The ability to write a short and specific condensed version of a longer piece of text is an essential skill taught and practiced with even young elementary students. By modeling with students how to recognize and rewrite main ideas and important details, teachers instruct learners in the methods to practice and create summaries.

Main Ideas and Details

Before elementary students can write a summary, they need to be brought to understand the concepts of main idea and details. This often works best with a visual for instruction. For example, a hamburger image can be used to teach students that the main parts of the story are the meat and bread, while the pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, onions and tomatoes are the details. Similarly, using a tree has the main idea as the trunk, while the branches and leaves are the details. Teachers practice with students asking questions about the main ideas and details with texts read in class.

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

For nonfiction texts, one of the best ways to pull out important information from a longer piece is to use the questions who, what, when, where, why and how. Have students determine who the piece is about. What is happening with that subject? When and where is the action happening? Why and how are these things happening with the subject? Students can answer these questions in the margins of the printed texts or on colorful sticky notes. Rewriting the answers to these questions into paragraph form will give students a good rough draft of a summary.

Someone, Wanted, But, So and Then

For fiction and narrative texts that tell a story or have a plot, the "someone, wanted, but, so and then" method may work best to create a succinct summary. Students identify the main character, which is the "someone," and what that character "wanted" in the story. They figure out the problem that the character faced, which is the "but" part, what the character does about the problem, which accounts for "so," and what happens as a result of the character's actions -- the "then." As with nonfiction, students can write the answers down before putting the ideas together to form a summary.

Graphic Organizers

Students learning to write summaries can benefit from using a graphic organizer worksheet to pull out important details from the assigned text. Graphic organizers for summarizing have boxes printed with titles relevant to summarizing, such as Someone, Wanted, But, So, and Then. These labeled boxes have blank space to allow students to write down those labeled key elements they find in the text. When students combine the information from the graphic organizer into a paragraph, they will have written a complete summary.