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Shrinking Summary: A reading activity disguised as writing

May 5, 2014

My favorite kind of writing activities are the ones that are actually reading activities in disguise. Shrinking Summaries are just that: incognito reading activities that allow your students to feel the pride that comes with output and benefit from critical reading at the same time.

A shrinking summary is a reading activity cleverly disguised as a writing activity. Students read a text and then write a series of increasingly concise summaries of the text. Learn more at #spanishteacher #flteach #tprs #languageteacher

What is a shrinking summary?

To write a shrinking summary, you begin with an existing text. You read the text and summarize it. Then, you summarize the summary. If you want, you could even summarize the summarized summary. And if you're really crazy, you could summarize the summary of the summarized summary. Want to keep going? You could summarize...

You get the point.

Shrinking summary example

Here is an example about some fictitious kangaroos:

A shrinking summary is a reading activity cleverly disguised as a writing activity. Students read a text and then write a series of increasingly concise summaries of the text. Learn more at #spanishteacher #flteach #tprs #languageteacher

As you can see, the original text includes some details that are left out of the summary (the middle text). By the time that the second summary is written--the shrunken summary--only the most important points of the story remain.

Why use shrinking summaries?

There are two main reasons that I love shrinking summaries: first, because I think that summarizing is an important skill for students to develop. Second, because a Shrinking Summary is a reading activity that feels like a writing activity.

Shrinking summaries help students practice summarizing

As an elective teacher, I was expected to support the same core learning objectives related to language that students were tackling in English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies.

Shrinking summaries give students practice writing summaries, which is Common Core Anchor Standard 2 for Reading:

Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.


Learning to summarize helps our students learn to accurately and concisely convey ideas.

Before the Common Core standards came around, summarizing was still a good skill to learn; and in their absence, I would still advocate for students being able to accurately and quickly summarize a conversation or text.

Accurate summaries maintain the veracity of information and prevent the spread of untrue rumors or false information.

Quick summaries help you to keep your audience--have you ever had someone try to retell you their dream? Or is there a certain someone who, when they call, you will never answer the phone because you know you'll never be able to hang up? Good summaries are good for everyone.

Quick, accurate summaries that convey the most important information from a conversation or text allow us to make quick, accurate decisions. Think about movie trailers, book recommendations, blog post captions, political mailers--all of these things present summaries of some kind of content. When they accurately capture the most important information about the content, the audience can take quick action.

A Shrinking Summary is really a reading activity

When it comes to language acquisition, input matters most. If we want to "get students talking", we first must get them reading and listening. They can't produce language in writing that has not already entered their head through input.

When students are given the Shrinking Summary task, they pick up a pen. "Ah-ha!", they think, "I get to write in Spanish!". Then, their eyes immediately turn to a text. As they search for words to write and consider how best to express the main ideas, they read and re-read and re-read the text again.

Once they have finished their first summary, they get to read some more! Now, they have really become critical readers; considering more than just the words on the page. They are weighing the value of each piece of information as it relates to the overall idea of the text.

A well written shrunken summary shows deep comprehension of a text, because the reader has chosen the most important pieces of information in their final summary. By looking at all previous summaries in the shrinking process, the teacher has a unique window into the student's head. Did they end up at the right place--with the most important information--but get lost somewhere in the middle? At what point did their reading comprehension seem to break down, if ever?

And all the while, the student is focused on writing. Heeheehee.

Prepare students to write great Shrinking Summaries

Practicing our writing doesn't make us better writers; reading does.

If you want your students to write better summaries, you've got to show them great summaries and help them consider summaries critically.

Here are two ways to prepare students to write great summaries--these efforts should be ongoing, so that good summarizing is being modeled for them regularly:

  • Write it up! After you have finished asking a story, doing a MovieTalk, having a class discussion, write a transcript together! Ask leading questions to help your students recall all of the details that were shared. Then, ask them how they could shorten the summary. Help them to make appropriate choices, once more by asking leading questions. Once you've summarized the original class-created text, summarize it again!
  • Which one? After you read a text, ask a story, read a chapter from a book, share a fable or news story, show students several possible summaries. These could be things that you prepare ahead of time or that you prepare on the spot. Ask student which one is the best summary, then discuss!

Use shrinking summaries as a source for discussion

Once the shrinking summaries are finished, you can milk them for additional input. Compare each level of shrinking summaries between several students (make sure they are students that won't mind!), and look for differences. Ask the class to weigh in on their opinion: which details that were included or left out did they think were critical or not critical?

How Shrinking Summaries fit into my classes

I use Shrinking Summaries OFTEN; sometimes formally, and sometimes informally.

  • Ask a class story à la TPRS®? Create a Shrinking Summary with the class to review it.
  • Have students that need independent work? Give them a novel and then have them write a shrinking summary of one of the chapters (more activity ideas here).
  • Do a MovieTalk? Put students in groups and have them summarize it. Each group passes the summary to another group, who shrinks it.
  • Want students to share a writing piece? Use a Kagan Strategy like Inside Outside Circle or Stand Up Hand Up Pair Up to get students together with a series of partners. One partner reads a story, the other summarizes, and the original partner summarizes the summary.

How do you use Shrinking Summaries?

How do YOU use Shrinking summaries in your classes? Drop some ideas in the comments!

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