The Ten Percent Summary

Jazz up the typical summary assignment

Ever get tired of having kids write summaries? If you’re like me, it’s easy to become tired of summary writing. However, I also know it’s a skill that students need to practice from time to time. Summary writing helps students comprehend a text, prioritize its ideas, and convey the knowledge they gained from reading it.

But plain ol’ summaries can get plain ol’ boring.

That’s why I like to have kids write Ten Percent Summaries every now and them. I wish I could remember where I found the idea for the Ten Percent Summary. And if you know who’s the brainchild of this, please leave a comment so I can give them credit.

Here’s how the Ten Percent Summary works:

  1. Find a text for your students to read. It should be from 600-2,000 words in length.
  2. Count the words. Here’s what I do: for a printed text, I count the number of words in five or so lines to determine an approximate number of words per line. Then I count the lines in the piece of writing and then multiply the number of lines by the number of words per line to arrive at the word count for the reading. (Obviously, if you’re using an online text, just highlight the text, paste into a word processing app, and do a word count.)
  3. Find ten percent of the total number of words in the text and assign a summary of that length give-or-take ten words. (Bonus: For some easy math practice, have your kids figure out how many words they’ll write.) Just as in any summary, students should omit their opinions, and paraphrase key points in the order they are presented in the text.
  4. If kids are handwriting, you will no doubt have one student who’ll ask, “How do we know how many words we have?” It’s funny how kids are surprised that counting the words one-by-one is the best way. I often suggest to them to count their writing in chunks of ten words, drawing a vertical line at every ten words and doing a final count when they finish. Of course, if students are working electronically, they can highlight their writing and let their device do the counting.
  5. You can add these options to the assignment if you wish:
    • Remove the ten extra words cushion and require summaries to meet the exact ten percent number.
    • Make a few weak words off-limits, such as “very” and other weak adverbs. In other words, use the opportunity to work in some parts of speech lessons along the way.
    • However, if asking kids to meet the exact number of words shifts the focus to numbers and not the ideas within the writing, then you may want to reconsider those aspects of the assignment.

Here are some additional ways to beef up the Ten Percent Summary if you’re working with a text of 1,000 words or more:

  • Ask students to quote the text directly by requiring that one sentence start “According to the text/article/story,… followed by the direct quote.”
  • Have students then interpret that quote 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.
  • Ask students to add a sentence or two after their “In other words,” sentence with more discussion or clarification of the quote. Read this post for more on interpretation.
  • Ask students to elaborate by adding a sentence that starts “For example, …”.
  • Another idea: Help students use complex sentences by starting one sentence with a subordinating conjunction 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.)
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A note of caution: be careful if you decide to add two or more of these extra requirements.

I have found that too many will stifle creativity and turn the Ten Percent Summary into a sort of puzzle that can make summary writing feel too formulaic and dry. Overusing these may also “eat up” too many of the allotted words.

The best way to figure out the balance is to do your own assignment beforehand to make sure your assignment is do-able.

To be sure, some kids need the structure these extra requirements bring to the summary. Click here for a post about a former under-performing student who, despite being distracted and disinterested most of the time, thrived with these extra add-ons to create thorough, well-written summaries. (Ideas for these add-ons were based on this article I read in The Atlantic about the benefits of providing specific phrases and transitions to help students elaborate effectively.)

As always, the Ten Percent Summary will entail lots of conferencing.

Move around the room, answer questions, help kids spell, suggest a beefier word, make accommodations to those who need it.

Try the Ten Percent Summary the next time your students need to hone their summary skills and let me know how it goes.


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Ever tried the Ten Percent Summary? If so, let me know your experience with it. Click like, leave a comment, or subscribe for more ELA teaching posts like this one about another favorite summary assignment: The One-Word Summary.

Published by marilynyung

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

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