Cutting a long story short

How many times have you heard, said, read or written the chunk – ‘So, to sum up,…!

While on holidays gazing at the sea, sitting on the beach every day I caught myself ‘saying’ that when I was playing with my kids on the sand. Tragically or not, one student came to mind. Verbose as she may seem, I could picture her asking me what she could do to get to the point as opposed to writing too much. I am not saying that spoilt my holidays, yet it got me thinking.

As a classroom practice, I oftentimes have my students summarising reading texts, listening texts, topics of discussions, their partners’ points of view, articles, readers, films, you name it. However, I had never got that puzzled when I confronted myself on the beach saying ’So, to sum up….’! I must confess I had a hard time coming up with a good summary of that particular situation, which I shall tell at the end of this text.

As a student, I remember being asked the same sort of activities and writing an appraisal was one of them. I did not know then what I know now and after my winter break I did some reading in order to answer my student’s question, which eventually became one of my own. I have come to notice that no single text stands alone and, to the matter, when you come up with your own words to make sense of it you are simply ‘summing up’ ideas to be added to your knowledge.

Here is the summary of the full range of things I have read with my both student’s and teacher’s eyes.

a)      It is never enough just to skim through the text. Much to the contrary, getting familiar with the whole lot is of vital importance. Do scanning, inference and others ring a bell?

b)      Each paragraph will contain a topic sentence. This particular sentence will be, most of the times, the summary of the paragraph. Hence, it is important to help learners identify such a thing in order to help them with their both reading, writing and, why not, speaking skills.

c)      I am not that comfortable highlighting parts of texts, as many were the times I ended up colouring whole paragraphs. I do tell my students to do that if they feel comfortable, though. I also provide my learners with (my) an alternative, which I choose to underline key phrases or jot down side notes to the paragraphs.

d)     As a student (not long ago, mind you), I was not attentive to the dynamics of a text. Cohesive devices like ‘whatsmore’ or ‘however’ are signpost words that add to learning. Trying and understanding how a text flows is an ability to be developed (taught?). So, as educators we should flag that to the learners in order to help them understand what the ideas or intentions are behind the text.

e)      Life is not about parroting. It is fine by me to quote what a writer says as long as you have your own additions or deletions to the ideas expressed.

f)       Less is more. A good summary should not be as lengthy as the text. Other than that, it is not a summary. I usually set extensive reading (articles) and listening (films) as homework tasks and have my students do 2-minute-speech activities in class. I am not sure how many words go there, yet experience has shown me that it seems to be is a good time framework to summarise something.

To sum up, learning to summarise is an invaluable tool that should be taught and learnt in an educational environment. It is, above all, a tool that can be easily transferred to any segment of life. As for my vacation summary thinking on the beach – Paradise lost!

Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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