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3 Reading Strategies to Help Students Summarize Nonfiction Text
This might be one of the most challenging reading skills/standards that we have to teach our students. I know when I was in the classroom I always dreaded the part of our nonfiction unit when it came time to learn how to summarize nonfiction texts.
My students loved reading nonfiction and for the most part we did great with identifying text features and figuring out the main idea and they were rockstars at asking questions and figuring out the text structure.
But summarizing nonfiction?
That was a challenge.
I never really LOVED teaching nonfiction.
And I think part of the reason why it was challenging for my students is because summarizing in general is a very higher level skill and it requires A LOT from students.
In order for students to successfully summarize, they need to be able to determine importance, synthesize ideas, understand the author’s purpose, Identify the main idea and key details … just to name a few.
But then they also have to be able to write a summary, which means they need to be able to write in complete sentences, they need to be able to paraphrase, they need be concise in their writing and they need to be able to write a summary in a way that makes sense with the text.
So if you have ever felt like teaching students to summarize nonfiction is challenging, you’re not alone. It definitely is.
But there are also things that we can do to help our students experience success when it comes to summarizing nonfiction and today I want to share with you 3 strategies that will help you teach nonfiction summary to your students.
Characteristics of a nonfiction summary:
Now before I actually teach my students strategies that will help them summarize nonfiction texts, I like to teach them what a summary is (and what it isn’t) and make sure they they understand the end goal when they are asked to summarize a nonfiction text.
One of the ways I do this is by teaching them the attributes or characteristics of a nonfiction summary. That way they know that no matter WHAT strategy they choose to use, they have a pretty solid understanding of what their summary should look like.
Here are the six things that I tell my students to keep in mind when writing a nonfiction summary.
- Keep it short (summaries should be around around 4-5 sentences).
- Clearly state the main idea of the text.
- Only include a few of the most important details.
- Make sure you consider the author’s purpose.
- Your summary should mirror the structure (organization) of the text.
- Use your own words when writing a summary.
Summarizing Nonfiction Checklist
Summarizing nonfiction can be really challenging. There are SOOOOO many things your students need to be able to do in order to successfully summarize a nonfiction text. But, with the help of this checklist, your students will remember the important characteristics of a nonfiction summary.
Ok, now that we have the basic checklist to use when writing a summary, let’s talk specific strategies.
Strategy 1: tamko.
With this strategy, each letter stands for a different element of the summary. I kind of compare it to the nonfiction version of the SWBST strategy. In reality, it’s just a bunch of random letters, but when you teach it to students it gives them a specific formula that will help them summarize nonfiction.
I really like teaching this strategy to students because it helps them craft the first introductory sentence for their summary. And I have found that very first sentence can be one of the hardest ones to write. If students know how to start their summary, it will be a lot easier for them to finish.
So let’s breakdown what T-A-M-K-O stands for:
- The very first thing you want students to do is state the title of the text and explain the type of text it is.
- Example: In the book Kids vs. Plastic…
- In the example you can see that students write the title (Kids vs. Plastic) and they explain it’s an actual book.
- In the article ___________
- After reading the passage ____________
- In the magazine ___________
- On the website ____________
- The next thing students will do is name the author and the verb that describes the purpose for writing.
- Example: … Julie Beers explains…
- This is a continuation of the first sentence.
- Sometimes the author’s name isn’t always give so students can just say “the author”.
- The author describes
- Mr. Jackson shares his opinion
- Emily Clarkson informs her readers
- The last thing students will do to write their introductory sentence is state the main idea or the main topic of the text (whatever makes the most sense in their sentence).
- Example: …the negative impact plastic has on the environment.
- It’s important that students realize the TAM form a complete sentence so the topic needs to be written in a way that will make the sentence complete.
- Sometimes it will be one or two words and other times it will be a longer more descriptive phrase.
This is how their summary would begin using TAM.
In the book Kids vs. Plastic, Julie Beers explains the negative impact plastic has on the environment.
I have found that giving kids this formula to help them get started with their summary can be really helpful and effective.
The next two letters of the TAMKO strategy are a little less formulaic and provide general guidelines/reminders for students to keep in mind when summarizing.
- The next thing students need to do is include 2-3 key details that support their introductory sentence.
- If the author is describing, then they should find 2-3 details that help describe the topic.
- If the author is explaining, then they should find 2-3 details that explain the process or steps or problem and solution the author is highlighting.
- If the author is trying to persuade the reader, then they should find 2-3 of the most persuasive details the author included in the text.
