Full Summaries Sorted

Getting the Gist and Summarizing

Getting the Gist and Summarizing

“Getting the gist” is a high-leverage reading strategy that is a particular kind of summarizing. It is a way for students to monitor their comprehension in small chunks: What is the gist of what I just read? What did this sentence/paragraph/page/diagram just tell me? Similar to paraphrasing, getting the gist lets readers know on the spot whether they understand what they just read. Getting the gist does not require an evaluative filter—deciding which information is most important—in the way that summarizing does. It is simply a systematic check on understanding. When students Talk to the Text, for example, the kind of summarizing they typically do is comprehension monitoring—getting the gist—not evaluating the relative importance of or relationships between various chunks of text as they might in summarizing.

True summarizing is one of the most complex (and frequently assigned) comprehension strategies students are expected to master. From the upper primary grades on, students are asked to write summaries of textbook chapters, novels, science lab findings, and written materials of all kinds. Yet even college students struggle to summarize their reading. To summarize well, students must first comprehend what they have read and then make decisions about what is important and not so important in a text and what kinds of relationships have been represented. We have found, through the experiences of many Reading Apprenticeship teachers, that students at all levels learn summarizing with remarkable effectiveness through structured interactions with their peers.

Jordona Elderts, a grade 7 social studies teacher who was frustrated by years of “constantly summarizing for students so they don’t miss the main points,” found that the peer summary analysis process she learned through Reading Apprenticeship (see Box 7.10) made a huge difference. She now spends time in the first month of the school year teaching this single comprehension strategy, so that for the rest of the year her students are doing the work of summarizing themselves:

They would read chunks of material and write down a sentence for that chunk, have to summarize it and then compare it with their partner’s, and modify it. I think one of the most thrilling things was when I asked how many people changed their sentence after reading their partner’s. It was about two-thirds of the class. I find that really unusual because normally they’ll just share their sentence and say, “Okay, great. Yours is great, mine’s great.” And they’ll move on. They really kind of negotiated for meaning and negotiated the best way that they could write a summary that could encompass the main idea.

In mathematics classes, teachers have adapted the Summary Analysis by a Peer task for application to math solutions. Partners query each other’s math solutions in mathematical form and as written explanations. Box 7.11 is the note taker that students complete and exchange when the task is Math Solution Summary Analysis by a Peer.

Two writing activities that help students hone their summarizing skills are This Is About/This Is Really About and the Twenty-Five-Word Abstract. In the first activity, students learn how to identify main ideas and then infer a summary. In the second, they learn precision. In both summarizing activities, students should be learning that “summaries are made, not found.”

Teacher Christine Cziko created This Is About for the first cohort of Reading Apprenticeship students. They knew that a summary involved pulling together the most important parts of a text and writing them down in shortened form, but most had little idea about how to decide what was important or how to put key ideas into their own words. Initially she used This Is About to help them distinguish main ideas from details. To teach students to infer the main idea when it refers to an unstated theme or big idea, she took the activity to another level—This Is Really About. Both versions of This Is About are described in Box 7.12. Box 7.13 is a completed example of This Is Really About. It shows how students might develop a summary of what the novel Julie of the Wolves is really about.

High school teacher Tim Tindol wanted to help his students use summarizing to better understand science texts, and he also wanted students to understand the genre of abstracts, the formal summaries used in academic research papers. He developed the collaborative Twenty-Five-Word Abstract activity to accomplish both purposes. Students individually read and select the main idea in a science text, work in groups to clarify vocabulary and compare group members’ selected main ideas, write individual abstracts based on the group discussion and consensus, and then compare abstracts and develop a collaborative abstract that represents the group’s best thinking. Tim imposes the twenty-five-word limit to help students focus on being clear and concise. (Box 7.14 describes the Twenty-Five-Word Abstract process.)

