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How do I support students’ summary writing?

january 12, 2021

If we want to teach students how to synthesize ideas, we have to start by teaching kids how to summarize them. After all, a student can’t think beyond the text if he can’t think about the text.

That said, teachers at all grade levels and in all subject areas need strategies to support students’ summary writing skills.

One of our favorite strategies is the Information Pyramid. As implied by its name, this graphic organizer is a perfect tool to help students learn to summarize meaty information—whether it is a content-area concept or a domain-specific vocabulary term.

When you want students to summarize information that is new and complex, providing them with a little structure will be valuable. This is where the Information Pyramid comes in. It helps writers draft an accurate and precise summary that is strong in both the traits of ideas and organization.

Trait of Ideas

A pyramid is essentially a skeleton of what to include in the summary. In the example shown here, students are challenged to whittle down all that they know about a concept to just 10 words.

Now these aren’t just 10 arbitrary words. These words are broken into the four tiers of the pyramid, each of which focuses on a different type of information. The tiers help to delineate what is and is not most important.

Create Simple Summaries with Pyramids

Trait of Organization

The order of the tiers also shows how details are related to each other. When students are able to organize details correctly, it further proves their understanding of the intricacies of a concept. The summaries produced by a Cause-Effect Pyramid, for example, will be organized differently than those of a Main-Idea Pyramid.

Pyramid Examples

Main-Idea Pyramids are the most universal type because they can be used with big and broad concepts and specific vocabulary terms. These pyramids focus on the concept’s definition with a couple of key details.

Main-Idea Information Pyramid Template
Main-Idea Information Pyramid Student Sample: Skeleton
Main-Idea Information Pyramid Student Sample: Variable
Main-Idea Information Pyramid Student Sample: Alliteration

Main-Idea Pyramid + Summary
PDF | Google Slide | Jamboard | Smartboard

Biographical Pyramids are ideal for summarizing information about an individual or group of people. Most often used for historical figures, this could also work with those associated with current events as well.

Biographical Information Pyramid Template
Biographical Information Pyramid Student Sample: Early Americans

Biographical Pyramid + Summary
PDF | Google Slide | Jamboard | Smartboard

Cause-Effect Pyramids are a prime example of how the type of information per line item is dictated by the content being summarized. If the most important information is how one facet impacts another, then the Cause-Effect Pyramid is a great tool.

Cause-Effect Information Pyramid Template
Cause-Effect Information Pyramid Student Sample: Earthquakes

Cause-Effect Pyramid + Summary
PDF | Google Slide | Jamboard | Smartboard

Pyramid Pre-Writes

Completing the Informational Pyramid requires students to demonstrate their understanding. Although they are provided a structure, they have to bring the thinking. This is a great first step in generating a content-area summary.

With the pyramid complete, a student uses those words to generate a multi-sentence summary. The pyramid is not the final product; it serves as a pre-write.

Information Pyramid & Summary Template
Simple Summary Example: Skeleton
Sophisticated Summary Example: Skeleton

Pyramid Adaptations

Don’t be limited by the sample Information Pyramids above. Although each of these is just four tiers, some content may require more information and thus more tiers in the pyramid.

In addition, the order of the line items can be rearranged to better match the content. For example, a teacher might craft a compare-contrast, problem-solution, or step-by-step procedural pyramid.

Such decisions are all dependent on the content you want students to summarize.

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9 months ago

I liked this video. I struggle when teaching my students how to summarize. This will help!

9 months ago

Hi! I love this, and I am teaching pyramid summaries this week. Could this replace the dissected web? I find it simpler and clearer than the web. Also – do you have any texts that work well to teach pyramid summaries? (I teach 4th and 5th grade). Thanks!

Reply to  Liz Shockey
9 months ago

Thanks, Liz! That is helpful. I am finding the Information Pyramid is good for short nonfiction texts (like out of a Super Science magazine) and that we will need the Dissected Web for longer texts with headings and sections.

8 months ago

This is a fabulous idea. I always struggled to find good ideas on how to summarize a text and, more importantly, a video.

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