Summarizing Activities for Nonfiction

This teacher wants just the essential ideas summarized.
... Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

Summarizing is a useful skill at any educational level; it allows your students to cover numerous ideas with a few notes, and strongly improves their overall comprehension of a nonfiction text. There are several excellent activities that allow your students to "sum up" nonfiction briefly and effectively, ranging from journalistic strategies to more creative re-telling techniques.

1 Five Ws and One H

The most basic nonfiction summarizing method used by journalists and reporters is the Five-W's-and-One-H of inquiry: who, what, where, when, why, how. Challenge your students to report: A. what a passage's subject is; B. what is important about it; C. when and where it takes place; D. why the subject is important and E. how it occurs. One excellent methodology is to have students play investigators in groups, questioning each other about the text and reporting their findings back to the group; each individual student then writes a three-to-five sentence summary.

2 VIPs on Post-it Strips

The VIP -- Very Important Point -- exercise compels your students to pick only essential ideas in a nonfiction work. Give your students pads of Post-it strips; if you use square notes, have them tear or cut them into strips with adhesive on each piece. Tell them to label the text's most important ideas. They are only allowed four strips per text, so they must carefully choose the four main points to label. A variation on this is to allow students six strips, then tell them to cut essential ideas to five, then four.

3 Read, Cover, Remember and Retell Strategy

Common Core curriculum requires students to engage in "conversations [and] evidentiary arguments" over a nonfiction text's meaning. One great strategy for this is "Read, Cover, Remember, Retell" (RCRR), where each student silently reads a section of nonfiction text no larger than their hand. They then cover it up and retell the essential idea to a partner, who reviews what they said and points up missing details. Students switch roles, then both of them write a summary of the entire reading to share with the class, covering only the essential ideas they found.

4 Creative Response

A challenging but enjoyable activity is Creative Response, where students summarize informational selections by rewriting them as news articles, editorials, speeches or scientific reports. A student reading a nonfiction essay on global warming could write its essential ideas in a "Late Breaking News" byte of 30 seconds or as a promotional campaign speech for an ecologically minded candidate. They could then present these brief essentials to the class and demonstrate their mastery of summarizing skills.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.