Visual summaries, or posters, are another way Reading Apprenticeship teachers have students present their understanding of key ideas or concepts in a text. Working in small groups, students first discuss their ideas and develop consensus about what is most important, then decide what visual representation of the ideas will be most effective and create the poster. The important work of the group is in discussing their ideas and choosing a discipline-appropriate graphic form of communication. Some teachers have groups rate each other’s posters, based on the content of the posters (not the “art”).


Most students have had only teachers as the audience for the summaries they are required to write. With peers for an audience, students get immediate feedback and the opportunity to negotiate meaning in a metacognitive conversation.

In this activity, distinct from some forms of peer editing, students’ only attention is to meaning.


  • Have students prepare a summary of a text they have read in common.
  • In pairs, have students read a partner’s summary, answering in writing the following questions about the summary:
    • If you hadn’t read the text yourself, would you be able to understand what it was about from this summary? Why or why not?
    • Is there anything important that should be added to this summary? What is it? Why do you think so?
    • Is there anything unimportant that should be left out of the summary? What is it? Why do you think so?
  • Have partners exchange their responses, read and discuss them, and make revisions to their respective summaries based on the discussion of their partner’s feedback.

This note taker is a student handout that adapts Summary Analysis by a Peer (Box 7.10) for use in mathematics classes.

  • Trade your completed solution with your partner
  • Read your partner's solution. Answer the following questions about the solution.
    1. Can you follow the solution in math form? Why or why not?
    2. Can you follow the solution in written explanation form?
    3. Does the answer seem reasonable? Why or why not?
    4. Has the original question been answered completely?
    5. Is there anything important that should be added to the solution? What is it? Why do you think so?
    6. Is there anything unimportant that should be left out of the solution? What is it? Why do you think so?
  • Return solutions and these answers to your partner.
  • Read what your partner wrote and talk it over.
  • Make revisions to your own work based on the answers given by your partner.


Students work in the whole class, individually, and in groups to identify main ideas and use them to synthesize or infer a summary.


  • Ask students to silently read a passage and be ready to “tell what the passage is about.”
  • Record all student ideas, details and main ideas alike.
  • Have the class compare the ideas on the list to distinguish main ideas and details. Highlight those identified as main ideas. Some texts may require you to prompt students to make inferences about what the main idea may be.
  • Have students individually decide which statements from the list capture all or part of the main idea.
  • Have students work in pairs or trios to compare their ideas and agree on which to include or synthesize.
  • Record groups’ ideas and facilitate another class discussion about why some ideas are or are not main ideas. Edit the list accordingly.
  • Depending on the affordances of the text, challenge students to capture big ideas or themes by continuing to ask, “This is about that, but what is it really about?”
  • Have students return to their groups and write a summary of the passage.


Limiting students to twenty-five-word summaries helps them really focus on what is important.


  • Have students individually read a text and highlight main ideas and difficult vocabulary.
  • Have students work in small groups, first to clarify vocabulary, using each other’s thinking and other classroom resources.
  • Have group members take turns presenting their highlighted main ideas as well as their reasons for selecting them.
  • Ask groups to discuss and reach consensus about which are the key points.
  • Have students individually write an abstract of twenty-five words or less that includes the key points selected by their group.
  • Have students take turns presenting their abstract to their group members.
  • Ask group members to discuss differences among their abstracts and then agree on and write a group abstract of twenty-five words or less on a poster.
  • Have groups post their abstracts and rotate around the room reading the abstracts of the other groups. On sticky notes, have groups rate each poster, including their own, on the importance, clarity, and conciseness of the information in the abstract. (Alternatively, have groups rate the posters, but do not supply criteria. Instead, after all abstracts have been rated, lead a class discussion in which students surface the qualities that led them to rate an abstract as successful.)

Reading for Understanding, pp.217-223

DMU Timestamp: December 19, 2018 18:14

0 comments, 0 areas
add area
add comment
change display
add comment

Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

Logging in, please wait... Blue_on_grey_spinner