INTRODUCTION:  Each semester, students in my Basic Writing classes struggle with their assignment to summarize a 2-4 page article from a source such as a text book, academic journal or reputable website.  To write an effective summary, students must understand the concepts of main idea, major and minor details, and inferences.  Because developmental writers have very little experience using these skills, writing the summary can be a very intimidating task for them.  After years of experiencing failed teacher-centered lessons on main idea, major and minor details, and outlining, I decided to listen to research: students learn better and retain that knowledge longer when they can make connections to prior knowledge, when they can experience learning a skill in a variety of ways, and when they are introduced to new information or skills in gradual steps.  Within the discussion below, I’ve described several activities that, when done in sequence, I have found effective for teaching summarization. These introductory activities would be appropriate in many academic classes, especially those in which students are asked to summarize their reading assignments such as a journal article or book chapter.

PURPOSE: To help students…

  • Identify main ideas
  • Identify major and minor details
  • Learn to apply previous experiences to a new learning experience 
  • Summarize a longer text


  • Short children’s stories (one book or story for every 3-4 students)
  • Situation comedy on DVD
  • Popular songs and their lyrics
  • An article from an academic journal or newspaper


  • Room for students to work in small groups
  • Technology for playing DVD’s and CD’s


Activity One (15-20 minutes)

1.  In partners or small groups (no more than 4 people), students read the children’s story assigned to their group.

 2.  In their small group, students record the details to help them retell the story to the whole class while keeping in mind the following:

  • What would someone who hasn’t read the story need to know in order to understand what happened?  These are major details.
  • What was interesting or entertaining, but could be left out of the story without confusing the audience?  These are minor details.
  • The group should be able to share the story in about 7-10 sentences.

3.  Each group shares the summarized version of its story with the whole class.

4.  After each group reports to the whole class, members are asked which details they thought were pivotal to understanding the story and which could be left out.  They are also asked to defend their choices.

Activity Two (40-50 minutes)

1.  At the beginning of class, all students watch an episode of Full House (or similar sit-com like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, or Daria).  Choose a show that is linear, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Programs like Seinfeld or The Family Guy, while entertaining to watch, are often difficult to summarize.  Once students have mastered the skills related to writing an effective summary, instructors can challenge the class to summarize more complicated plot lines from these or similar shows.

2.  While watching the show, students, either individually or in pairs, take notes that will help explain what happened in the episode.

3.  After the episode, the class creates a list, in order, of the most important events that happened in the show.  These are major details.

4.  After identifying the major details, students generate a list of events that were not critical to understanding the show.  These are minor details.  For example, the reader/viewer may need to know that on The Cosby Show Sandra and Elvin are having a fight.  The reader may not need to know that Elvin brings flowers when he apologizes. The important details are that they fought and then made up later on.  Students may need to add or move information from the lists in order to create an accurate summary of the major events that happened on the show.

5.  Students then use the major details to write a paragraph that summarizes the show.  This can be completed individually or in pairs.  Having student write individually provides a formative assessment to see if students are learning the skill. Having them write in pairs, however, can make the activity less stressful as students can ask each other questions and offer suggestions.

Activity Three (20-30 minutes)

1.  Provide students with the printed lyrics of a song that tells a story and then play the song.  I use a variety of genres to appeal to students’ preferences in music.  I also use some older songs so that students don’t assume that they already know what the song is about. Songs I have found effective include The Pina Colada Song, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Hotel California, Piano Man, and Bust A Move.

2.  As they listen for the first time, students should follow along with the written lyrics without marking on them.

3.  The second time the song is played, students highlight which details are needed to retell the story while keeping in mind what the song is about and what major details led them to that conclusion?

4.  Divide the class into groups of three or four students.  In these groups, students work together to write a paragraph about the events in the song.  While working, they must discuss major and minor details, using their highlighting as reference. The summaries are shared with the large group followed by discussion about which details were major and which were minor.

Activity Four (20-30 minutes)

1.  After students have completed one or more of the first three strategies, students move on to a more difficult task. They now read a short article from an academic journal, newspaper, or text book, and apply the same process to this reading that they used for the children’s story, sit-com, and/or song. 

2.  They read through the article once and then reread to highlight the major details.

3.  Finally, students pull the highlighted information from the article to create an outline and use the outline to write a summary of the article.


Prior to using these methods, 45% of my students failed to complete the summary assignment or received a grade below a 75.  When I simply told them the steps of how to write a summary, many of my basic writing students found the task overwhelming. It became a common pattern for some students to stop attending class when the summary assignment was given, thus sacrificing an entire semester’s efforts and grades based on one challenge.

After using the learner-centered strategies described above, the percentage of my students who failed to complete the summary assignment or who received a grade below 75 decreased from 45% to 19%.  By providing an opportunity for students to be successful early in the lesson, they were apparently more able to approach the assignment with confidence.  Breaking the task into smaller steps and having students complete those steps prior to the “real” assignment gave students confidence that they could summarize the information in more academic writings. 


Moving from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered classroom was not easy for me.  Learner-centered lessons require time-consuming planning; however, I have found that students are more motivated to learn and take responsibility for their own learning when I provide them with an activity that allows them to learn from their own experience (rather than my simply telling them what to do and how to do it).

Most students know how to summarize, but they may never have been asked to do it with an academic text. Students can tell me about a great party they attended, a good movie they watched recently, or what happened on CSI.  By using this prior knowledge as a hook, I helped them see the task of reading an article and then writing a summary as less daunting.

Connecting new learning to prior knowledge and scaffolding the learning of new skills are not new teaching strategies, but they are two that I had often overlooked. I have found that students’ comfort levels for acquiring new knowledge increases significantly when they can connect it with familiar past experiences. When students feel less threatened by the material being presented, they are more likely to take risks and internalize the information for future use.  Hence, the new knowledge becomes prior knowledge that can be applied to the next new skill.

–Lisa Tittle, Faculty, English, Harford Community College, MD

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