Blog Series
Recent Blog Posts

Summary Writing: What’s It All About?

Updated on September 20, 2018
  • Step Up to Writing
  • Writing

By Jenny Hamilton


Another school year has begun and teachers are wrestling with schedules, expectations, and student learning. How do we get students to understand and retain the concepts we are teaching? According to Dr. Steve Graham and other researchers, having students write about what they’re learning is an effective way to clarify understanding and strengthen retention. How can you incorporate research-based writing strategies into your current instruction? In Writing Next (2007) and Writing to Read (2010), Graham’s findings identify summary writing as one of several strategies that strengthen writing as well as reading comprehension.

Effective Instructional Strategies

Before exploring ways to enhance our students’ abilities to summarize their learning, I’d like to examine a few basic tenets of effective teaching that could have a huge influence on our effectiveness as teachers of writing.

In their book Visible Learning for Literacy (2016), Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey work with John Hattie to identify the most effective instructional strategies for teaching literacy. Teacher feedback and teacher clarity, each with an effect size of 0.75, and distributive practice, with an effect size of 0.71, are three powerful strategies that significantly move the needle for student learning, especially in the realm of literacy acquisition.

Now, consider how typical writing instruction aligns with these practices. How do you provide feedback during a writing activity and use it to gauge the clarity of your instruction? Feedback and clarity thrive on mistakes. Do you routinely thank your students for making a mistake? Mistakes illuminate student perceptions, levels of understanding, and guide the needed redirection. While distributive practice may be a part of your instruction in some subject areas, how often do you incorporate it into your instruction to develop mastery of writing skills? When we have lesson time set aside for writing, so often students start with pre-writing and are expected to produce a rough draft by the lesson’s end. Think about how this current practice leaves no room for the three strategies outlined above. If the first opportunity for feedback comes when students submit their rough drafts, we have missed chances to correct and strengthen the underlying skills required to write a well-planned draft.

Instruction embracing these strategies would tackle one element of the writing process at a time and provide time for practice. By practicing one element at a time, we’ve created opportunities for timely feedback which in turn would allow us to clarify instruction based on student responses. Also, slivers of daily practice will not sabotage our schedule since this can easily become part of the daily lesson plan.

Summary Sentences

With this mindset, consider how you might make time for teaching summary writing. Beginning with summary sentences provides an opportunity to summarize daily learning without requiring an inordinate amount of time. Student sentences can be easily shared, creating chances for feedback and clarifying instruction. Teaching a pattern and then providing time to practice, allows students to master the skill. One approach for writing summary sentences is called an IVF statement:

  • In this pattern, the “I” stands for Identify and has students begin by naming the source of information. It might be the name of a subsection within a chapter of a textbook or it might be the name of a short article.
  • The “V” represents the Verb. Providing students with a list of summary verbs enables them to quickly choose an appropriate one.
  • The “F” represents Finish the Thought and asks students to state the big idea from the text or lesson.

Students need to hear your thinking, so complete the three segments with your students watching and listening. Having them hear your reasoning is incredibly powerful. Give your students the chance to practice orally before expecting them to generate a written summary sentence. Consider allowing them to write their sentences on a wipe-off board and then share them aloud. Be content with the practice of summary sentences until you see evidence of mastery. As your students practice writing these sentences, their understanding of the content will continue to strengthen. If your students are expected to read independently in a book of their choosing, use IVF statements to hold them accountable and encourage reflection.

Fact Outline

Once you see signs of mastery, add the next step: a fact outline. At this point, students begin to identify the key pieces of information within the text or lesson’s content. Model this next step again using a think-aloud approach. Show them your thinking and then start asking them to help you create a simple list of bulleted ideas. Consider how many opportunities for feedback and clarity you are creating by working repeatedly with your students during this shared practice.

Summary Paragraph

In the last step, students use their IVF statement and fact outline to write a paragraph. Repeated modeling of the culminating step is crucial. Moving from model to collaboration with your class provides practice with clarifying support. Throughout the process, students are thinking deeply about the content of longer pieces of text and the important elements. Being patient for the final product, the summary paragraph, allows your students to gain powerful insights into the writing process while continuing to analyze lesson content. Breaking the writing into slivers for practice sets the stage for teaching that solicits feedback, allows clarity, and honors distributive practice. Deeper content learning and stronger reading comprehension are bonuses that come with this instruction.

The strategy outlined in this blog comes from Step Up to Writing® Fourth Edition, a comprehensive writing program by Voyager Sopris Learning®. It embraces multisensory instruction that empowers teachers to collaborate with their students across all aspects of writing. You know you ‘ve delivered effective instruction when you ask your students “What’s it all about?” and they accurately and masterfully answer you.


About the Author
Jenny Hamilton
Dr. Jenny Hamilton
Jenny Hamilton, M.Ed. has been a tireless advocate for students who struggle to achieve academic success. Her training and background in behavior management enables her to share practical solutions regarding classroom management issues. She also works with teachers to raise awareness of the emotional damage that accompanies academic failure. Jenny’s depth of experience in teaching elementary, middle, and high school students lends authenticity to her delivery when she trains and coaches teachers. A deep interest in the research behind best practices and the science of learning allows her to share with teachers and administrators current and relevant data on how the brain works and what can be done to change the trajectory of struggling readers and writers. She is currently an independent consultant focusing on literacy.
Learn more about Dr. Jenny Hamilton