- This step can be a little bit challenging for students, but I think it’s important to let students feel empowered in their ability to select relevant details to include in their summaries.
- Remind students to organize their summary in the same way as the author organized the text.
- This one is really helpful and can guide the rest of their summary.
- If students can identify the text structure the author used to write the text, then they can organize and set up their summary in the same way.
Summarizing can often feel feel really overwhelming for students, especially if they aren’t good writers or if they lack confidence in their reading comprehension, but with this strategy, you are making summarizing almost fool-proof. Students are given the exact words and framework to help them begin their summary.
And anytime we can help kids feel more confident in their reading the better.
Strategy #2: Asking the 5W and H Questions
This strategy can be easy for students to use because it connects to something students already know how to do… and that is asking the 5W + H questions.
More than likely, if you are an upper elementary reading teacher, then your students at some point have been exposed to the idea of asking the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how for the text they are reading.
And there is so much benefit to being able to connect a reading strategy to something students already know how to do. Basically with this strategy you are teaching students to ask specific 5W + H questions for the nonfiction text and then using their answers to help them summarize a nonfiction text.
So you could teach this strategy at the most basic level and that would look something like this:
Give your students the following questions to ask and answer for the nonfiction text they are reading:
- Who is the text about?
- What events are happening (to the person) in the text?
- When did the events take place?
- Where does the event in the text take place?
- Why is this event important?
- How did this event happen?
But sometimes these typical who, what, when, where, why questions don’t match up with EVERY single text. For example, not every nonfiction text you give your students will have a WHO has the subject or they might not mention a specific location.
The good news is that these questions can still help students summarize nonfiction. But instead of teaching students specific questions, you just want to teach them the question stems and let them customize the questions based on the text they are reading.
So here some different questions your students could ask for each of the stems:
- Who wrote the text?
- Who is the intended audience for the text?
- Who is impacted by the problem in the text?
- What happens in the text?
- What topic is the author writing about?
- What details does the author include?
- What lesson is the author trying to teach?
- When was this text written?
- When did the problem become discovered?
- Where does this event take place?
- Where is the author from?
- Why is this event/person/topic signifiant?
- Why did the author write this text?
- Why is this topic important to read about?
- How did the author organize the information in the text?
- How do these details connect to my personal life?
- How did this event take place?
- How does the author suggest we solve the problem?
So remember that the goal is not just for students to ask and answer the basic or first who, what, when, where, why, and how question that comes to mind, but to critically think about the types of questions they are asking and then use their answers to help them craft a summary.
If students are actively asking and answering questions (and using these 5W +H stems) they will discover all the key details that will help them summarize the main points of the text.
Strategy #3 – Text Structure Summary
This one should be no surprise to y’all since you know I’m such a fan of teaching students how to identify and understand nonfiction text structure.
Nonfiction text structure can give students a road map that will not only help students understand the text, but it can also give them a framework that will help them summarize the text.
Nonfiction summaries should mirror the structure of the text… and if we clearly explain that to our students, they have just one more strategy in their toolbox that will help them summarize nonfiction text.
When I’m teaching students to summarize nonfiction using the text structure, I have them think about their summary in three parts:
- In the beginning of their summary, they want to state the main topic of the text (which should also hint at the text structure)
- Example 1: In this text, the author shares the similarities and differences between crocodiles and alligators.
- Example 2: Pollution in the ocean is becoming a huge problem , but a group of students from New York have come up with a creative solution .
- As you can see in both of those examples, the organizational structure is mentioned.
- In the middle of their summary, students should include 2-3 details from the text.
- And the important thing to keep in mind is that they should share them in the same way the author organized the text.
- So if you go back to Example 1 , if it is a compare and contrast text on crocodiles and alligators, then their summary might includes the most significant similarity and the most significant difference between the two animals.
- If you go back to Example 2 , if it is a problem and solution text on ocean pollution, then their summary might include 1-2 sentences that state the problem and 1-2 sentences that explain the solution presented in the text.
- And then finally, you want to teach students to end their summary with a concluding statement that will reiterate the main idea and text structure. It will be very similar to their introduction.
- Example 1: So while there are many similarities between alligators and crododiles, this text also highlights their differences.
- Example 2: The students from New York are making a big impact on a global problem with their creative solution to ocean pollution.
Now this strategy is a lot more open-ended then the TAMKO strategy, but I think it’s important to teach students a wide range of strategies. Some of your students will gravitate towards the structure of TAMKO and others will like the flexibility of a text structure summary.
