Alice Savage

Summary Circles: Scaffolding Summarizing through Small Groups

Summarizing often feels like one of the hardest skills for ESOL students to master (and for ESOL teachers to teach).  Some of this may happen because we expect too much from students too soon.

There are many strategies out there to teach summarizing, but in the end, it seems the best way to help students is through constant practice.  We can’t just teach students how to summarize in one lesson, or with just one example, and then expect them to do it successfully on their own. We also can’t expect students to be able to summarize a whole text right away, either.  It’s up to teachers to scaffold this process so the task is more manageable at the beginning.

Summary Circles are an effective way to introduce students to summarizing because they require students to summarize smaller sections of a text.  Students also have an audience, who can give feedback on whether or not they have captured the main idea of the selection.  A lot of discussion takes place, and students begin to see differences between main ideas and supporting details through their negotiations.

Summary Circles also allow for greater class participation because each student will have an opportunity to summarize two or three excerpts in one sitting.   This also allows the teacher to be a listener and observer, which can inform his or her teaching points after the activity.  For example, teachers can take notes on the more difficult passages for students, and on the vocabulary students needed but may have lacked.

Summary Circles can be used with any text, whether a reading from a textbook or an article from a newspaper or magazine.   Here’s an outline of the basic procedure:

To prepare:

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  1. Choose any text. Have students read the text on their own at home. Tell them to bring it to the next class.
  2. In the meantime, Divide the text up into manageable sections. In a textbook reading, this might be a paragraph.  In an article, it may be 3-5 very short paragraphs.  For an article, try to make the “breaks” where the author switches to a new focus or topic.   Aim for 6 or 9 different sections.
  3. Draw lines to indicate the different sections. Label the sections “1,” “2” and “3” in the margin.  Repeat this enumeration for the paragraphs that follow: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, etc.

In class:

  1. Ask students to get their copies of the text out.
  2. Using a document camera and a projector, show students where to put the “separator” lines and how to number the sections. Have them write the lines and numbers on their text.
  3. Explain to students how the activity works:
    • You are going to work in groups of three. You will work in a clockwise direction. Student #1 will read Section 1 aloud and stop. His partners will read and follow along.  Student #2 will then summarize Section 1 (what Student #1 just read).  Next, Student #2 will read Section 2 and stop, and Student #3 will summarize her section (Section 2).  Student #3 will then read Section 3, and Student #1 will summarize that section (Section 3).  You will continue this pattern until you reach the end of the article. Note that this is a spoken activity.  You do not have to write the summaries. 
  4. On the board, offer students language to begin their summaries, such as:
    • “In other words,….”
    • “Here the author is saying that….”
    • “To summarize,….”
  5. Put students into groups of 3. Have each group decide who will be Student #1, 2, and 3.  Tell them to read the article section by section, following the instructions you gave.
  6. Circulate and take notes on any trouble students have. Offer suggestions as necessary.  Common mistakes to look out for include:
    • Students retelling all the information from the section instead of summarizing it in one short statement. Suggested response: “OK. Now, can you express that in just one sentence?”
    • Students reading from the text word-for-word instead of putting the idea in their own words. Suggested response: “Good, but can you put that in your own words?”
    • Students restating all the details in the passage instead of making a larger “main idea” statement. Suggested response: “Yes, those are the details, but what’s the bigger idea that those details support”
  7. Choose 2-3 sections that were the most difficult or ones that are the easy to illustrate.Ask for volunteers to share their summaries of those sections and write them on the board.  Offer feedback as necessary.
  8. Ask students why it is helpful to summarize in this way. Responses from our students included:
    • “It helps me understand the text better.”
    • “I can understand the ideas on my own because I have to use my own words.”
  9. Finish by asking students to summarize the main idea of the whole text.  Do this collectively.  Use their ideas to write up a sample summary up on the board.

This activity is a rewarding classroom experience for a number of reasons:


  1. Students are offered a greater opportunity to participate in the class, both asreaders and as summarizers. Each is given two or more chances to read and summarize.
  2. Students feel less overwhelmed because they’re only responsible for summarizing a small portion of a text instead of the whole text.
  3. Students are tasked with only one role at a time. Because students are taking turns, they are only responsible for one task. The readers read the passage, but they aren’t required to summarize as they read (which research suggests is very difficult to do).  The summarizers only summarize what was read.  The third student listens to the interaction between the text and the summarizer.  “Listeners” may then end up offering their own ideas, especially when the summarizer is having difficulty expressing his or her ideas.
  4. Students feel a greater sense of ownership of the material. Assigning students specific sections to summarize makes them feel more responsible for them, making them pay closer attention to the ideas.
  5. Summarizing the sections in their own words also gives students ownership of the text, in that they feel they have now understood it personally.

Summary Circles offer teachers advantages, too.  For one, they are afforded the chance to observe and take notes, and target their instruction to the particular difficulties students are facing. They can identify which students understand the concept well, and who will need more help.   It also allows for a lot less teacher talk time, and a lot more student participation and engagement, which in our view, is always a plus.

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