The Secret to Improving ESL Reading and Writing Skills: Summary Writing

Your ESL students are working on their reading and writing skills, right?

But you probably never seem to have enough time in class for both—especially when you want students to have speaking practice as well.

So what if you could combine those two skill sets in a single activity?

I’ll let you in on a secret: The best activity to improve ESL students’ writing aptitude and reading comprehension is summary writing.

While students may not realize it, reading and writing skills are closely related and can easily be mixed together in assignments for their benefit.

Although you might tend to focus on just one skill at a time in your ESL class, combining two in summary writing provides students with a greater range of information that can be used for future assignments.

How Does Summary Writing Improve Reading Comprehension?

Writing a summary requires students to read more closely. Since they must read a text more than once to get a sense of the ideas presented, students will recognize and maintain more information than they would from just a single read.

The students need to ask questions while reading the text, which they’ll use to help them find answers as they read. As students read the text more closely, they’ll also take notes and search for the important points needed to write a summary.

This type of reading activity will help students see the relationship between ideas and improve their recognition of vocabulary through context.

If you can’t turn your students into active readers who enjoy reading books on their own, providing summary exercises in class will get them to read more.

How Does Summary Writing Improve Writing Skills?

After students finish reading the text, they write a complete paragraph that captures the ideas presented in the text. The structure of a single-paragraph summary will help reinforce the structure students need to write paragraphs in their essays.

As your students write this paragraph, the structure of the original text—vocabulary and sentences—will influence their writing. They’ll be forced to write original sentences, but they can still imitate some of the structure.

If the students’ summaries are too close to the original text, have them go back and rewrite the summary. Make sure it’s clear which words and phrases need to be changed to fit into a summary format.

The Secret to Improving ESL Reading and Writing Skills: Summary Writing

6 Essentials for ESL Students to Write Summaries

1. Learn the summary format

You might need to teach your students how to format a summary more than once. They could very well understand it the first time, but will probably need reminders throughout the course.

The main point for students to understand is that a summary is much shorter than the original text. Until they reach higher levels of English, keep to the single-paragraph summaries to simplify the process. This limit also requires you to only assign texts that can be summarized in one paragraph.

After explaining what a summary is and how long it should be, you should introduce your class to some words and phrases that can be included. The easiest way for students to begin writing summaries is to use the phrase:

“In [title of text], [name of author] explains/states/describes/believes/thinks/expects…”

Using this phrase to begin the summary usually helps students get right to the main idea of the text.

2. Ask questions while reading

Teach your students to ask questions about the text while they’re reading. This certainly doesn’t apply to just ESL students; all students require this type of instruction.

If you have already read and discussed texts as a class, this step should be easier. While discussing texts, you’ve already asked your students questions about what they have read. So your class should pick up on the cues and be able to ask their own questions.

Some of the basic questions students should ask as they read include:

  • What does the author want the reader to know?
  • Why does the author have this opinion?
  • How does the author prove his/her opinion?
  • Does the author provide any suggestions/advice/solutions to a problem?
  • What does this phrase mean? How is it related to the main idea or supporting points?

When students find the answers to their questions, they’ll be able to write a summary more easily.

3. Find the main idea

ESL students sometimes have difficulty finding the main idea in a text. Of course, in higher levels of ESL, texts are purposely complex so that students must put ideas together to form one coherent main idea.

Returning to the questions that students are asking while reading will help them find the main idea more quickly.

If students struggle with writing thesis statements and topic sentences, it will be more difficult for them to find the main idea of an essay. Be sure to review these points of essay writing to make summary writing easier.

4. Identify the writer’s opinion

While not every text will contain an opinion, you should still teach your students how to locate it. It will be easier in texts when the writers use phrases such as “I believe,” “I think,” etc. In higher levels, however, those phrases shouldn’t be present, so students need to look for modals that imply an opinion.

5. Know the writer’s purpose

While a text might not contain an opinion, there will still be a purpose for the students to find and write about. Why are your students reading this text? What are they supposed to understand after reading it?

Students should ask more questions about the text in this step. Most students will have already picked up on questions associated with this step while reviewing general questions they need to ask while reading.

Questions to discover the writer’s purpose could include:

  • What type of essay is this (informative, persuasive, narrative)?
  • Is the author trying to change my opinion of a subject?
  • Is the author highlighting a problem?

6. Find supporting ideas

This step is usually the easiest for students. They have to look for points within the text that support the writer’s opinion and purpose.

It’s a good idea to review which points are key points and which are minor points that don’t need to be included in a summary. During your first lesson on summary writing, you can ask students whether or not they think they should include specific points from the text. This should give them a better idea of the difference between major and minor supporting ideas.

3 Tips for Improved Summary Writing

We know the essentials needed for students to write a basic summary, but how can you improve their writing quality? Here are three tips:

1. Teach concise writing

One of the most difficult points for ESL students to grasp is the idea of concise writing. In their first years of learning English, they are constantly told to write more. As students reach higher levels of ESL, however, they’ll need to change their style and write more concise sentences. This is especially important when writing summaries.

Teaching students to write concise sentences takes a lot of time and energy, but you can improve the situation by providing smaller lessons and exercises throughout the course. The main path is to remind students to focus on writing in the active voice rather than the passive voice. As you assign more summaries for students to write, you’ll see more phrases to correct and use as examples to improve conciseness.

Teaching concise writing can also be combined with lessons that focus on proofreading skills, as well as eliminating simple vocabulary.

2. Talk about movies

When students have a difficult time differentiating between the major supporting details and details that can be left out of a summary, provide relatable examples for students to use. The easiest method for getting students to understand the difference is to use movies. You could even have the students watch a movie in class or as homework to assist with this exercise.

Not sure which film to choose? Here are some great modern classics for English learners.

If you don’t have time to watch a movie in class, ask your students for a movie they like or have seen recently, and ask them what it’s about. As the students explain the movie, point out how they aren’t including every detail. This should help them understand that not all details are necessary to understand a story.

If your students still struggle, ask them to tell you about the movie in only three sentences. It will take them a little time to come up with the sentences, but they’ll get the idea.

If you’d like to use videos, another option is FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

FluentU provides innovative scaffolding and personalization to bring authentic content within reach.

3. Write the summary without the text

As mentioned previously, students might be tempted to copy words and phrases from the original text. While you want them to be influenced by the style of writing in the text, you obviously don’t want them to plagiarize or even to use quotations in their summaries.

A useful exercise to break them of the copying habit is to have your students read the text a few times and take notes. Then, take the original text away and have students write the summary. After they finish the summary, return the text to them so they can review and ensure all the necessary details are included.

This process will not only encourage students to write in their own style, but it will also improve their memory. When combined with reading material that covers current events and/or social topics, students will have a better overall understanding of the world around them.

ESL Summary Writing Resources to Use in Class

Universities and colleges with online writing resources will always have a page for writing summaries, but some of the resources make for better teaching and reference material than others. Here are a few of the better resource pages to use in class:

By following this process and using the supplemental resources, you will improve your students’ reading comprehension and writing skills, while providing them with lessons that will carry over into their future education.

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