Our Essential Lessons are a sequence of lessons that form the backbone of the Writing Program curriculum, illustrating what we want all students to learn across our program’s diverse course topics.
Students develop the closely related skills of reading and writing through sustained instruction in summary and analysis, where these skills meet. This lesson outlines ways to explicitly teach summary and analysis of the challenging texts that our students are expected to read “with understanding, appreciation, and critical engagement” in WR 120.
This lesson acknowledges the difficulty readers of all kinds face when they encounter challenging texts and offers practices to help students face that difficulty. Through highlighting the challenging nature of texts assigned in WR classes, it communicates high standards for all students. These measures have been shown to reduce stereotype threat.
Students will be able to summarize and analyze a challenging text and to distinguish between summary and analysis.
summary, analysis, rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context, genre)
Summary and analysis should be among the first skills students practice in WR 120. Incorporate this lesson early in the semester, preferably focusing on a challenging text that is foundational to the class topic. Since these skills are so essential, students should practice them throughout the semester with increasing independence.
This lesson is designed to take place in two class sessions, but we also offer some ideas for contextualizing these concepts for students in the days or weeks before the lesson itself.
It is hard to get students to write in sustained, accurate, and engaged ways about what they read (or view, or hear, or whatever). A 2010 Citation Project study found that 94% of the time student papers engaged with just one or two sentences from the sources they cited; 70% of the time they cited just the first or second page of their sources; only 24% cited a given source more than twice; only 6% engaged in what one scholar calls “real summary.” Students also have trouble comprehending and assessing sources. Yet it is not the case that our students simply cannot summarize or analyze. Even weaker students can do so, as Sandra Jamieson notes in “What Students’ Use of Sources Reveals about Advanced Writing Skills”; the problem is that few students manage to summarize and analyze consistently well, “with the frequency necessary to produce papers that achieve our course goals” (Jamieson 16).
Fortunately, explicitly teaching summary and analysis addresses this problem by cultivating students’ ability to engage with the kinds of challenging texts we assign in WR 120. In distilling a source and communicating their distillation to their own readers, summary helps students understand the source better for themselves and show the reader that they’re entering the conversation having listened well. Careful analysis gives students something to contribute–something focused and connected and coherent–to that conversation. There are many ways to analyze, but the two most suitable in WR courses are analyzing the rhetorical situation and analyzing the argument. In exploring how a writer’s choices affect the audience and make the text more (or less) likely to achieve its purpose, these kinds of analysis encourage students to read as writers and look for moves that they can make in their own compositions.
Many of us, perhaps all of us, already teach analysis and summary in our classes. Doing so more explicitly and systematically can help students master these skills and adapt them for future use.
This lesson poses questions about the rhetorical situation of a text and asks students to consider the role and form of summary and analysis in several genres, adaptable to the course content.
Students reflect on their low-stakes attempts at summary and analysis and consider how composing summary and analysis can lead to better understanding and deeper engagement. Consider connecting these reflections to their first paper assignment, if applicable.
PART I: PREVIEW SUMMARY & ANALYSIS
- Use an optional ice-breaker activity to foreground the importance of summary and analysis by having students summarize (and introduce) a classmate.
- Ask students to interview each other, then write an introduction of their partner of roughly 200 words. Next class, have students read these introductions aloud–and then, before they hand them in, ask students to give them to their partners, so that the students who are the subjects of these summaries can check them for accuracy–a key feature of fair summary. The student-subjects can also add something that was left out–a reminder that summary always involves leaving things out.
- Introduce the concept of rhetorical situation. Ask some questions about the rhetorical situation of these classmate summaries:
- What is the purpose of this summary?
- Who is the audience?
- What is the context or situation?
- How might students’ choices be different if the audience, etc., were different?
- Consider what would be different if the assignment had instead been to analyze this classmate. (While it might be helpful to provide a hypothetical example, don’t ask students to analyze one another!) Use this prompt as an illustration of the difference between summary and analysis, while acknowledging that summary can include shades of analysis.
PART II: DISCUSS SUMMARY & ANALYSIS IN READINGS
- Focus on summary and analysis as well as content when covering the first few readings of the course.
- Point out places in these texts where summary occurs in order to help students become aware of more conventional forms of summary.
Questions to analyze the rhetorical situation of the published writer’s summary
- What is its purpose, audience, situation?
- How might these have shaped the writer’s choices about its length, how it is introduced, etc.?
- Where does the author depart from summary and move toward analysis and response?
- How can you tell the difference?
PART III: SUMMARIZE A TEXT TOGETHER
- Choose a challenging text, ideally one that students will need to engage in Paper 1, to summarize together as a class.
