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ESL Summary Writing Exercises & Activities

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Summary writing can be an invaluable skill for English as a second language (ESL) students. This lesson equips teachers with classroom exercises and activities designed to teach summary writing to students of varying English language abilities.

Why Summaries Matter

Of all the aspects of English writing, English as a second language (ESL) students will encounter, summaries are perhaps one of the most valuable. One of the reasons for this is the function summaries serve as condensed and focused pieces of information that can be more easily digested. Summaries can serve as the first step to understanding a larger work. Building a strong knowledge of both how to write and interpret summaries can also enable ESL learners to process information more effectively.

It's important to note that this lesson is treating summaries as a general topic. Getting into the differences between a summary, an overview, and a synopsis will likely be confusing to students, so keeping it simple is best.

Class Q&A about Summaries

Before using the other exercises and activities, it can be helpful to write the following questions and guidelines about summary writing on the blackboard and discuss them with students as part of a class exercise.

1.) What is a written summary? (Ask for student feedback.)

  • A summary provides readers with an overview of the main points of something longer.

2.) What are some examples of summaries?

  • News headlines
  • Brief descriptions of movies or television shows
  • The back cover of a book

3.) How do you write a summary?

  • Do focus on the main points. Do not include details.
  • Do use your own words. Do not copy phrases or sentences from the source.
  • Do stick to the facts. Do not give a personal opinion or change information.

4.) How long or how many words should a summary be?

  • It depends on the length of the piece you are summarizing.

If possible, provide students with some examples of summaries. Any of the previously referred to examples of summaries, such as a brief description of a movie, should be sufficient.

Conversational Summaries

1.) Organize students into pairs.

2.) Instruct the pairs to have a 5-minute conversation about any topic. Students should take notes during the conversation.

3.) When the time is up, give students a few minutes to write a summary of the conversation they had with their partners.

4.) Have partners exchange their written summaries.

5.) Ask each pair to explain how their summaries of the same conversation differ, and address any inconsistencies students find with their partners' summaries.

Alternatively, you can collect the summaries for assessment and review.

Headline-Based Summaries

This activity requires a little prep before class. However, it will be well worth it, as this activity will encourage students to take a summary and extrapolate it into a larger text.

1.) Prior to the start of the activity, collect some copies of national, regional, or local newspapers.

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