Learn what works

A summary is a synthesis of important ideas in a text. Readers put together information as they process a text. Summarization does not mean simply a statement of important ideas or events put together after reading a text; during reading, students must make repeated judgments about the relative importance of ideas and organize the critical ideas in a coherent manner.  Students must determine what is important and actively condense and transform this information in their own words.  Summarizing helps students get the gist of a text so it can accessed later for different purposes. Research has shown that summarizing improves the comprehension of what has been read and enhances students’ overall comprehension ability.
An explicit and systematic approach to teaching summarization, along with use of models, has shown “a consistent, strong, positive effect” on students’ abilities to write good summaries (Graham and Perin, 16).  Instruction in summarization helps readers identify or generate main ideas, connect central ideas, eliminate redundant information, and remember what they read.

“Summarizing can be done in writing, but also orally, dramatically, artistically, visually, physically, musically, in groups, or individually.  Summarization is one of the most underused teaching techniques we have today, yet research has shown that it yields some of the greatest leaps in comprehension and long-term retention on information” (Wormeli, 2).

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See how it works

These strategies are intended to help students produce a quality, organized summary.  Before assigning these strategies as independent work, it’s important to model, provide support with guided practice, and give students the opportunity to practice with a partner or small group.

Approaches to Explicit Summary Instruction

5-Step Hierarchical Summaries

  1. Read only the subheadings of a chapter.
  2. List the subheadings on paper.
  3. Read the material.
  4. Convert each subheading into a main-idea sentence.
  5. For each main-idea sentence, add one to three sentences containing supporting details.

GRASP (Guided Reading and Summarizing Procedure)

This is a group summarizing strategy with five steps.

  1. After the students have read a section of text, ask them to turn their books face down and to recall whatever they can from the material. Record their input in a list on the board.
  2. Allow students to return to the text to find more information and make corrections.
  3. With student participation, rearrange the information into categories.
  4. Help students write a topic sentence for each category and detail sentences that support it.
  5. Engage students in revising the summary to make it more coherent.


This strategy is a good starting point for summarizing fiction.  Students first write a sentence that identifies the main character in the story (Somebody).  Next they write a sentence about what that character wants (Wants).  The next sentence identifies the major conflict (But), and finally the outcome is stated (So).  Example / Template

GIST (Generating Interactions Between Schemata and Text)

GIST is a summarization strategy to assist students’ comprehension and summary writing skills.  Students use higher-order thinking skills to analyze and synthesize what they have read.  The summary is usually limited to no more than fifteen words; therefore, the students must analyze ways to delete non-essential information and use their own words to summarize the main idea or “the gist” of the selection. Procedure

Rule-Governed Strategy

This approach to teaching summarization introduces students to six rules.

  1. Delete unnecessary or trivial material.
  2. Delete material that is important but redundant.
  3. Compose a word to replace a list of items.
  4. Compose a word to replace the individual parts of an action.
  5. Select a topic sentence.
  6. When there is no topic sentence, invent one.

Don’t Look Back

One way to help students pick out important details is to ask them to record only the information they remember.

  1. Provide students with a reading selection.
  2. Ask students to take notes of important details as they read.
  3. When students have finished, direct them to turn over the paper or put aside the material and write what they remember without looking back.
  4. After they have listed the details they recall, ask students to create a paragraph using this information.
  5. Provide time for students to share and compare their paragraphs. This process of sharing helps students review content while identifying additional important information that they may have missed in their summaries.

One Sentence Paraphrase

This strategy requires students to synthesize information and identify important learning.

  1. Model the process.
  2. Select a section of text that includes several paragraphs. Consider placing the text on an overhead transparency or PowerPoint slide so the class can work as a group on their first efforts.
  3. Read the first paragraph with the class. Cover the paragraph. Ask students to write one sentence that reflects their understanding of the paragraph.
  4. Share several sentences, looking for similarities and differences.
  5. Read the next paragraph and continue the process.
  6. After students feel comfortable with the process, have them work independently.

One-Word Summaries

After a day’s lesson, students write one word that best summarizes the topic. After identifying the word, each student should write a sentence or two that explains the word choice.  Students share their word choices and explanations.  Encourage students to support or refute the word choices.

Journalist’s Questions

  1. Teach students the 5 W’s and an H questions.
  2. Practice applying the questions to group readings (not all questions may apply).
  3. Craft a sentence response to each question.
  4. Reread the sentences to see if they flow and make sense together. Revise and add transition words if needed.

Central Rivers AEA Lending Library Resources

Do what works

Web Resources

  • Get the Gist: A Summarizing Strategy for Any Content Area from the Read Write Think website for summarizing ideas using GIST.  This lesson was developed for grades 6-8.
  • Into the Book by the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.  The site contains video clips, lesson ideas, books, research, and links about summarizing.  There is also a summarizing song and poster that can be downloaded and used in the classroom.  This site is designed for use with elementary students.


  • Almasi, J. (2003). Teaching strategic processes in reading. New York, NY:  The Guilford Press.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next:  Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools–A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC:  Alliance for Excellent Education.
  • Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • McKenna, M., and Stahl, S. Assessment for reading instruction. 2nd ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2003.
  • Wormeli, R. (2005). Summarization in any subject: 50 techniques to improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • McKenna, M. (2002). Help for struggling readers. New York, NY:  The Guilford Press.
  • Pinnell,G., & Scharer, P. (1987). Teaching for comprehension in reading grades K-2. Scholastic:  New York.