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Ruie J. Pritchard, Ph.D. N.C.

State University, Raleigh, NC USA

The Great American One-Sentence Summary


Stanfill, Silver. (1978). Classroom Practices in Teaching Classroom English, Anchorage Community College of the University of
Alaska.
Summarizing is a basic skill needed in many academic and job situations, a skill to be presented
and practiced at just about every educational level, from early childhood language development
activities (What did Marcus say about his picture?) to graduate school [Whats the most
important word in Jonathan Swifts Examiner essay of November 23, 1710? (The answer is
ingratitude)].
When students can survey material to determine its purpose, main idea(s), and major
divisions, theyre ready for lessons and practice in summarizing. With my community college
students, Ive had some good results and super side effects from a simple formula for a one-
sentence summary:
1. Identify the thing being summarized;
2. Tell what it begins with;
3. Tell whats in the middle (or what its mostly about; helpful with wording are
covers, discusses, presents, and develops the idea that);
4. Tell what it ends with.
I begin with the formula written on the board (or overhead), and work with groups to fill in
the wording for each part of the formula. Then we add the connections to turn the list of details
into a sentence. To smooth out the sentence, sometimes it helps to reorder the details. When the
students begin using the formula on their own, they understand that merely listing the four parts in
a column on their papers provides them with the meat of their summary sentences.
Its best to start using the formula with materials already familiar to the students
chronologically-ordered narratives like fairy tales (not news stories!) are ideal. After in-class
practice on Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White, my composition students
went on to out-of-class one-sentence summaries of autobiographies like The Diary of Anne Frank
and Nigger.
Logically-ordered exercises would come next. Try the formula in summarizing a text
chapter; then try summarizing the summary of a text chapter. Later work with materials
demanding the use of critical reading skills: first, in judging the relative emphasis an author gives
various subtopics; next, in establishing a personal idea of the relative importance of subtopics; and
still later, in recognizing and explaining the significance of repeated images or related imagery.
Students successful at these levels are ready for prcis-writing. (For students with college-level
skills, I recommend Lincolns Gettysburg Address for the three kinds of critical
reading/summarizing practice suggested here.)
When students are comfortable with the formula and its demands, I begin in-class exercises
with a time limit. Here is where the super side effects come in.
In my Study Skills micro-courses I set aside the last five minutes of each session for
students to write a one-sentence summary of that days class on a 3 x 5 card. On their way out of
class, they drop the cards in an envelope by the door.1
Usually it takes me less than half an hour to go through a set of cardstaking attendance
from them as I go. I mark and make comments (I insist that the back be left free for my use) or just
put a check on each card to indicate I have no particular comments. In each set I mark at least one
(and sometimes several) with a star that means Please write this on the board right away. I try
never to embarrass a student, so good or best examples are the ones starred (and if necessary,
1
A note about the advantages of 3 x 5 cards: stiff stock and small size. Limiting students to one side helps
both to allay fears of not having enough to say and to forestall verbosity; and a set of cards is easier to handle
than a pile of papers.
Ruie J. Pritchard, Ph.D. N.C. State University, Raleigh, NC USA

marked with corrected spelling). As students enter the classroom, they pick up their cards from last
time, and the starred ones are written on the board as class begins.
We spend the first few minutes of class on those sentenceshelpful for returning
absentees. Early in the course I choose sentences to help the class understand accuracy in
summarizing:
Is this what the class WAS about?
Is anything important left out?
Are these details in the right order?
Are they an accurate reflection of relative emphasis?
Later we work with sentence structure and style:
How easy is this to read?
How can we change it to read more smoothly?
Any ineffective repetitions? Any needless words?

I ask the students to compare their sentences wit h the ones on the board, and, if they like, to revise
and resubmit their cards. Since the course is pass/withdraw, neither dismal attempts nor
plagiarized revisions affect a students grade; but students do revise. They say they like the one-
sentence summary formula; they say it helps them in thinking, reading and writing.
I think the formula worksif used on materials students are ready for. Moreover, a set of
summaries of the class Ive just taught is invaluable immediate feedback. I find out right away
whos missing main points, and whos having a hard time saying what he or she thinks. Most
important, I learn how my perception of what-went-on-in-there differs from the classs.
The summaries are especially useful for sessions involving guest speakers. Knowing
whats coming up at the end of the hour speakers are a little more careful about preparation and a
little less apt to digress; students have a chance to practice being more alert and/or tactful than
usual, and I get a chance to practice being more alert and/or tactful than usual, and I get a chance
to practicefrom scratchthe formula I preach. After a guest speaker, I usually find in each set
of cards at least one student summary thats better than mine, entirely or partly. This is one basic
skill strategy thats got something for everybody.

Beginning with a brief explanation of the significance of summary-writing skill, The Great
American One-Sentence Summary presents a 4-part formula for developing that skill, discusses
methods and benefits of using the formula and ends with a summary of the article itself.
***

Suggest some strategies and a sequence for teaching summary-writing

A. Research on Text Summarization indicates that students must be able to:

1. Ferret our trivial material.

2. Delete repetitious material.

3. Substitute a general term for a list of specific items.

4. Combine a list of actions into a broader, single action.

5. Select a topic sentence.

6. Create a topic sentence.