AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is Emily Kissner, a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania and author of a book called "Summarizing,
Paraphrasing and Retelling."
EMILY KISSNER: "When you summarize, you need to first choose what's
important in the text -- look for the main ideas. And a good way to do
that is to look at what the author refers to over and over again,
because that's probably what's important.
"And then you need to condense those main ideas. You need to get rid
of the repeated ideas. You need to exclude the trivia, those little
details that are in there to keep you interested but really don't
contribute to the main idea."
AA: "And then from there, you've boiled it down, you're looking for
the important ideas, how do you begin to put them down on paper?"
EMILY KISSNER: "Different readers use different methods. There's
been a lot of research on retelling, which is where you just retell the
important ideas to someone else. Even without someone telling you it's
good or bad, retelling what you've read changes something about how you
store the information in your brain and helps you to understand it
better. So one great way to start summarizing is just to turn to
someone else and say 'Hey, I just read this, listen to what the
author's talking about.'
"And from there, you can maybe list some of the main ideas. And then
if you need to write a formal summary to give to someone else, you can
kind of look for the connections between those ideas and then use those
to frame your summary."
AA: "You write in your book here, you say: 'Left to their own
devices, most students write the topic of a text when they're asked to
write a main idea.' Now what's the difference between the topic and the
EMILY KISSNER: "The topic is usually just one word or phrase to
which everything in the text refers. So, for instance, if you were
reading about dinosaurs, the topic of the book could be 'dinosaurs.' A
main idea is usually a sentence that explains why the topic is
important or explains something about the topic. So one article about
dinosaurs might be 'dinosaurs evolved to many unusual creatures.' And
so then everything in the text would go back to that main idea."
AA: "Do you find these techniques of summarizing to be helpful at all, or especially helpful, to English learners?"
EMILY KISSNER: "Where I teach right now, we actually have quite a
significant population of students who are learning English, and one
method that I found especially helpful for them was looking for key
words in the article or the text. And so we would kind of develop their
background knowledge first, and then they would look for key words that
"And using some of these techniques like finding the main idea and
looking for the structure of the text helped them to -- by the end of
the year, they were writing some really competent summaries. And that
really shows they were understanding the texts."
AA: "What would a bad summary look like?"
EMILY KISSNER: "A lot of students, and a lot of adults, use what's
called the copy-and-delete method: 'Oh geez, I have to write this
summary. I don't really know how. I'm just going to go through and pick
up a few sentences here and a few sentences there, copy it down, I'll
leave out a few sentence, and I have something that looks like a
summary.' So when you're seeing a lot of text that's directly taken out
of the main article, you can tell that the writer of that summary isn't
working with very effective strategies for summarizing."
AA: "Now what's the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing?
Since the title of your book is 'Summarizing, Paraphrasing and
Retelling,' what's the difference?"
EMILY KISSNER: "Paraphrasing is just putting ideas into your own
words. So, for instance, you could read a paragraph about global
warming and you could paraphrase it and it could be just as long as the
original paragraph. The key part with paraphrasing is that it's in your
own words. With summarizing, you have a more formal product that is
shorter than the original text."
AA: No one says any of this is easy, even for teachers. Emily Kissner recalls the day she told her students about her book.
EMILY KISSNER: "And then one kid just looked at me, and raised his
hand and with a kind of sly smile said, 'Missus Kissner, could you
summarize the book for us?' And suddenly I was put on the spot and I
had to put all of what was in the book to the test to try to summarize
this book in a way that the students could understand."
AA: "And did you pass the test?"
EMILY KISSNER: "Well, I think I did. [Laughter] It's hard to do on the spot."
AA: Emily Kissner is a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania and author of the book "Summarizing,
Paraphrasing and Retelling." And that's Wordmaster for this week. Archives of our segments are at voanews.com/wordmaster. I'm Avi Arditti.
For more about the rules of summarizing, and how readers interact with text, Emily Kissner suggested these references:
• Brown, A. and J. Day. 1983. “Macrorules for Summarizing Texts:
The Development of Expertise.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal
Behavior, 22: 1-14.
• van Dijk, T.A and W. Kintsch. 1978. “Toward a model of text comprehension and production.” Psychological Review, 85: 363-394.