To Make a Long Story Short: Summary Skills for Better Readers and Writers

AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is Emily Kissner, a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania and author of a book called "Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Retelling."

Emily Kissner

EMILY KISSNER: "When you summarize, you need to first choose what's important in the text -- look for the main ideas. And a good way to do that is to look at what the author refers to over and over again, because that's probably what's important.

"And then you need to condense those main ideas. You need to get rid of the repeated ideas. You need to exclude the trivia, those little details that are in there to keep you interested but really don't contribute to the main idea."

AA: "And then from there, you've boiled it down, you're looking for the important ideas, how do you begin to put them down on paper?"

EMILY KISSNER: "Different readers use different methods. There's been a lot of research on retelling, which is where you just retell the important ideas to someone else. Even without someone telling you it's good or bad, retelling what you've read changes something about how you store the information in your brain and helps you to understand it better. So one great way to start summarizing is just to turn to someone else and say 'Hey, I just read this, listen to what the author's talking about.'

"And from there, you can maybe list some of the main ideas. And then if you need to write a formal summary to give to someone else, you can kind of look for the connections between those ideas and then use those to frame your summary."

AA: "You write in your book here, you say: 'Left to their own devices, most students write the topic of a text when they're asked to write a main idea.' Now what's the difference between the topic and the main idea?"

EMILY KISSNER: "The topic is usually just one word or phrase to which everything in the text refers. So, for instance, if you were reading about dinosaurs, the topic of the book could be 'dinosaurs.' A main idea is usually a sentence that explains why the topic is important or explains something about the topic. So one article about dinosaurs might be 'dinosaurs evolved to many unusual creatures.' And so then everything in the text would go back to that main idea."

AA: "Do you find these techniques of summarizing to be helpful at all, or especially helpful, to English learners?"

EMILY KISSNER: "Where I teach right now, we actually have quite a significant population of students who are learning English, and one method that I found especially helpful for them was looking for key words in the article or the text. And so we would kind of develop their background knowledge first, and then they would look for key words that were important.

"And using some of these techniques like finding the main idea and looking for the structure of the text helped them to -- by the end of the year, they were writing some really competent summaries. And that really shows they were understanding the texts."

AA: "What would a bad summary look like?"

EMILY KISSNER: "A lot of students, and a lot of adults, use what's called the copy-and-delete method: 'Oh geez, I have to write this summary. I don't really know how. I'm just going to go through and pick up a few sentences here and a few sentences there, copy it down, I'll leave out a few sentence, and I have something that looks like a summary.' So when you're seeing a lot of text that's directly taken out of the main article, you can tell that the writer of that summary isn't working with very effective strategies for summarizing."

AA: "Now what's the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing? Since the title of your book is 'Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Retelling,' what's the difference?"

EMILY KISSNER: "Paraphrasing is just putting ideas into your own words. So, for instance, you could read a paragraph about global warming and you could paraphrase it and it could be just as long as the original paragraph. The key part with paraphrasing is that it's in your own words. With summarizing, you have a more formal product that is shorter than the original text."

AA: No one says any of this is easy, even for teachers. Emily Kissner recalls the day she told her students about her book.

EMILY KISSNER: "And then one kid just looked at me, and raised his hand and with a kind of sly smile said, 'Missus Kissner, could you summarize the book for us?' And suddenly I was put on the spot and I had to put all of what was in the book to the test to try to summarize this book in a way that the students could understand."

AA: "And did you pass the test?"

EMILY KISSNER: "Well, I think I did. [Laughter] It's hard to do on the spot."

AA: Emily Kissner is a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania and author of the book "Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Retelling." And that's Wordmaster for this week. Archives of our segments are at I'm Avi Arditti.


For more about the rules of summarizing, and how readers interact with text, Emily Kissner suggested these references:

?Brown, A. and J. Day. 1983. 揗acrorules for Summarizing Texts: The Development of Expertise.?Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22: 1-14.
?van Dijk, T.A and W. Kintsch. 1978. 揟oward a model of text comprehension and production.?Psychological Review, 85: 363-394.