The One-Word Summary

It’s one of the most specific and structured assignments my students do.

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Photo: Pixabay

One of my favorite activities to do in my language arts classes is to assign one-word summaries. These quick assignments are an easy way to encourage kids to think deeply about a text, including its theme or gist.

I assign one-word summaries for literature or informational text, for short articles or longer passages, or even whole books. I assigned a one-word summary to my eighth-graders about a week ago after we read an excerpt from 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn. I also just assigned one on Thursday to my sixth-graders based on a short story we read from our textbook, “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.  Some of my sixth-graders are still working on theirs and I’ll give them more time on Monday, Oct. 1 to finish it; this is the first of these exercises they’ve encountered in my classes.

The basic assignment is:

  1. Read a text.
  2. Choose one word to summarize it. (Sometimes, depending on the passage, I may have students choose their word from the text.)
  3. Write a paragraph or that explains or defends how the word summarizes the text.
  4. Here’s how I tweak the assignment to help students write more fully.

I also require that:

  • They quote the text directly by requiring that one sentence start “According to the text/article/story,… followed by the direct quote.”
  • They interpret the quote and how it summarizes by following the direct quote with a sentence that starts “In other words, …”. This prompts them to rephrase the quote, explaining it in their own words and possibly coming up with additional ideas to support their summary.
  • Adding a sentence or two after their “In other words,” sentence with more discussion of the quote and how it supports their one word.
  • They elaborate by adding somewhere in their paragraph a sentence that starts “For example, …”.
  • They use complex sentences by starting one sentence with a subordinating of their choice. I have a chart on the wall in my classroom that lists the most common ones: although, while, when, until, because, if, since. (Sometimes we call these subordinating conjunctions by the acronym AWUBIS words.)
  • Last week, to change things up with my eighth graders, I had one student choose one AWUBIS word that they would all use, and I asked them to start their summary with this word. The chosen word was “If.” Starting a sentence with “If” will automatically create a nice, flowing complex sentence. (Just to make sure they can write one of these, I usually have a few students rattle me off an example; if someone has trouble, I do some explaining and write an example on the whiteboard.)
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Here’s the rubric score sheet that kids follow along on as their friends read their one-word summaries. 

Sometimes, I’ve wondered whether having all these requirements seems a little excessive, so I will occasionally, depending on the text, adjust the rubric to fit the text or a student’s ability level. I used to feel also that I was forcing a formula into my students’ writing. However, I don’t worry about that anymore, especially when I know I offer them plenty of creative writing activities and projects

Another reason I don’t worry about forcing a formulaic style of writing onto my students is because I’ve done some reading about the benefits of providing kids with specific tools for analytical writing. I added the “ According to,” and “For example,” sentence starters based on tips outlined in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith Hochman, Natalie Wexler, and Doug Lemov.

I learned about this curriculum when I read “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students”  in The Atlantic magazine, which included details about the changes in writing instruction practiced at New Dorp High School in New York City. I figured if it worked there, I should try it here. This is a super compelling article to read that stresses the importance of providing students with the exact words they’ll need to use to craft complete, fleshed-out ideas.

The idea to encourage kids to rephrase evidence with an “In other words,” sentence came directly from the book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein, Gerald Graff, and Tony Craine, and Cyndy Maxwell. One chapter in this book discusses how to “interpret” texts with the goal of not being a “hit and run” quoter, but instead to stay on the scene of the quote and explore it, discuss it, and relate it to the point of the paragraph.

About every other time my students write one-word summaries, I’ll have them present these to the class. I’ve found it works best to let them know from the beginning that they’ll eventually be presenting these in class. They try a little harder that way.

To start with, I make a rubric score sheet that the listening students fill out. The sheet is customized for the specific summary we’ve written, since I change up the requirements from one summary to the next.

As students read their summaries out loud at a podium at the front of the class, those listening really have to pay close attention. First, they must write down the chosen one word. Then when they hear the “According to,…” sentence, they check it off. When they hear the “For example,” or “In other words,” sentences, they check those off, too. I also have them rate the summary on its “clarity”, i.e. how easy it was to understand and follow.

I also ask presenters to make eye contact and use a hand gesture or two or to step out from behind the podium. Some kids will go out of their way to make googly-eyed contact  with me or a friend in the audience. I don’t mind that. It’s all part of learning to be comfortable up in front of a crowd.

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After they present, kids get candy, a Brave Buck, and stickers.

Presenting our one-word summaries usually ends up being a fun activity (I usually schedule it for a Friday), even though kids may be a little nervous at first. I don’t feel comfortable up in front of big crowds, either, so I understand how they may feel. I’ll even stand up next to a student if it helps them. I don’t want this to be an overly stressful part of the assignment.

And then when they’re done presenting their summary, if they’ve included all of the requirements in the rubric, or at least made a good, honest effort to, they receive lots of fabulous merchandise: three Brave Bucks (our school’s incentive coupon they can spend in the “store” on Fridays), a piece of candy, and a sticker of their choice from the stockpile in my desk.

Oh, one other thing: they also get to draw the next number for the next presenter… the next lucky member of our studio audience. The rubric score sheet has enough spaces for everyone, but drawing names makes it more fun. We applaud after each person speaks because everyone at least tried.

The one-word summary, while being one of the most specific and structured assignments we do, is also one of the most fun. I honestly believe it has helped my students think more deeply, better use and interpret the evidence they choose from their texts, and write more fully.


Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’ve tried this activity with your class and what “tweaks” you’ve made to make it work for you and your students. Have a great week!

Author: marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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