How to get better “One-Word Summaries” from your students

Make these off-limits: the topic and their opinion

In the past, after I assigned One-Word Summaries, I would often feel a little let down when I walked around the room, glancing over students’ shoulders as they wrote their paragraphs defending their chosen word.

Read my post on the One-Word Summary if you’re unfamiliar with this awesome, low-stakes writing assignment.

I felt let down because, without fail, I would frequently notice a handful of students had chosen words that didn’t actually summarize the text. For example, if the text was about the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Fire, there would always be at least a couple of kids who would choose “fire.” Another example: if I read the first chapter of The Fault in Our Stars, one or two students would choose words such as “interesting” or “good.”

But those don’t really summarize the text. Sigh.

Fast forward to a recent Friday, when I read the introduction to Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture by Louis Harpman and Scott Specht, a book that examines, from a design standpoint, the evolution of the ubiquitous coffee lid.

Ignore the assignment under the book. This is a photo from my post about my attempt at a STEM-based writing assignment. I’ve held onto the book and use it here and there because it gives kids a lot to think about.

However, when I decided to skip having kids take sketchnotes while I read, in favor of having them write One-Word Summaries after, I experienced an epiphany and told myself:

Before I begin reading, I should tell kids that their one word won’t be the topic of the book, nor will it be their opinion.”

I further explained to students that neither a topic word nor an opinion word reveals and/or summarizes the content of the reading.

“I need you to dig deeper,” I said, adding, “What’s the author really talking about? What’s the bigger idea behind the coffee lids?”

Here’s a photo from my post about my STEM-related coffee lid writing assignment.

True, the author did write about coffee lids, but she also discussed a deeper idea. “That deeper idea is what I need you to listen for as I read.”

It worked.

Students across both of my junior classes — about thirty-five kids total — responded with words such as innovation, creativity, and improvement… all accurate words that drive at the gist of author Louis Harpman’s introduction.

In fact, only one student turned in a non-summarizing word. (That student’s word was “different.” She explained in her writing that the topic was different and one she had never really thought about before.)

Well, yes, she had a point, but she didn’t have a summary.

By the way, that student is a remote learner. It’s my guess that had she been in the classroom, she would have understood the assignment better than from the video I recorded in class.

This is the best tip I’ve come up with so far to make this assignment work for everyone: again, the word students choose cannot be a topic nor an opinion of the text.

And perhaps a mentor text is what I really need to show students what a summary word does; it provides the gist or the main idea of the text. (Note to self: write a One-Word Summary example.)

If you regularly utilize One-Word Summaries in your classes, what’s your secret to helping kids to truly summarize?

It’s worth the effort to get the most mileage out of the One-Word Summary. This one simple assignment helps kids think critically, and when they write out their summaries (as opposed to an end-of-class “spoken exit ticket” where students state their word and why), you provide your students even more solid writing practice.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

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

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