A summary can be considered a condensed overview of an article’s main points written in the student’s own words.
In this guide, we will be walking you through how to summarize an article without plagiarizing so that you can make those words efficient and effective.
WHAT IS A SUMMARY?
Summaries are usually:
Summaries express the article’s central points or arguments concisely and coherently while also digging beneath the surface to convey the article’s underlying meaning.
This is not the place for long, drawn-out descriptions written in purple prose. Students should eliminate redundancies and avoid repetition. They need to get to the point and employ pared-down language that gets to the heart of the matter ASAP.
Accuracy is essential. The purpose of a summary is to provide an overview of the article. To do this, the student needs to read the text carefully and make sure they have understood the content clearly. If the summary is to prove worthy of the name, then precision is vital.
Along with accuracy, the student must maintain objectivity when creating a summary. This means their opinion on the article should not be detectable anywhere in the text.
Students can sometimes find this aspect difficult, particularly when such weight is given to their personal responses in other text types. Here, it is important to remind students to focus on the author’s perspective rather than providing their own personal commentary on it.
A helpful way to check for these three main characteristics is to assign students partners for peer assessment. This is especially useful when the partners have both written summaries about the same article. This will make it easier to check for conciseness, accuracy, and objectivity.
Why Is Summarizing Important?
Developing the skill of summarizing benefits students in many ways. For example, summarizing:
- Encourages closer reading of the text
- Helps students identify the main points in a text
- Aids students in learning to ignore unimportant or irrelevant detail
- Serves as a valuable memorization tool
- Develops note-taking and writing skills
- Encourages critical engagement with a text
- Produces a helpful study resource
- Offers an opportunity for students to reconstruct their learning and consolidate their understanding
- Improves the student’s own writing.
These are just some of the wide-ranging benefits developing the skill of summarizing offers our students. Clearly, well worth the time investment required!
Summaries vs. Reviews
Sometimes students get a little confused between writing a review and writing a summary. As the two text types have some common characteristics, it’s important to take a little time to distinguish the difference between the two for our students clearly.
Both text types can indeed concern themselves with the content of another text and require close reading and comprehension of that text; however, there is a fundamental difference between their respective purposes.
On the one hand, summaries are broad in scope and concerned with presenting the reader with a condensed overview of the article. Reviews, on the other hand, are narrower in focus. While they may also summarize some aspects of the text, they are more concerned with providing the reader with the review writer’s opinion on the text.
How Long Should a Summary Be?
This is the writing equivalent of the age-old question: How long is a piece of string?
The length of the summary will depend on the length and complexity of the article being summarized. If the student follows the process below, the length of the summary will dictate itself. That said, summaries are, by definition, short. At least they are generally considerably shorter than the articles they summarize.
While it isn’t possible to answer this question definitively given the wide range of variables at work, typically, an article summary will be fewer than ten sentences.
How to Summarize an Article
With some practice summarizing, students will soon become proficient at it but, in the beginning, it is best to approach summarizing in a systematic, step-by-step manner. For this reason, the following process can be taught.
Step 1: Scan the Article
Reading the article is the obvious starting point for the summarizing process. However, when a student intends to summarize an article, the reading process itself should be more thorough, and multiple readings will be required.
To begin with, students should scan the ‘shape’ of the article to get a sense of what it is about. To do this, students should look first at the title and then the headings and subheadings.
They can follow this with a quick read of the introduction which will provide the student with valuable information on the topic of the text and some insight into the writer’s position on the topic.
Then, students can direct their attention to the conclusion. This allows them to assess if the writer achieved what they set out to do by comparing this section with the article’s introduction.
Work through a practice article with the students in a whole class situation. Model the process for the students as a shared reading activity. Discuss the layout of the article, its title, and the introduction and conclusion with the students. Ask questions that prompt the students to consider what the article is about and what the writer’s perspective is. For example, What is the topic of the article? What do you know about the writer’s position?
Step 2: Identify Underlying Structures
As mentioned, students will need to read the article several times, and, at this stage, it is time for a more thorough look at how the article is structured.
To facilitate this, it is helpful for the student to have their own photocopy of the article so they can annotate and make notes next to relevant sections. Failing this, they can use a separate sheet of paper.
As the students read through the text, they should first identify its underlying structure. While the headings and subheadings identified in Step1 are the start of this process, there may be other identifiable subdivisions within the text.
For example, is the text structured around themes, subpoints, arguments, methods, processes, results, discussion? Where these are identified by students, this should be noted on the paper. Of course, the nature of these subdivisions will differ according to the type of article being examined. But, in scientific articles, for example, students should endeavor to identify things such as the research question, the hypothesis, the method of investigation, limitations, results, implications, etc.