I like teaching an open-ended approach like the text structure summary strategy because then your students can make it work for almost any text…. Sometimes when we teach a very scripted formula like TAMKO, it can be hard for students to apply that to a text that doesn’t meet all the criteria.
For example, if you only teach the TAMKO strategy, but students are reading a text that doesn’t include the author’s name or maybe it doesn’t have a specific title, students might struggle to adapt that strategy to summarize the text…. But with a strategy that is a little more open-ended like teaching them how to summarize using text structure, they have options to use when it comes to their independent reading.
Your Next Steps:
Ok, now that you have three strategies to help you teach nonfiction summary, I’m curious which one will you start with. Remember, with any strategy you teach your students, the goal isn’t for them to MASTER a specific strategy. The goal is for them to understand the text and feel confident in their ability to apply a specific reading skill – in this case summarizing the text.
Hopefully one (or more) of these strategies will help.
Before you go, be sure to grab your free Nonfiction Summary Checklist (below) and if you’re looking for more strategies and resources to help you teach nonfiction summary, check out this bundle of resources on TPT .
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- Strategies for Teaching Nonfiction Summary Writing
Before jumping into summarizing nonfiction there are a few lessons that I teach prior to writing nonfiction summaries . Read on to see how I teach nonfiction summarizing in my classroom, breaking it down into different lessons that help students understand how to summarize informational text.
1. distinguish interesting vs. important.
My students always benefit from lessons on distinguishing the difference between interesting and important information. This is critical when they are writing nonfiction summaries .
Begin by simply discussing the difference between what makes something interesting in the books that they read and what makes something important.
Here is how I explain the difference:
Interesting: Something new that I did not know that piqued my curiosity.
Important: Something that I read that supports the main idea of the reading.
I go one step further to call students' attention to the N in interesting. That helps us remember that interesting is usually something New to us. Looking at the word important, I call attention to the M. That reminds us that it supports the Main idea. This simple trick makes a huge impact on students' understanding of interesting and important.
A great book to use for a lesson on determining importance is Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine . As we read, we chart information into an Interesting vs Important Tchart. This book and activity helps students distinguish the difference, and improve their summary writing as they focus on only the important information.
2. Connect Summarizing with Main Idea...Start with Oral Summaries
TSMIDS simply stands for topic sentence, main idea, and details that support.
I use this frame to show students how to write a quick summary. This is a good format to use when students are discussing sections of a nonfiction book or article. This is also perfect for students to summarize what is going on within their book when you meet with them for reader’s workshop group time and conferencing. Once students master this format, I expect them to add more to their summaries.
3. Model Summary Writing with Mentor Texts
When introducing summaries, I like to use informational books or articles that we previously read . I model summary writing with a book that we have already read in class or even informational magazines like Time for Kids . Since we read the Moon Book during our science unit it is a great one for us to revisit as readers who are writing summaries.
Teacher tip: Be sure to grab the free resources above to grab the modeled example for a nonfiction summary using the Moon Book.
Once I have modeled my expectations, we write a few nonfiction summaries together, again using books that we have already read as a class. I like to use books and articles that we have already read because I know students already understand the main idea in the books that we have read and discussed as a class. This allows them to focus on writing a summary with important information, rather than reading the book for understanding.
Informational texts and authors that I like to use that have been previously read include:
- Time For Kids magazine (also online articles from TFK)
- Anything written by Gail Gibbons or Seymour Simon
- National Geographic Book Series
- Rookie Readers
- I Can Read (highest level readers)
- Let’s Read and Find Out Series
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
You might be interested in reading:
4 ways to help students successfully summarize 4 quick tips for differentiating summarizing instruction nonfiction teaching ideas and activities to hook readers what are effective reading strategies, looking for more reading activities that will make a big impact in your classroom click the here ..
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writing a summary for nonfiction
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Writing a Just Right Summary (Fiction & Nonfiction ) Lesson Plans & More
How to Write a Summary Non Fiction Graphic Organizer for Middle School
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Summarizing Nonfiction Text Summary Writing Graphic Organizer 3rd 4th Grade Work
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Reading and summarizing nonfiction: coding the text.
The lesson I am sharing with you all today is one small lesson in a GIANT Reading and Summarizing Nonfiction unit. You can click HERE to read about our fiction summaries.
