ELJ Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2. Fall 2001. (p. 1 - 7)

Teaching Summarizing Skills: Some Practical Hints

by Tim Newfields

What is involved in the process of summarizing a text? How can summarizing skills be taught? This paper attempts to answer these questions and offer some practical tips for those teaching summarizing skills.

Contrastive writing genres

When teaching summarizing skills, one of the first concepts to convey is how summaries, paraphrases, and interpretative critiques differ. Each of these genres varies in key ways. To highlight some of the differences, word maps may be useful. The word map in Fig. 1. demonstrates some of the ways summaries, paraphrases, and interpretative critiques contrast.
Fig. 1. - A graphic representation of the differences between summaries, paraphrases, and interpretations.
Figure 1. - A graphic representation of the differences between summaries, paraphrases, and interpretations.
Several points concerning these terms should be clarified.

A paraphrase attempts to express the same ideas of an original text in different words. Different wordings naturally result in slightly different shades of meaning. However, successful paraphrases achieve nearly the same meaning as an original text. No attempt at brevity is made in paraphrasing. Indeed, if extensive circumlocution is used, a paraphrase may be longer than its original text.

A summary, by contrast, is an abridgement expressing the main ideas of a text passage through reported speech. A successful summary is not an exposition of the writer's own opinions, but a distillation of the essential points in an original text.

When teaching summarizing skills, three points should be emphasized: (1) summaries are shorter than original texts, (2) they contain the main ideas of a text, and (3) they are in reported speech.

An interpretative critique evaluates some (or all) of the issues raised in a text. Successful interpretative critiques offer new critical perspectives regarding some (or all) of the ideas stated in an original passage by introducing information outside of the original text passage.

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It is essential that students understand how summaries, paraphrases, and interpretative essays differ. To make sure this distinction is clear, a cloze diagram like the one in Figure 2 can be used. While students listen to a brief lecture about each writing genre (and/or read about them), they should complete the missing information in Figure 2, then confirm their understandings in class.

Fig. 2 - A cloze diagram contrasting three writing genres.

Figure 2 - A cloze diagram contrasting three writing genres.
After conveying these points to students, the next step I recommend in teaching summarizing skills is to show students several examples of original texts with subsequent paraphrases, summaries, and interpretations - then ask them to decide which passages represent which writing genre. Some actual materials which illustrate this concept appear in Table 1.

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Table 1. An exercise designed to help students understand how summaries, paraphrases, and interpretative critiques differ.

Instructions to Students:

Read the original text below, then decide which of the following three texts
is a summary, which is a paraphrase, and which is an interpretative critique.

Original Text

I am a Taiwanese man, but I have lived in Canada for several years now. I am surprised at how Canadian society respects the rights of women, both at work and home. Personally I believe women in Canada are better off than women in Taiwan. However, some of my female friends in Canada miss the good old days when women were treated in a different ways. You see, in the past, gentlemen followed different rules of behavior. They would open the doors for ladies, pull out chairs for ladies to sit down, stand up when a lady left the table, and offer to pay the bill at restaurants. Now, however, most Canadian believe that men and women should be considered equal. For example, women now generally have to pay for their own meals. [133 words]

Text A

This text describes the experience of a Taiwanese man who has lived in Canada for several years. He considers Canadian women better off than Taiwanese. However, he notes some Canadian women feel nostalgic about the days when they received special courtesies. For example, formerly men opened doors for women or paid for their meals. At this time, most Canadians endeavor to treat men and women equally. Women today therefore are expected to cover the cost of their own meals. [78 words]

Text B

I think that men and women should be treated equally. In Taiwan this is rarely the case, so in many ways Canadian women are luckier than Taiwanese. Though men often pay for womens' meals in Taiwan, they also earn more than women, which is unfair. Most women appreciate courtesies such as having doors opened for them. However, a more pressing need is gender equality - especially in the workplace. Men and women doing the same work should get the same pay. In the future, I hope Taiwanese women will have the same rights as Canadian women. [95 words]

Text C

I'm Taiwanese and have lived in Canada for several years. The way Canadians respect womens' rights, both at work and home, is surprising. My opinion is that Canadian women are better off than Taiwanese. Some women in Canada whom I know miss the days when they were treated differently. Behavior standards differed in the past. At one time, men opened doors for women, pulled out chairs for them, and offered to pay their bills when dining out. Now, however, most Canadians believe men and women should be regarded as equals. As a result, women now must generally pay for their own meals. [103 words]

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Comparing each text passage with the original, it should be clear that Text A is a summary, B an interpretation, and C a paraphrase.

Even when students seem to understand the difference between these three writing genres, many seem to benefit from comparing concrete examples of each genre side-by-side over a period of time. It is important that the comparative text samples be related to topics students are studying. Also, the vocabulary needs to be within their level. Finally, the text length should be short enough to cover in a single class period each time. For most Taiwanese university students who are non-English majors, texts between 125 - 375 words in length seem optimum.

