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Write Strong 20-Word Summaries

march 1, 2010

Write Strong 20-Word Summaries

Teachers want students to do more than just memorize facts in science and dates in social studies. They want their students to do more than just remember information in health or processes in FACS classes. What content area teachers really want is for students to see the bigger picture. What is the significance of those facts? What are the implications of this event? What are the purposes of this body system? What are the side effects of such an unhealthy lifestyle?

In order to get to this level of thinking and synthesizing, students need to be able to understand the specifics and draw conclusions. Several strategies exist for teaching students to summarize text effectively. One, called 20-Word GIST (Cunningham, 1982) has been found effective for improving students’ reading comprehension and summary writing. With GIST the reader is interrupted and directed to record a summary of the material just read. Here’s how it works:

1. Select a 3-5 paragraph passage of text. Retype the text onto a transparency or Power Point slide to reveal on the overhead screen.

2. Project the text, but display only the first paragraph (cover the others). Put 20 blanks on the chalkboard. Have students read the paragraph, and challenge them to write a 20-word (or less) summary in their own words.

3. Using their individual summaries, have them generate a whole-class summary on the board in 20 or fewer words.

4. Reveal the next paragraph of the text and have students generate a summary of 20 or fewer words that encompasses BOTH of the first two paragraphs.

5. Continue this procedure paragraph by paragraph until students have produced a 20-word gist for the entire passage being taught. In time, they will be able to generate GIST statements for segments of text in a single step.

NOTE: Each 20-word gist will most likely NOT be a 20-word sentence! Tell your students they can write more than one sentence. We aren’t trying to encourage run-ons.

The power of gist writing is that students learn to delete trivial information, select key ideas, and paraphrase in their own words.

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Rebecca Simon
Rebecca Simon
9 months ago

Do you have any videos/models of this being done?

Liz Shockey
Liz Shockey
Reply to  Rebecca Simon
8 months ago

I’m including a couple of resources that might be helpful. I was unsure of what grade you teach, so it’s possible that these may not fit your content. But I hope one or both will prove helpful.
20-Word Gist on Neurons
HS Ideas – 20-Word Gist Summary

Comprehension Playbook
Support Summary Writing with Frames Based on a Text’s Structure


Support Summary Writing with Frames Based on a Text’s Structure

Track Individual Ideas to Analyze Their Influences


Track Individual Ideas to Analyze Their Influences