First and foremost, my students struggle with summarizing nonfiction. The problem is that nonfiction passages are usually JAM-PACKED with information (some of which is not that important) . I realized that my students were struggling with this when we immediately jumped into coding the text. I handed out highlighters and asked students to highlight important information in a short paragraph and cross off interesting or irrelevant information (code the text). I received the short paragraphs back with every word highlighted. OY! Time to go back to the drawing board, switch up my entire lesson, and have myself a good ‘ol teachable moment!
After my revelations, I asked my students:
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I love this way of narrowing the reading down to the important parts!! And your anchor charts are so neat and pretty! Do you do them ahead of time, or is this the chart made with the students?
My Journey to 5th Grade
Thanks for your comments Julie! This lesson was big for my kids. I make my anchor charts with them always. I never think they’re cute enough, so thank you!! ;)
Where did you get your passages?
Hi Theresa- I believe it’s k-12 reader. Thanks!
It’s often difficult for students to differentiate between important and unimportant part of NF text.
One thing that has helped students is to have them look for “chunks”. Find paragraphs that seem to go together and decide HOW they are alike. Also, notice that the paragraphs within sections are chunks.
When students can name the chunks, they are able to more easily find main ideas and important information.
What a great idea, Janet! Thank you for this. We are still working on this concept. It most definitely is not an easy concept for students to master, no matter what grade.
I’m a student and I was wondering if you have anymore helpful tips to summarize a nonfiction writing piece…
Hi did you ever make the second part of this lesson?
Hi Kristine! Wondering about the next part in the lesson- how did it go?? Any posts on it?
DO YOU HAVE A TEMPLATE SIMILAR TO THE SWBST TEMPLATE, THAT YOU USE FOR NONFICTION TEXT SUMMARY WRITING?
DO YOU HAVE A TEMPATE SIMILAR TO THE “SWBST TEMPLATE, THAT YOU USE FOR NONFICTION WRITING?
At this time I don’t. Sorry!
This post was incredibly helpful! My partner teacher and I just taught coding & summarizing and the students loved the challenge of finding the main idea and deciding their topic for coding. Great resource!
Is there somewhere on your site that you have the anchor chart “Stop and Jot” without all of the sticky notes on it?
@ Stephanie-Here is the link to my stop and jot post: http://youngteacherlove.blogspot.com/2012/10/writing-long-off-post-its-and.html . Thanks!
Hi, It was an awesome blog.I like it very much… Thanks for sharing..
These exercises are wonderful! I’m sure students will love it. Summarizing fiction is definitely a difficult task because fiction contains a lot of information, like A LOT. SO this was extremely helpful!
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How to Summarize Nonfiction Texts: A Lesson Plan
Looking for a memorable way to teach students to summarize nonfiction texts? Try this alternative strategy in your middle or high school classroom as a means of differentiation or scaffolding for struggling readers.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to teach students to summarize fictional texts? They seem to catch on so quickly! Maybe it’s because the plot guides the summary, and all of the parts of the story work together sensibly. Exposition. Rising Action. Climax. Falling Action. Resolution . Streamlined, right?
If only nonfiction was equally as straightforward! Unfortunately, I’m not going to tell you there’s a secret formula that will magically transform nonfiction summarizing skills, but I do have some concrete, useful ideas and strategies to help reduce both student and teacher frustration.
One of the reasons I love teaching summarizing is because I know how important it is for skillful comprehension…not only in English class but in all subject areas. If your students can give you the main ideas and most important supporting details of a text in an accurate and objective manner, they are well on their way to being masters of cognition.
So, how can we do that? Here are a few tips to simplify your instruction and help students summarize nonfiction , non-narrative texts:
Start by picking high-interest texts.
Believe me, I know how tempting it is to select a text about the deliciousness of coffee because of your love affair with it (…or maybe that’s mine), but resist the urge! Research says that if kids don’t care about the text, they will most likely not invest themselves in it. One of my go-to sources is Common Lit because it offers a variety of reading levels and provides other useful teacher resources. My students also really enjoy Scholastic Scope and Upfront magazines.
Lead with direct instruction.
While people possess differing opinions on the value of direct instruction, I have seen its benefit when introducing new information. Keep it short, but give an overview of the down and dirty tips you expect your peeps to remember. Of course, include students in conversation during the mini lesson. Make them take notes. They’ll thank you later!
Model, model, and then model again.
Students need to see you working your mojo. Select a short text. Read it or watch it together (students love visual texts). Then, do a think-aloud while you model some brainstorming and writing up on the board. Students generally want to get involved in this process. Let them! If you are uncomfortable with writing on your feet, prepare something in advance and act like you are doing it on the spot. Don’t worry; they’ll never know the difference. What’s important is that they see the internal thought process played out aloud.