Evaluating summaries

Before students start writing their own text summaries, it may be useful to give them the experience of critically evaluating several sample student summaries. By looking at texts created by peers, students may grasp some of the problems often encountered when summarizing texts. Here is one sample student summary, followed by some questions written by a teacher to encourage a critical assessment of that summary:
Table 3. A sample student summary of the original passage in Table 1.

Sample Student Summary

The writer feels women in Canadian are luckier than Taiwan women, because most Canadian throw out the conception of sexism. However, some Canada females miss the good old days. Before, gentlemen opened doors for ladies, and pulled out their chairs, etc. Now Canadian men believe women are equal and they must pay at restaurant. [54 words].

Questions for Students

  1. Where is the writer from? Is the original author male or female?
  2. Have all Canadians abandoned sexist ideas - or just most Canadians?
  3. How do these two expressions vary in meaning?
    (a) Men would often pull out chairs for women.
    (b) Men would often pull out womens' chairs.
  4. Do women today always have to pay for their meals when dining out?

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One question teachers face when teaching paraphrasing skills is how much to focus on sentence-level errors and how much to focus on discourse-level errors. In my experience, over-emphasis on sentence level errors may discourage students from thinking about discourse-level structures. If students have a chance to revise their summaries several times, teachers can point out different types of errors at different times. Then again, some teachers may prefer to follow a "non-correction" policy which simply encourages students to keep writing more and more summaries, confident that they will improve naturally over time. My personal approach to this issue is to give students some choice in how much correction they want. For details about that, refer to Newfields (1999).

At Ming Chuan University, English majors often are fortunate to go through a guided revision process. Most non-English majors, however, do not have this chance. In most cases, non-English majors write less than three summaries per semester. Some of those summaries will receive grades and perhaps a few cursory comments. Many students seem unsure of which parts of their summaries were successful and which were not. Under such conditions, perhaps it should be little surprise that many students mechanically copy sections of original text passages to produce what could best be called "pseudo-summaries", as in the example below.

Table 2. A flawed summary of the original passage in Table 1.
I am a Taiwanese and am surprised at how Canadian society respects the rights of women. I believe women in Canada are better off than women in Taiwan. However, some Canada women miss the good old days when gentlemen followed different rules of behavior. They would open the doors for ladies, etc. Now most Canadian believe that men and women should be considered equal and women now generally have to pay for their own meals. [75 words]

The summarizing process

Pedagogically, the summarizing process can be taught in terms of five distinct steps:

  1. Identifying the key points of a text.
  2. Paraphrasing key points at a sentence-level.
  3. Transforming sentence-level paraphrases into reported speech.
  4. Adding sequential markers.
  5. Optional: Creating an introductory sentence.

This process is explained step-by-step.

Step 1: Identifying the key points of a text.

In most English prose forms, the key points of a text passage can be found in the first sentence of each paragraph. The final sentence of a text often also contains valuable information. Many Taiwanese students appear to know this and mechanically copy the opening paragraph sentences and adding the final sentence of a passage, with no evidence that they understand the content of what they're re-writing. As long as summaries remain a feature of school exams, the temptation to use relatively certain techniques such as this rather than uncertain understandings will remain high.

To underscore that not all key points of a text appear in the opening paragraph sentences, it may be useful to show students a range of prose passages, and ask them to underline the key points. A list of several text passages designed for this purpose appears at www.tnewfields.info/Articles/sumE.htm. Suggested answers are hyperlinked to the original texts, and each of the five steps in this summary process mentioned in this article are also illustrated on those web pages.

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Many foreign language students have problems evaluating the relative importance of key points. One useful exercise may be is to rank the key sentences sequentially, listing the most important sentences first, and the less important ones later.

Another option for 200 - 500 word length passages is to select the three most important sentences, then the three least important sentences. The least important three sentences can probably be eliminated entirely from the summary. The most important three sentences should have a prominent position in the summary. Though proficient writers will have little need of this mechanical method, it may be of value to intermediate level foreign language students.

Step 2: Paraphrasing key points at a sentence-level

In one sense, every successful summary is both an interpretation and paraphrase. It is an interpretation because rewriters must decide what parts of an original text are salient. It is also a paraphrase since the wording of the selected key portions almost invariably differs from the original. Paraphrasing is an important part of the summarizing process since it allows rewriters adjust the text to the interests and reading level of a target audience.

What is the best way to learn sentence-level paraphrasing skills? This is a long-term process. Vocabulary development is certainly an essential feature. In particular, students need to become more familiar with synonyms and circumlocutions. Other skills such as grammatical competence are related more to writing in general than paraphrasing in particular.

I recommend that foreign language students focus on sentence-level paraphrasing before attempting discourse-level summaries. A list of sentences designed for ESOL students to practise paraphrasing is found at www.tnewfields.info/Articles/parEX.htm. For purposes of this article, let us consider one sentence:

The temperature in many parts of the world is gradually rising.

There are basically two ways to paraphrase this: by making word-level transformations (and maintaining the original syntax) or by considering its "deep structure" (Chomsky, 1965, p. 16) and making more significant changes. Note how these paraphrases differ:

(1) The temperature in lots of places around the earth is slowly increasing.
(2) Most parts of the world are getting hotter steadily.