This will all be a great help to the student when it comes to organizing their ideas for writing their summary.
Choose a suitable article for the students to work through on their own. They should identify the underlying structure and its distinctive sections and annotate these accordingly. When they have finished, students can compare their findings with each other as a whole class. Which were the most common structural features identified? Was there a consensus on how the article was structured? If not, why not?
Step 3: Highlight the Key Points
On the next read-through, the student will be looking to identify the main points and arguments of the piece.
To do this, they will sift through each of the previously identified sections, mining for the ‘gold’ of important information while discarding the irrelevant or repetitive.
One of the most challenging aspects of this part of the process for students is recognizing which information is essential and which is supplementary. Revisiting the concepts of thesis statements and topic sentences can be helpful here.
A thesis statement expresses the central idea of an article or research paper in a concise form. It is frequently found towards the end of the opening paragraph and indicates what the reader can expect to encounter in the rest of the article. A thesis statement will sometimes reappear in the conclusion, too, driving home the article’s main point one last time.
Topic sentences are particularly useful for students intending to summarize an article. These sentences are typically the first sentences in body paragraphs – body paragraphs are the paragraphs sandwiched between the opening introductory paragraph and the final concluding paragraph.
The job of topic sentences is to sum up what the rest of the paragraph is about. As they focus on the paragraph’s main idea, they are a fast and efficient way for students to access each paragraph’s most important information.
Again, as students work their way through the article, they should underline, highlight, and annotate important areas. However, while earlier read-throughs will have focused on the underlying structure and sections, here the focus will narrow to key sentences, phrases, and words.
To learn more about writing amazing sentences click here.
Working in small groups, provide students with a suitable article and ask them to make a list of its main points. Students should do this by focusing on the advice above, e.g., identify keywords and phrases, the thesis statement, topic sentences, main points, supporting arguments, findings, etc.
Step 4: Write the Summary
At this stage, the student will be ready to write their summary. This will require them to weave what they know about the article into a coherent whole. Their summary should contain all the essential elements of the text while eliminating any redundant or irrelevant information. Typically, the underlying structure of the article itself will match the structure of the article with an intro, body, and conclusion. However, these will be condensed into a paragraph or two.
To do this, the student will need to exercise their powers of paraphrasing. If the student merely extracts phrases and sentences from the text and stitches them together to form their ‘summary,’ they will, in fact, have produced a piece of plagiarism rather than a summary.
Paraphrasing requires that the student puts the article’s essence into their own words. A thesaurus is a handy tool to assist in this. When paraphrasing, students should aim to eliminate irrelevant detail and express complex ideas in short, functional sentences.
Where the student wishes to use material directly from the text, they should use quotations and citations as necessary. For the most part, however, the summary will be in the student’s own words.
Another vital aspect of summary writing is for the student to use transitions to join the sentences, bridge between essential points, and help to create a flow between the various ideas presented. Some useful transitional words and phrases to use in summaries include:
- On the contrary
- For example
- As a result
- In short
- In conclusion
This part of the process is also an apt time to remind students of the importance of conciseness, accuracy, and objectivity. Students should get to the point quickly, keep the content factual, and present it from the author’s perspective without allowing their opinions or biases to permeate.
Some questions for students to focus on when writing their summary include:
- What is the title of the article?
- What is the article’s main topic?
- Who is the author?
- Who is the target audience?
- What is the tone of the article?
- What is the author’s purpose?
Sometimes students struggle to put summaries into their own words, especially when they are working directly from the article itself while writing. To help overcome this challenge, students can try to write their summaries without looking at their notes.
Doing this will force the student to reconstruct their knowledge of the article. Since it is practically impossible to memorize the entire article, this process will force them to paraphrase what they recall.
It’s important to note that this activity will produce a draft summary only. A polished draft can then be produced with reference to the student’s notes created in previous stages of this process.
Step 5: Compare the Summary and the Article
With their draft complete, the student should check their summary against the original article one last time. The student should ask themselves the following questions during this process:
- Have I accurately represented the article?
- Have I excluded irrelevant information?
- Have I phrased the summary in my own words?
- Did I avoid expressing my personal opinions?
Working with a partner, students engage in a share-and-compare discussion of their respective summaries. They can use the above questions as a basis to critique each other’s work, with the feedback serving to inform the final drafts of their summaries.
With time and practice, students can summarize articles they’ve read quickly and effectively. By identifying meaning, keeping conciseness, accuracy, and objectivity as their watchwords, and remaining neutral, students will consistently be able to produce well-written summaries with skill and ease.
The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.