Summarizing Mini-Lessons and Practice Activities

Oct 31, 2010 by

Summarizing is a complex strategy that requires students to construct concise descriptions of the main points or events of a text. It is helpful to teach summarizing after questioning because they are closely related skills.  When summarizing narrative text, students should use story structure (characters, setting, problem, events, resolution) to help recount the story in order. When summarizing expository text, students need to determine the most important ideas and arrange them in a logical order. Students need to be taught that summarizing is an in-the-head strategy that proficient readers use to sustain meaning throughout their reading of a text.

The following are some excellent video lessons which demonstrate effective teaching of summarization skills:

Below are some additional activities to help students practice their summarization skills:

Sentence Stems

It is often helpful to prompt students using the language of summarizing. Sentence stems include the following:

  • First…
  • Next…
  • Then
  • After that…
  • Finally…
  • The story takes place…
  • The main characters are…
  • A problem occurs when…
  • I learned that…
  • The most important ideas in this text are…
  • This part was about…

Model Rereading

Students often need to be reminded that it is not cheating to go back and look over what they have just read to help them summarize or locate answers. Using the text is an important resource that should not be overlooked. The best way to reinforce use of this important strategy is to model it frequently through think-alouds.

Shrink-Wrap Summaries

Read aloud a simple text such as a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Guide students to generate a list of the main points in the text. Record the list on chart paper or overhead. Help students identify a main idea sentence and then a sequenced list of events. Record and reread the summary. To “shrink-wrap”, cross out unnecessary or repetitive details or sentences. Continue this process until the summary is as concise as possible. Discuss reasons for including or rejecting the sentences in the summary. After this has been modeled during whole group lessons, release responsibility to students by having them complete the activity with partners. Have each student write a summary and then pair students to “shrink-wrap” each others’ summaries.  Source: A Practical Guide to Reciprocal Teaching by Shira Lubliner, Wright Group/McGraw-Hill, 2001.

25-Word Summary

Give pairs of students a half sheet of transparency paper. Have the pairs work together to construct a summary of a selection in 25 words or less and write it on the transparency. Give students the opportunity to share summaries on the overhead. Compare and contrast summaries.


Book Chats

This activity can be used as an alternative to book reports. It allows students to “advertise” a favorite book for their classmates. Part of the book chat requires students to summarize the book. For more on book chats, see Student-Led Book Chats.

Thumbnail Sketch

Students review a text and summarize the main points using five sentences or less. Then they team up with a partner or small group to compare summaries. They work together to come up with a group “thumbnail sketch” that encompasses the points that all group members deemed important, again using five sentences or less.  Source: Revisit, Reflect, Retell by Linda Hoyt, Heinemann, 1999.

The Important Book

Read aloud The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. Discuss the way the author uses each page to summarize a concept using the format of main idea-details-main idea. Have students write their own important books summarizing a concept, unit of study, reading selection, a character, etc. Have them write one sentence on each page and illustrate the pages.


The most important thing about _____ is _____.
It ________. It ________. It ________.
But the most important thing about ____ is ____.


The most important thing about air is that it keeps us alive.
It is a gas.
It is invisible.
It contains oxygen and carbon dioxide.
But the most important thing about air is that it keeps us alive.

Now I Know Poem

This activity can be used at the end of a unit of study or after reading an expository text to help students synthesize and summarize information they learned.


Now I know
that ________,
that ________,
that _______.

I still want to know
why ________

I’m glad I learned
that ________
because ________.

Sample poem:

Now I know
that hardened lava is from a volcano,
that Hawaii is a volcano,
that earthquakes can kill people.

I still want to know
when the big earthquake will
come because I want to be ready.

I’m glad I learned
that volcanoes are under water
because I can be more alert.

Reprinted with permission from Linda Ryan, Institute for Educational Development, 1996.

Narrative Pyramid

This activity helps students summarize narrative text and provides a template for summary writing. After reading narrative text, students complete the following:

Line 1: Character’s name
Line 2: Two words describing the character
Line 3: Three words describing the setting
Line 4: Four words stating the problem
Line 5: Five words describing one event
Line 6: Six words describing another event
Line 7: Seven words describing a third event
Line 8: Eight words describing the solution to the problem



Source: Guided Comprehension in Action: Lessons for Grades 3-8 by Maureen McLaughlin and Mary Beth Allen, IRA, 2002.


This is a fun way to summarize a character’s life or personality traits. Have students select a character from a fictional book or a famous person from a biography and complete the bio-poem planning sheet. 


Partner Page Summary

Students work in pairs and take turns reading a short piece of text. One partner places a blank overhead transparency over the text, underlines several key words, and then gives a verbal summary using those words. Then the student quickly erases the transparency and exchanges roles with his partner who repeats this process.  Source: Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension by Lori Oczkus, IRA, 2003.

Comic Strip Summaries

Have students fold a blank piece of paper into 4, 6, or 8 sections. Instruct them to retell a story or article by drawing a main event or idea in each box and writing a sentence to accompany each picture. Share in small groups.  Source: Guided Comprehension in Action: Lessons for Grades 3-8 by Maureen McLaughlin and Mary Beth Allen, IRA, 2002.

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