Summarizing is an important skill used to hone your ability to pick out relevant and important information from a reading or listening passage and recreate it without the heaviness of details. In fact, what a summary should ultimately aim to do is to capture and deliver the gist of the original, without the clutter of details that a person can search for on his or her own. The gist is the main idea, the main message that the original passage aims to deliver. The details add colour to the main message, but are ultimately not important if all you want to do is deliver the message.
Although summarizing is an important skill for all university students, we will focus our attention here on the principles of summarizing in a way that test takers can utilize to successfully tackle the TOEFL exam’s Writing section task 1 (integrated task). This task asks you to read a short paragraph, then listen to an academic lecture, then write a short summary with a focus on the relationship between them. This relationship will generally be one of support or contradiction.
Firstly, it is vital that you have worked on your note-taking skills. The listening component of the task gives you nothing to look at. In other words, you need to take notes so that you can later integrate into the summary the main ideas you heard in relation to the reading. The reading will remain on the screen, before and after the recording. You can set up your notes page with a structure based on the reading, then add notes from the recording that correspond to the reading notes. (See more on note taking skills)
What are you looking/listening for?
In a summary, again, we don’t worry about the details. As such, you should read and listen carefully for the topic sentence, and the thesis statement. These are not one and the same thing, though they can be included in the same sentence. The topic statement states what the topic of the passage is, or what the passage is about. It does not necessarily provide an opinion or stance on the topic. The thesis, on the other hand, states what the aim of the passage is, such as to argue for or against something, to demonstrate how something works or doesn’t work, to highlight the value or disadvantage of something, and so on in the same vein.
You should also listen for supporting statements, such as reasons, examples, comparisons, contrasts, etc. These are the “legs” of the passage. Again, you can take notes of details that are necessary for the support they provide, but you don’t need to focus too much on these. For example, if you listen to a passage about the rising rate of obesity among children in America, then of course you can write down McDonald’s as an example of the junk food that contributes to this problem. You should not, however, write down how many calories are in a Big Mac, as this is not important to the overall message that junk food leads to obesity.
Finally, you should listen/look for shifts in the argument. This means that if a concession is made, pay attention to its purpose. What this means is the author/lecturer might provide an example of something that works against the thesis, but will then turn that argument around to support the thesis again. In effect, the antithetical (against the thesis) argument will eventually be used as part of the support for the thesis itself. This is a common tool in writing essays and is a skill that you should master for your own writing.
What you do not need to include in your summary:
Again, minor details that do not support the argument (such as how many calories are in a Big Mac), do not need to be included. Only details that are necessary should be included (these will usually be repeated a few times in the passage, so as to be noticed and taken into account).
As this is a summary of someone else’s written work or speech, you should not add your own opinion, ideas, information, examples, etc. A summary needs to be an objective retelling of the original piece. Keep in mind that you will need to utilize your paraphrasing skills in writing a summary. Be careful not to “interpret” the original too much. Get the main idea across as the author/speaker intended it, not as you might want it to be. This will therefore also be a test of your comprehension ability.
Let’s look at an example as it would appear on a TOEFL test: Taken from https://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/TOEFL/pdf/ibt_writing_sample_responses.pdf
Reading: In many organizations, perhaps the best way to approach certain new projects is to assemble a group of people into a team. Having a team of people attack a project offers several advantages. First of all, a group of people has a wider range of knowledge, expertise, and skills than any single individual is likely to possess. Also, because of the numbers of people involved and the greater resources they possess, a group can work more quickly in response to the task assigned to it and can come up with highly creative solutions to problems and issues. Sometimes these creative solutions come about because a group is more likely to make risky decisions that an individual might not undertake. This is because the group spreads responsibility for a decision to all the members and thus no single individual can be held accountable if the decision turns out to be wrong.
