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Writing in science

Teach Summarizing Skills In Science

Use a doc cam to teach summarizing skills to middle school students

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“Summarize this passage. Just write it in your own words. No, you can’t just change some of the words to make it yours. Is this copy and pasted?” I’m sure you’ve said those things. It’s what teachers say when they want students to summarize a passage. I’ve realized by the time students get to middle school, they have heard all those common phrases I just shared, but rarely have we spent the time to actually teach summarizing skills. 

So, how do content area teachers teach summarizing skills? 

Summarizing is a critical thinking skill. There is not one single answer. It requires students to really think about what they’re reading and understand it. Plus, summarizing is hard. There’s no time in the day for a science teacher to add summarizing to their plate. Students should know how to do it, right? 

Wrong. As a content area teacher, I knew it was my assumed responsibility to make sure my students were reading and writing. Summarizing creates an opportunity for students to do both, and trust me… your ELA teachers will love you for incorporating it.

This fool-proof method of teaching middle school students summarizing skills is easy. I was actually pretty impressed with what my students came up with. The key is breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and presenting it in a way that is not intimidating. 


1. Find your text. 

I really like using Newsea to find informational text. There are a lot of articles you can access for free when you make an account. Furthermore, each article has multiple versions including  3-4 different reading levels you can choose from. When you are just starting to teach summarizing, I’d suggest starting with a slightly lower reading level. You want students to be able to focus on the summarizing skill without being overwhelmed by the text itself. 

2. Format your text. 

Find nonfiction articles to teach summarizing on
Use Google Docs to clean up articles to make them easier for students to read. Remember, this step is for classroom use only!

Hear me out. This is not completely a requirement, but I do like doing it. When a paper looks organized and has few distractions, students feel comfortable with the simplicity. Here’s how I do it. 

  • First, copy and paste the text from the article into a Google Doc.
  • Second, clean it up. Delete any stray words and fix any funky paragraphs. Make sure there are actually paragraph breaks. Bold the article title. If you can bring the main photo onto the Google Doc, that is awesome. This will also help students feel less overwhelmed. Instead of looking at a huge page of words, they’ll see a picture. 
  • Next, space it out. Go to FORMAT > LINE & PARAGRAPH SPACING in your toolbar at the top of your Doc. Use the line spacing to make sure you’re giving students more room than single space. I would suggest 1.2 line spacing and I’d check the option that says “Add Space After Paragraph.” This makes your paragraph breaks a little more noticeable. I also like to make sure paragraphs aren’t too long or too short. Too short and you can’t summarize but too long and it’s really overwhelming.  
  • Finally, do some tweaking. Again, not completely necessary. If I’m running onto a third page, I like to adjust the margins or the font size to keep it on one page – front and back. If you’re really tight on space, you can delete a paragraph or two. There is nothing wrong with that. 

Need some help? Watch the video below!

3. Print

You’ve finished finding and formatting your article, now you should print it. I also use a template that helps students stay organized. You need one article and one template per student. 

We’ve got everything ready, and now we need to actually teach summarizing skills. Download the free Practice Summarizing Template here! (Be sure to click the download button once you open the file!)

Introducing summarizing to your students. 

The reality is, students know how to summarize informally, so draw that out of them. Start by asking students to give you an overview of a popular movie. Or if you’re feeling up to it, ask them to give you an overview of a movie featured in an Olaf Presents episode, and then show them that clip of Olaf summarizing the movie. This is such a fun way to engage them! 

Up until this point, try to keep summarizing out of your vocabulary. Kids instantly check out because it’s traditionally so hard. But, as you pass out the article and template, mention that summarizing is a skill they know how to do, but it’s important to learn how to summarize text. 

Circle key words while summarizing a non-fiction text.

How to teach summarizing skills.

1. Read the whole article.

I’d suggest doing this out loud. Ask basic questions like what the article is about or some words they recognize. Maybe ask about something they thought was interesting. Just start talking about it. 

2. Draw a physical line between the paragraphs and number each one.

The reasoning for this is two fold. First, it makes each paragraph much less intimidating because you’re chunking the information for them. Second, the numbers correspond to a space on the template where they will actually write their summary. 

3. Read the first paragraph and circle 5-7 key words.

These can be words that are repeated or words they find important . I like asking them to circle words they are unique to that paragraph. For example, moon might be used in every paragraph in an article about the moon phases. They don’t need to circle it every time, although they can. However, if illuminated shows up for the first time in the third paragraph, that is a great word to circle. 

4. Write down all the circled words on the template in the first section.

Teach summarizing skills by using key words to create a new sentence.

This should give them a good idea of what the main idea of the paragraph is about.

5. Read the paragraph one more time.

Next, Ask them to put the article away and look at the 5-7 words on their template. 

6. Use those 5-7 key words to write one sentence.

Your students might use all of the words or they might not. But they’ll have one full sentence that is actually written in their own words and is a summary of the first paragraph. 

7. Repeat!

After each paragraph is summarized, students will move onto the next paragraph and repeat the steps. Read, circle, read, write. 

You’ll find after students have summarized each paragraph, they’ll have a summary of the entire article when they combine all of their mini-summaries. 

Tips for Classroom Management

Teaching students how to summarize is hard. I suggest a few things as you are actually teaching this skill. 

First, do the first two or even three paragraphs with students. I love using a doc cam (This one is my favorite if you’re looking for one!). Students should follow along with you, but you can gradually release control as you move from one paragraph to the next. When you move to the second or third paragraph, ask students to write their own sentence, give them a few minutes, and see if anyone wants to share.

Next, I’m all for working while students work. This is not one of those lessons. Plan to walk around and answer questions. I like to tell students, “raise your hand when you’ve completed a sentence and I’ll check it.” When I come across a good summary, I like to ask if I can read it out loud. Students benefit from hearing other student’s summaries.

Finally, this is NOT something I’d ever give for homework, at least until they’ve become very familiar with it. If most students aren’t done, plan to finish it the next day. The goal is to teach summarizing skills, not overwhelm students. It’s hard enough as is. And trust me… I’ve overwhelmed a few too many students for my liking. 

My promise to you is that teaching your students to summarize nonfiction text will no longer be like pulling teeth. With the right format, you can train your students how to summarize fluently and, hopefully, never hear, “Do we need to write this in our own words?” again! 

Still have questions?! Keep reading! 

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I teach summarizing to my students? 

Start teaching them right away! The first time you teach them, it will probably take a whole class period – just to teach and model the process. After that, it will take less and less time. In addition, as students become more comfortable with this process, writing summaries for a would make a great (and easy) sub plan. But only when they know what they’re doing. 

What if my students say it’s too hard?

First of all, yes. It is hard. Not much in life is easy! I didn’t really learn how to take in a lot of information and summarize it until my first year teaching. It would have been a really great skill in college! 

Second, I sometimes let students work in partners or groups to talk about how to form their summaries using the key words. Hearing other’s conversations can help students who don’t quite get it yet. It also gives them a safe place to work through their ideas and piggyback off of each other. If the whole class is struggling, try an article that has a lower lexile level. You can even start with something they’re more familiar with, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. 

How can I make this more engaging? 

Using high interest articles can definitely help to teach summarizing. One year, I used an article about whale poop! Kids loved it! 

You can also set up rotating stations. I’ve placed students in groups and given all the groups 3-4 minutes to come up with a summary sentence for paragraph one. Then, two students from each group get up and move to the next group and I give them another 3-4 minutes to write a summary for paragraph two. With this set-up, students get to talk to a lot of different people and they get to take breaks and move around the classroom. Read about how I use grouping cards for this type of activity!

Middle School, Reading & Writing in Science