Saturday, 22 August 2015

To Sum It Up

One of the things that constantly surprises me is the way middle school kiddos struggle to take notes of key ideas and then summarise what they've read. Summarising plays a big part of our school's reading scope and sequence so it's somewhat of a mystery but it is what it is, and so we'll work with it!

We do a lot of research in middle school; a lot of  inquiry learning. To my dismay more than a couple of kiddos have recently fallen into the ol' trap of copying and pasting 'facts' that 'answer' their questions. *sigh*  As we're heading into quite a large inquiry topic I decided that it's time to revisit a couple of ways of notetaking and summarising.

One particular lesson really grabbed the kiddos' attention.  I started by sharing a short article from the British Museum's Ancient India website. (We've just started investigating Ancient India. We'll be building a website and would love your input. You can check it out here.)
This is a screen shot from
After reading the text aloud - it's a little complex for some of my kiddos, and we had a friend visiting from the small class for a reverse integration session - I left the article on the screen and asked everyone to choose one word that stood out to them as the most important one in the whole text. I quickly entered these onto and we came up with this:
Each word was justified by its contributor which was quite thought provoking and meant that the next step of writing a one sentence summary of the article was probably easier for everyone.

Here is a selection of the sentences at this stage:

  • India is an extreme land with lots of challenges and powerful rivers.
  • India is extreme and challenging.
  • In ancient times, the subcontinent of India was challenged when civilization had to make extreme changes to their lives by the Indus River.
  • Ancient India has powerful rivers flowing through it.
  • The subcontinent of ancient India has varied, extreme weather and it is a challenge for the civilisations that live there.
Quite a range of understanding!

The next step involved each student choosing a phrase from the text that they thought carried the most information. Again, I entered them into and here is our outcome:
Again, each phrase was justified by its contributor and everyone wrote a one sentence summary based on both word clouds.

Here is a selection of these sentences.
  • India is an ancient land full of insane rivers and hectic lands.
  • Water flows through ancient India’s land.
  • Ancient Indians lived on rivers which passed as an obstacle with the wild weather.
  • Ancient India has a rough landscape and rough rivers.
  • Ancient India is land that you need to adjust to and is hard to live in.
  • It is very remote and hard in ancient India.
  • It is a strong meaningful article telling us about the rivers and land.
I'm not sure about the mental health of the rivers but on the whole the sentences give a pretty good - brief - summary of the article.

And the kiddos 'got it'. They didn't have the article in front of them to write the sentences, just the word clouds. We discussed the idea that summarising means distilling the important parts out of the text and focussing on them. The word clouds help us do that by showing us visually which we thought were the important words and phrases were.

We looked at one other technique during this lesson.  I, again, chose a short article from the same website and read it aloud.  As a class we decided what the important word or phrase in each sentence was, and highlighted it in orange. We noticed that not all sentences really added anything new and so we didn't need to highlight anything, but that some sentences really had a couple so we went back and added some green highlights.  These words became the keywords that students used to write their summaries. 

This was originally a screenshot from
We've still got a long way to go, but we're making progress.  What techniques do you use to teach notetaking, key words and summarising?

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers...
Standard 1 Know students and how they learn
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it
Standard 3 Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
Standard 4 Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments


  1. What a great introduction Markeeta. Some other tools to help students to practise summarising that you could try are - 'get the gist, 2 column notes and Digtogloss. Start with a whole class think aloud, shared thinking then give students a short article or part of a text to do a 'paired practise.' I think it is important to teach students a number of tools and strategies to help them notetake when summarising and insist that they do and use this as part of the assessment so that it becomes habit. Only then will we embed this for students and help them to get to deeper comprehension of what they read and avoid plagarism...

    1. Funnily I have a dictogloss planned for tomorrow afternoon! Great minds! My whole unit plan includes several tools with the idea that there should be something that works for everyone that way!
      I totally agree with including these steps in assessment. I've been including revising and editing in our assessments of late, and seeing much more progress.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! :)