Taking part in a group process can be very rewarding for members of the team. Team members who have a voice in making a decision will no doubt feel better about carrying out the work that is entailed by that decision than they might doing work that is imposed on them by others. Also, the individual team member has a much better chance to “shine,” to get his or her contributions and ideas not only recognized but recognized as highly significant, because a team’s overall results can be more far-reaching and have greater impact than what might have otherwise been possible for the person to accomplish or contribute working alone.
(Professor) Now I want to tell you about what one company found when it decided that it would turn over some of its new projects to teams of people, and make the team responsible for planning the projects and getting the work done. After about six months, the company took a look at how well the teams performed.
On virtually every team, some members got almost a “free ride” … they didn’t contribute much at all, but if their team did a good job, they nevertheless benefited from the recognition the team got. And what about group members who worked especially well and who provided a lot of insight on problems and issues? Well…the recognition for a job well done went to the group as a whole, no names were named. So it won’t surprise you to learn that when the real contributors were asked how they felt about the group process, their attitude was just the opposite of what the reading predicts.
Another finding was that some projects just didn’t move very quickly. Why? Because it took so long to reach consensus…it took many, many meetings to build the agreement among group members about how they would move the project along. On the other hand, there were other instances where one or two people managed to become very influential over what their group did. Sometimes when those influencers said “That will never work” about an idea the group was developing, the idea was quickly dropped instead of being further discussed. And then there was another occasion when a couple influencers convinced the group that a plan of theirs was highly creative. And even though some members tried to warn the rest of the group that the project was moving in directions that might not work, they were basically ignored by other group members. Can you guess the ending to *this* story? When the project failed, the blame was placed on all the members of the group.
Summarize the points made in the lecture you just heard, explaining how they cast doubt on points made in the reading.
Start with the reading. Set up your notes page in a way that reflects the way the passage is structured. Here is one way (we have written it out, not as the notes would appear):
Reading: Positives of team approach:
– range: knowledge, expertise, skills
– Speed: work faster, more contributions
– Creativity: more input
– Risk-taking: because shared responsibility
– Rewarding: have a voice, stand out 9good results)
Listening: Negatives of team approach: – free ride, non-contributors benefit
– Group recognition, not individual
– Speed: work slower, no consensus, too many meetings
– Leaders: 1 or 2 take over, indiv. Voices hushed
– Shared blame
The two passages obviously contradict one another. The task is to show how and why, with an emphasis on the listening. In other words, you will need to frame your summary from the viewpoint of the lecturer, not the author.
Begin by clearly stating what the summary is about. Make sure that you address the task specifically by mentioning, as in the case of the example given, what the relationship between the two passages is. Follow this with a brief summary of the points made in the reading. These will be touched on again in the body of the summary:
Ex: The professor uses a company’s analysis of teamwork to suggest that having teams work on a project, as recommended by the reading passage, might be less effective than allowing individuals to work on their own. The reading passage concludes that teams work better because of the range of knowledge contributed, the speed of completing tasks, and the better risk-reward balance that comes from sharing responsibility.
Then, go over the points made by the speaker, in relation to what you had read. Remember that you cannot provide details; you must package together as many points as possible into a single paragraph, trying to maintain a central theme in each:
Ex: The professor thinks the opposite is true. In a team, some members will get a “free ride”, meaning they will not contribute as much as others, yet receive the same benefits. If the project is successful, all members will share in the praise and rewards, even though some do not deserve it. If the project fails, every member will be equally blamed for it. Those who worked hard might not be very happy with this situation.
Furthermore, the professor suggests that teams actually work more slowly than individuals because it takes longer to reach agreements, and the necessary discussions involve too many meetings. What often happens is that one or two individuals take over the decision-making process, forcing potentially better workers to remain quiet or be ignored.
Don’t forget that general writing techniques are still necessary in a summary. Tools such as transitions and varied sentence structures are still required to create flow and clarity.
Also remember, that a summary does not need a concluding paragraph because there is no opinion for the writer to support. The writer of the summary simply has to pass along the overall main message, or gist, of the original works.