writing to help you differentiate the writing lessons for your students. You don’t need anything special to use them. You can incorporate them into your teaching today.
- Read the article to get the overall ideas.
- Read the article again using a graphic organizer. My suggestion is that you use the same graphic organizer for summaries every time. This prevents students from having to learn how to navigate a graphic organizer while they’re trying to learn to write a summary.
- Students annotate the text and make notes of important ideas in the graphic organizer.
- Use a sentence stem for the introduction. Include the article title, the author’s name, a verb such as “tells”, “reports,” “defines,” etc., and the main idea.
- Write the important points about the main idea in the summary, usually in the present tense.
Examples of Writing a Summary Sentence Introduction
The summary sentence template looks like this:
The article (or story) —Title of Article— by —Author’s Name— tells —Main Idea—.
The story The First Day Jitters, by Julie Danneberg tells about what happens when Sarah Jane Hartwell is afraid to go to her new school.
The blog article “Preventing Summer Slide”, by Suzanne Pitner gives several ideas to keep children entertained and learning during the summer break.
Yet another example:
According to the blog post “Santa Claus Tracking”, by Suzanne Pitner, NORAD has been tracking Santa since 1955 as he makes his annual trip around the world.
A great way to practice this is to have your students write a one sentence summary starter about their favorite books, or books they read over the summer. Practice this all the time in every context of summary writing.
The Body of the Summary
For young learners, and for English learners, having a format or a template to follow is similar to having a recipe on hand. In the same way you follow a recipe step by step, students can follow a template step by step.
- First, write the opening summary sentence. (See the template above.)
- Next, add one or two important facts or details about the article or book.
- Finally, include transition words, or linking words.
Did you notice the simple yet obvious transition words I used in this template? That’s perfect for teaching elementary students how to write. Let them master the obvious transition words first. Later they can learn how to write more subtle, nuanced transitions.
Transition Words for Writing Summaries in Elementary School
These are a few ideas of transitions appropriate for younger grades. Your textbook, if you have one, may have more transitions and examples of linking words. I found these to be the simplest to implement in classes of 8 to 11 year-old learners.
- First, next, last
- First, second, third
- One thing, another thing, finally
- In the beginning, in the middle, in the end
- To begin, to continue, in the end
These summaries help them organize their thoughts in a sequential order that makes sense for the writing task at hand.
Summary Tool in Google Docs (TM)
Google Docs (™) has a tool to use to help teach summaries. Depending on the article, it may or may not provide a simple, one or two sentence summary.
You can use this to identify key points to include while summary writing. It’s also a great way to get a classroom conversation going about the following questions:
- Is this an adequate summary?
- Did it give enough information to make the reader want to read the article?
- Is anything missing from this summary?
Please note that my impression of this tool is that it’s designed for web writing and short articles. It’s not a replacement for the actual summary you’ll be teaching your students to write.
Here’s how to access the Summary Tool in Google Docs (™).
- In your top bar, click on “View.”
- Click on “Show Outline.”
- Click on the “plus” sign next to the word Summary.
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