Scaffold. I do, we do, you do.
My goal is always to scaffold from direct instruction to guided practice to independent work. After you model, practice as many times as you deem necessary with the class. Modeling with a memorable strategy (I use Be a reporter! ) helps students understand what they need to do.
Write a summary together, put them in small groups, let them complete a think-pair-share summary for a different text, and then finally, throw those baby birds out of the nest and see if they fly or splat on the ground. If they come up looking at a “Snort” and think it’s their mother, it’s time to put them back in the nest for more guided practice.
Chunk your instruction.
As with any effectively taught lesson, students need breaks. I try to chunk my instruction into three different parts in a forty-five minute period. If I have an activity that takes longer than 20 minutes, I use brain breaks periodically throughout the lesson. Even having students get up and grab a piece of paper from across the room helps get their blood flowing, increases their energy levels, and improves their focus.
What does this look like with summarizing? Maybe read a text, then have them discuss it with a partner or small group. Manipulatives and sorts provide brain-based approaches to learning how to write nonfiction summaries objectively as well. Following, they could share ideas with the whole class or via musical discussions.
Obviously, you’re assessing how students summarize nonfiction throughout the entire process by asking questions, checking their written ideas, and listening to their conversations. Still, I like to do a formal assessment at the end of the unit, in which I include two things: 1) questions about the process of summarizing nonfiction (like, List three different elements to include in a nonfiction summary.) , and 2) a written portion where students read a nonfiction text and write a summary on their own – sans help! At this point, I would expect them to demonstrate proficiency.
And, voila! As they say, keep it simple.
When teaching students to summarize nonfiction, remember that answers will vary. What you’re really looking for is whether or not students can read a nonfiction text and then provide you with the main ideas and most important supporting details in a clear, objective, intelligent manner. Give students praise for everything they do well, and they’ll have more fun along the way.
These summarizing nonfiction text teaching materials will provide you with everything you need to tackle the tips above. I use them at the ninth grade level with all levels: co-taught through enriched, but they would be appropriate for middle school or older high school students who struggle with reading comprehension.
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An avid reader and writer, I've had the privilege of teaching English for over a decade and am now an instructional coach. I have degrees in English, Curriculum & Instruction, and Reading as well as a reading specialist certification. In my free time, I enjoy loving on my kids, deconstructing sentences, analyzing literature, making learning fun, working out, and drinking a good cup of coffee.
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Oh, I haven’t heard of Curriculet! I will check that out for sure! I LOVE reading and teaching nonfiction, so thank you for this post!
Yes, do! It has great teacher resources and levels texts for students’ reading abilities.
Hah! I could read your writing all day long – “Model like Cindy Crawford,” “throw those baby birds out of the nest” etc. LOVE IT!
Thanks so much for sharing these amazing tips.
Very kind of you…thanks so much for reading!
Thank you for sharing your steps for teaching summarizing in non-fiction texts. I follow a very similar method in my own classroom and have seen tremendous results from it as well. You hit the nail on the head when you said that this is a skill that is critical because it transfers to all other subject areas. I definitely think that this is blog post that all ELA teachers need to see!
Thanks for the validation!
Great tips! I especially support use of high interest non-fiction texts. I’ll have to look at your links. One topic that has never failed to interest my students is Criminals (think Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde). The old articles and sources I’ve used are often challenging because of the old writing, but they dive in because the subject catches their attention!
Thanks for the idea for criminal topics…I haven’t tried that, but I’m sure my students would also find it fascinating.
Such a well written explanation of GOOD teaching. Your student are lucky to have you. I too am a reading recovery teacher and summarizing is paramount. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks for your kind words!
I agree with Kim! Looks like a lot of good teaching is happening in your classroom.
You’re hilarious – model like Cindy Crawford. I might say that to my students. Thanks for all the ideas – and I agree – providing examples reduces frustration all around.
You’ve got some great tips compiled here! Thank you for sharing.
This is so thorough! Thanks for the great ideas. As simple as it seems to us, summarizing nonfiction can be challenging for many students. I loved the comment about coffee texts…”Believe me, I know how tempting it is to select a text about the deliciousness of coffee because of your love affair with it (…or maybe that’s mine), but resist the urge!” I can identify with your love for coffee, and I wholeheartedly agree that interest is oftentimes the #1 factor in texting nonfiction texts!
I love the structure for your lessons! I can imagine the fun if you actually put up a picture of Cindy Crawford while you were “modeling”! 🙂
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