The Internet TESL Journal

Less Is More: Summary Writing and Sentence Structure in the Advanced ESL Classroom

George L. Greaney
cllglg [at]
Hofstra University (Hempstead, New York, USA)

Anyone who has taught ESL students at the advanced level has encountered the following problem: Student writing tends to be marked by short, simple sentences without many indicators of transitions or logical connections between sentences. Students seem to avoid writing more complex sentences with subordinate clauses, appositive phrases, and other marks of sophisticated writing, because they are uncertain about how to use such structures and avoid the risk of error by keeping their writing syntactically simple. Although such students have studied English grammar and syntax for years, their passive knowledge of such structures as relative clauses does not automatically generate such structures in their writing. Even if a student is able correctly to combine sentences when doing grammar exercises in a textbook, the same student will produce simple, choppy strings of short sentences when called upon to write an essay. After many years of trying to teach students how complex sentences are formed in English, I hit upon a way to elicit more complex sentence structure spontaneously in their writing.

I asked them to summarize a in a paragraph or two a short narrative assigned for homework. Then I asked them to take these paragraphs and reduce them to one comprehensive sentence. To illustrate the task I tried to write a one-sentence summary of my own on the blackboard. I found that I had to use two sentences to include all the essential points as I saw them. At this point, instead of abandoning the activity, I decided to challenge the students to play along and try to outdo the teacher. When I read their revised summaries I discovered that, in most cases, even when they were not able to produce a single, comprehensive sentence, students wrote more focused summaries with more complex sentence structure than they had used in their earlier, longer summaries.

The use of summary writing as an in-class activity involves the students in a collaborative exercise in which the teacher plays along with the students. The element of competition, if introduced as a game rather than as a test, stimulates the students to attempt to use their linguistic and analytical abilities to communicate their thoughts and to aim at a clear and precise goal: the one-sentence summary. If a student fails to achieve the goal, it is only a game. Moreover, the process of rewriting can take place many times because each draft is only one sentence long, and two or three revisions can be done in one class period. In this process the study of the paragraph as a discourse unit is approached by focusing on the sentence, the building block of the paragraph, and it is easier to see what is wrong with one sentence than to see what is wrong with a group of sentences. Students must focus on the idea of completeness in the small unit, and this thought process can then be applied to the development and shaping of a good paragraph. Moreover, the sentence is the form which is best suited to writing an outline of an essay. Exercises in outlining can follow this exercise in summarization, and students can move back and forth between these units, as they write a paragraph, then summarize it, and vice versa.

Many aspects of rhetoric come into play: the use of the present tense in relating the plot of a story, the choice of the third person to tell the story (the text we had read was in the first person), and the issue of what is essential to the theme and the plot. But, above all, summary writing calls on students to frame more complex, syntactically sophisticated sentences. The use of summary writing is part of the tradition of writing teaching, but I believe its application to the ESL classroom needs to be explored more fully.

The writing exercise is part of a class discussion, so that the writing, being circumscribed and brief, is closely linked to oral summaries which form the material for the writing. Students cannot get bogged down in the task of filling up the page; rather, the goal is the opposite, to be as concise as possible. Instead of generating comments on a five-paragraph essay that "a tighter focus is necessary" or that "this is repetitive," both teacher and peer criticism is controlled by the writing task, which is simple: to say all that matters as briefly as possible. Students' reactions to the material are judged by how relevant they are to the main idea of the story, and how well the writing expresses this idea. By pointing out that what a student says and writes is "off the point" the teacher and peers must use analytical skills and keep focused. Moreover, by finding that it is not possible to sum up the reading in one sentence, the student is forced to confront the clarity and accuracy of his or her understanding of the reading. In the process of rewriting there occurs a great deal of rethinking and reflection.

This exercise is useful not only in the ESL classroom, but also in the native-speaker classroom because the skill of summarizing is important to all students. Also, skill in summarizing carries over to other kinds of classes such as history and the social sciences, where short-essay tasks are routinely assigned as tests. Students develop thinking skills that are useful in all courses, but these skills are developed not as ends in themselves, but rather as means to an end: concise communication.

The choice of texts is crucial. The use of narrative that engages college students by dealing with themes that they can identify with (peer pressure, disillusionment, authority, etc.) facilitates writing by shifting the task from judging an argument or distilling complex and unfamiliar information into an analysis that is approved by the teacher, to the task of explaining to each other a story which they have enjoyed. Thus, the oral rhetorical skills they use every day in explaining a movie they liked to a friend are called upon in the classroom. In the compass of one sentence they must convey their understanding of a text objectively, eliminating comments about how "cool" the story was or how they feel about it. This kind of "objectivity" is a prime desideratum in any classroom. But by using summary assignments the teacher can encourage clarity and objectivity by making these qualities necessary to win the game, as it were.

To illustrate my point, I will briefly describe a typical class. The class I will describe illustrates another point as well, since in this class the "text" was a film, the Western classic High Noon. As I stated above, I have found that narrative summaries are easier for students than summaries of more abstract essays or arguments. Moreover, summarizing a movie they have seen is an exercise which precludes the kind of quoting of key sentences from the text which is a common temptation to ESL students when they are asked to summarize something printed in a book.

