As high school teachers, we know that it is important to teach our students to read for a critical understanding of nonfiction texts. This means that we want students to engage in close reading, making marginal notes, and marking-up important passages. Teaching students how to write a summary and response as a result of their critical reading is an important next step.
I hear teachers frequently asking about strategies for teaching summary response writing.
First of all, know that, although this assignment may demonstrate that students have read the required text(s), we are most likely concerned with more than simple reading comprehension.
When teaching how to write a summary and response, we are concerned with a student’s thinking about why an author made certain choices in terms of diction, syntax, etc.
Therefore, students must not only read to comprehend, but also read to respond and evaluate, adding unique thought and analysis prompted by the original text, extending the author’s thoughts with their own.
To state it simply, summary and response writing offers students the opportunity to read and understand part of the current academic conversation before joining that academic conversation.
To join this conversation, students must have unique thoughts and perspectives to share. They must do more than summarize the original text, and they must spend time expanding their thinking. There’s no easy way around thinking.
The following list will help you shape the thinking that you will produce in response to nonfiction texts.
For all of these suggestions, writers should always connect back to the original text(s) with in-text citations, quotes, and paraphrasing when appropriate. Writers should be careful not to over-quote or over-paraphrase, though.
Summarizing a Nonfiction Text
To teach students summary writing skills, I focus on thinking aloud and modeling the process for students.
They need to be able to understand the author’s overall organization in order to chunk the text and identify main and supporting ideas.
We practice chunking the text and stopping to write the “gist” of each section in the margin. I show students how putting these summaries together in the end provides a starting place for summary writing.
This “Gist” strategy is one of the first reading instruction strategies I learned and used as a teacher, and it remains one of the most helpful to this day.
Ways to Respond to a Text
To help my students get started with the response portion of their summary and response essays, I give a list of these starters. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is a good place to start!
With a Question:
- Pose a related question to the author and explain how the author might answer it
- Generate a question that the text prompts of you and answer it
- Generate a question that the text prompts of you, and use additional research to extend the author’s ideas
- Compare an author’s claim to the claim(s) made in a different text or by a different author
- Show how an author’s perspective or claim is different from something else or someone else’s idea
- Explain an emotional response to the piece you had and analyze what made you have this reaction: was it something about yourself, culture, or society?
- Explain why you had a hard time connecting with a text or an author’s claim
- If responding to an older text or a different cultural text, explain how the author’s claim might function or malfunction in today’s society or your culture
- Explain how this text could be seen differently through another person’s or another theory’s perspective
- Explain how a controversy or other historical situation may have given rise to the author’s essay
- Expose how your own bias or assumptions may interfere with your reading experience
With Extended Thought:
- Extend one of the author’s ideas into a broader context discussion. In other words, what is this idea a part of?
- Pose an observation or realization this text sparks in you
- Pose an important word or concept and explain how the author might define it
- Examine a similar or parallel issue that this text is related to
Ways to Evaluate a Text
By Arguing for or Against an Idea Offered by the Author:
- If you turned the subject of this text into a question on which people would vote, how would you vote – and why?
- State one of the author’s claims and bring in additional outside reasons and evidence (personal or researched) for or against this claim
- Explain your subtly different definition of a term or perspective of a claim, and why this difference, while subtle, is important
- Expose an author’s assumption or bias and explain why this assumption or bias weakens or strengthens his/her idea
By Arguing for or Against the Way an Author Presents Ideas:
- Evidence: Do facts and examples fairly represent the available data on the topic? Are the author’s facts and examples current, accurate?
- Logic: Has the author adhered to standards of logic? Has the author avoided, for instance, fallacies such as personal attacks and faulty generalizations?
- Development: Does each part of the presentation seem well-developed, satisfying to you in the extent of its treatment? Is each main point adequately illustrated and supported with evidence?
- Fairness: If the issue being discussed is controversial, has the author seriously considered and responded to his opponents’ viewpoints?
- Definitions: Have terms important to the discussion been clearly defined – and if not, has lack of definition confused matters?
- Audience: Is the essay appropriate for its audience – does it convince who it’s intended to convince?
I hope that this post helps you in your teaching of how to write a summary and response. This is one of my favorite assignments to give students because it’s easy to see growth and also to engage students as they share their own voices and perspectives in the response portion of the essay.
My students are working on a “They Say, I Say” project right now, in fact. Here is the digital notebook I set up for them to work in!