- Prepare students to read. Acknowledge the text’s difficulty and guide students in assessing their own reading struggles; share strategies and provide heuristics–or interactive techniques that promote discovery–that help students read actively, work through confusion, make inferences, and connect the text to their own experiences and ideas (see, for example, Mike Bunn’s “How to Read Like a Writer”); promote collaboration that gets students talking about their reading experiences and exposes them to others’ questions, perspectives, and interpretations.
- Ask students to summarize the text. Think, pair, share can work well; ask students to summarize it in, say, 25 or 50 words, compare summaries with a partner, then discuss their summaries with the class. A “jigsaw” method can also be a helpful exercise in summary. Asking students, individually or in pairs, to summarize a section of a text (a paragraph, for example), then stringing together those section summaries into a summary of the whole can lead to engaging discussions of the text’s content and structure, as well as give practice in summary. Note in class discussion when student contributions are elaborating on the summary and when contributions become something else: argument about the text or analysis of it.
- Reflect. Ask students to reflect about how the process of summarizing the text changed their understanding of it. Ask them to identify one aspect of the text that is clearer to them and one aspect that is still puzzling, difficult, or ambiguous.
PART IV: ANALYZE A TEXT TOGETHER
- Analyze the same text together in the next class meeting.
- Guide students toward analysis with key questions.
- Ask questions designed to help students analyze the rhetorical situation and/or argument. Adapt the questions below as necessary, depending on the text and how your first paper assignment asks students to engage it (mostly likely as an exhibit source or as an argument source).
Questions to analyze the rhetorical situation
- What is the writer’s purpose (to persuade, entertain, inform, incite, etc.)?
- Who is the writer’s audience?
- What is the text’s context/situation?
- What is the genre?
- Why do these elements matter to our reading of the text?
- How might they shape our understanding of it?
Questions to analyze the argument
- What is the claim?
- How is it supported?
- What reasons are given?
- What kind of evidence is used to support these reasons?
- How are the counterarguments (if any) presented/summarized?
- How are they acknowledged and responded to?
- Why is this claim significant?
- Reflect again with students. In discussion and/or writing, ask students to revisit their reflection on what was puzzling, difficult, or ambiguous after composing the summary and consider if/how the series of analytical questions helped them think more deeply about whatever is challenging about the text or gave them tools to better understand it. Ask students to identify one way they might analyze a challenging feature of the text.
Variations and Follow-Ups
Alternative lesson ideas
- Consider having students summarize any classic story (Bazerman suggests “The Three Little Pigs,” but alter as necessary) to illustrate multiple possible themes or morals. Students should be able to see the intersection of summary and analysis in practice with this exercise, as they choose which elements of their story to highlight or gloss over depending on their purpose (Bazerman 65).
- Summary and analysis are so fundamental to academic and argumentative writing of all kinds that opportunities to revisit this lesson occur throughout the semester. You don’t need to constantly tell students that they’re reading or writing a summary or an analysis, but occasional reminders about that fact–and about how summary and analysis change depending on the rhetorical situation–can be helpful.
- Assignments such as abstracts and annotated bibliographies in WR 15x require summary, as do genres such as tweets, elevator stories, and lightning talks. A reflective essay in a writing portfolio, for example, might begin with a summary of the self-assessment they wrote at the beginning of the semester, for example, as well as analysis of various artifacts.
Suggested flipped learning modules
- Turabian, Kate L. Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers. 4th and 5th eds., University of Chicago Press, 2010, 2019.
Chapter 9, “Incorporating Your Sources,” may be helpful for students, especially section 9.2 (“Creating a Fair Summary”), which includes a checklist on “How to Create a Fair and Relevant Summary”; Chapter 5, “Engaging Sources,” focuses on strategies for reading critically and analyzing.
- Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th ed., W.W. Norton, 2018.
Graff and Birkenstein focus on summary in Chapter 2, “Her Point Is: The Art of Summarizing.” Chapters 1 (“They Say: Starting with What Others Are Saying”) and 3 (“As He Himself Puts It: The Art of Quoting”) are also useful.
- Bazerman, Charles. Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Charles Bazerman’s The Informed Writer offers some good general reading on the subject, especially in Chapter 4, “Summarizing: The Author’s Main Ideas,” and in Chapter 7, “Analyzing the Author’s Purpose and Technique.”
- Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed., Wiley, 2011.
Bean provides strategies for designing writing assignments to make students more engaged and attentive readers of challenging sources; see especially Chapter 9, “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts.”
- Barger, Julie Myatt. “Reading Is Not Essential to Writing Instruction.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute, 2017.
Julie Myatt Barger argues in her ironically-titled essay, “Reading Is Not Essential to Writing Instruction,” that reading is essential for writing instruction. She discusses why the teaching of reading has often been overlooked and offers strategies for helping students read better and use their reading to improve their writing.
See all Writing Program Essential Lessons