Example (1) represents a word-level paraphrase and the following sentence is a deep-level transformation. Most foreign language students find making word-level paraphrases easier than deep transformations. Proficient writers, by contrast, are more willing to make deep transformations because they offer a broader range of expressive possibilities.
"Sentence-level paraphrases are . . . more teachable than deep paragraph-level paraphrases in most EFL contexts."

Teachers can help students with word-level paraphrases by teaching synonyms and exemplifying how sentences can be reworded without significant loss of meaning. Deep-level paraphrases may be too complex to teach to most foreign language students; so many complex morphological, syntactic, and lexical changes are involved in making deep-level paraphrases that students are likely to get bewildered. For many, this can result in a loss of security and confidence. Sentence-level paraphrases are therefore more teachable than deep paragraph-level paraphrases in most EFL contexts.

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Step 3: Transforming sentence-level paraphrases into reported speech.

This is the simplest part of the summarizing process. It involves a mechanical transformation of text passages into the third person, past tense forms. This step can be taught by taking a wide range of sentences and transforming them into reported speech as in these examples -

Original Text:

I am a Taiwanese man, but I have lived in Canada for several years now. I am surprised at how Canadian society respects the rights of women . . .

Transformation into Reported Speech:

The author is a Taiwanese man, but has lived in Canada for several years now. He was surprised at how Canadian society respects the rights of women . . .

ESOL students tend to have problems with irregular verbs during this process. For the most part, however, converting sentences into reported speech is straight-forward.

Step 4: Adding sequential markers.

Sequential markers indicate which part of a passage comes first, next, and last. Though short summaries may not need such markers, longer ones often do. Teachers should therefore be sure that students are familiar with these sequential markers:

   First            Next           Then           In addition     In the section which follows
   After this       Finally        Lastly         Moreover        In conclusion 

Let us consider three ways to promote fluency with sequential markers.

One approach is to show students a passage, then ask them to underline the sequential markers, and discuss them briefly in class.

Another approach is to show students an extended passage in which such markers are missing, then ask them to add appropriate markers. A point to remember is that there is usually a wide choice concerning which sequential markers to use. And sometimes decisions about sequential markers are a matter of stylistics or personal taste. Teachers therefore need to be disciplined enought not to impose their own stylistic notions too strongly upon others.

A third way to help students become more familiar with sequential markers is to show them scrambled sentences in which the full text is present, but sequence is unknown. This can be useful for developing general reading comprehension as well as familiarity with sequential markers.

Step 5: Creating an introductory sentence.

Some extended summaries are complex enough to merit the addition of an introductory sentence at the head which tells readers what the passage is about. Successful introductory sentences orient readers to the text which follows. An important part of the orientation process is identifying the genre, author, and time frame. In most cases, such introductory sentences follow predictable patterns, a few of which are listed below -

This is an article about ______________.
This passage reflects the opinion of _______ about _______.
This story expresses the thoughts of__________ concerning _______.
This is a book written for _________ about _______________.

One way of learning how to make introductory summaries is to read several passages in which the introductory sentence is missing, then write an introductory sentence for that passage. Another way is to match 4-6 introductory sentences with 4-6 text passages.


"The ability to critically evaluate text passages and rephrase them in short, comprehensible language is an essential language skill. "

Text summaries represent an important writing genre. The ability to critically evaluate text passages and rephrase them in short, comprehensible language is an essential language skill. Foreign language students are often daunted by the task of summarizing foreign texts. However, if summarizing skills are taught systematically, and reading skills also developed, the task of summarizing texts will become less disconcerting.

To some degree, the same principles which apply to teaching any writing genre can be used to teaching summary skills. For example, students need to consider their target audiences carefully and also revise their summaries several times. However, summaries do have a number of unique features which should be clearly pointed out.

Summarizing text passages involves many sub-skills and takes a long time to develop. It may be a valid goal for year-long EFL programs, but beyond the scope of just 2-3 lessons. Foreign language students who already have a degree of proficiency at sentence level paraphrasing and reading should be encouraged to gradually focus on developing their discourse-level summary skills.


Bhatia, V. K. (1993) Analysing Genre: Language use in Professional Settings. Addison Wesley Longman.

Chomsky, N. (1965) The Theory of Syntax. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Newfields, T. (1999) "Process and Product Approaches in EFL Composition: Connecting 'How' with 'What'. Proceedings of the Academic Conference on Bridging the Centuries. March 12-13, 1999. Ming Chuan University, Taipei, Taiwan. (p. 45 - 51) Available Online: www.tnewfields.info/Articles/bridge.htm. [17 Feb. 2000].

Purdue On-Line Writing Lab. (n.d.) Quoting, Paraphrasing and Summarizing. Available Online: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_quotprsum.html. [19 Feb. 2000].

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Categorical Index Subject Index Title Index

Copyright (c) 2000, 2001 by Tim Newfields