In fall 1996 I screened High Noon for my class in a course called Topics in American Culture, which is both an advanced writing class and a survey of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American literature and music. Students were asked first to write a paragraph summarizing the story and its themes. They then read these summaries aloud and there ensued a discussion of the meaning of the film which went beyond the classic Western "showdown" story and explored the ideas of individual responsibility and civic duty, as well as other themes such as the role of women in the modern "adult Western."

For a subsequent class I asked students to refine their summaries and reduce them to one sentence, if possible. The following are samples of the summaries before and after the challenge to produce a single summary sentence.

A young woman from Japan wrote the following first draft:

This is my very first Western movie. I got a lot of information about the culture in this era. Like the relationship between people, buildings which made a town, hotel, saloon--had different meanings from today.

I noticed about two women. One was a bride. She wore white dress very purely and the other was a Spanish woman in black dress. They are very contrasted.

Actually I don't like this movie. Because though some of the actions are very beautiful, the story was still not very sofisticated. This is very American. I can smell the sand wind in this movie. And Gary Cooper was just a hero. We couldn't see his weak part. He was too perfect. It made this movie far from reality. And one more. Usually girls don't have any interest in gun fight, though gun fight in this movie was not main point.

When asked to reduce this to one sentence she chose to focus on the theme of the movie and wrote the following:
This is a story about human relationships taking the form of western.
I was very pleased with this result because the student who wrote it had been very reticent in class discussion. This sentence showed that she was thinking and closely following our discussion of plot and theme.

A young man from Brazil wrote the following first draft:

"High Noon" was an interesting movie that was able to show a different type of drama, and, on top of all, it was also able to let its audience decide to themselves what message they were getting. Maybe the black and white influenced me, making me a felling that I was watching and old classical movie: one of those movies that trap the viewer felling like that he or she was inside the picturer, with the characters and their problems; or, maybe it was the different stale of filming that most of the modern day time movie goers don't see anymore or never experienced where we could see the fear in the characters' face, especially when we could see and tell the character's face consumed by fear.

Time may be mean to let great movies like "High Noon" be forgotten by the mass, but it cannot erase its true place or a legacy that was one of the building stone of the twentieth-century movie.

When asked to reduce this summary he wrote the following:
To those that are going to watch "High Noon", it will feel a sense of good vs. evil cowboy type movie. The movie was made in early 1900's [sic], with a typical script: the wording, the attitude, and close up to the face. Maybe because of black and white movie, gives the viewer the sense of classic; but the classic was how it was made and worded.
It is interesting to see what this student chose to focus on when pressed to reduce the summary: genre, motion picture history, and the quality of the screenplay.

A young man from Turkey wrote a first summary which was almost a page long:

The film, "High Noon", is a traditional American western film which was made in 1952. The reason this film was very special is that, all actors in that film were very talented. Besides that, it was the first adult-film [sic] in America.

The main character in the film is Sheriff Marshall, who is just married with a young and beautiful lady called Emly. However, their happiness does not last for a longtime because, a bad guy is coming to the town to kill Marshall who is called Frank Miller. Marshall does not run away because, he has never ran away in his life before. Even if his wife Emily threatens him by saying that, she is going to leave him, if they don't run away at that moment, he stays. He wants help from his friends and the people he served for years but, nobody accepts to help. They were all scared from Frank Miller and his friends.

Now it is 12 o'clock; the noon train arrives to the town. Miller and his friends are coming to hunt Marshall. Our sheriff realizes that, he is all alone when the guns starts talking. Fortunately, he was mistaken. His wife Emily leaves the train at the end to help the person who she is in love with. She kills one of the bad guys even if she is against any kind of violance by heart. When the smoke is cleared bad guys were already dead on the ground.

Personally, I really liked this film. It teaches a very essential lesson from the real life. Even the closest people around us would leave us alone, at the moment we really need them.

When I asked him to reduce this summary he wrote the following:
Sheriff's and his new wife's amazing courage to start a new life by dealing with the bad guys all by themselves.
This is, of course, not a sentence, but it is an excellent place to start a discussion of what a sentence should be. Also, while it is not yet a complete sentence, this shorter summary exhibits the use of the gerundive phrase "by dealing with the bad guys," a more concise and sophisticated structure than is common in the sentences in the longer version. Using the student's own writing as the raw material the teacher can then help the student to shape it into a grammatical sentence by discussing the concepts of subject and predicate in a more meaningful context than that of abstract grammar instruction. The first version of the student's summary does consist of well-formed sentences, but comparison with the revised summary indicates that he either thinks a summary is not supposed to be in the form of a sentence, or is not able to identify an incomplete sentence when he sees one. Thus this writing task can serve as a diagnostic tool for the instructor.

A young man from Norway also wrote a long summary as his first draft:

"High Noon" is an Western-movie about a little town/village and its sheriff.

The movie is starting with that the sheriff (Gary Cooper) married a beautiful woman (Grace Kelly). They are going to have their honeymoon. But then a bad guy named Frank was coming to town with the afternoon train to have revenge with the sheriff for something the sheriff did to Frank for a long time ago.

The whole movie is playing on that Frank is coming to town and that is a surprise for the citizen. The sheriff have made the town very quiet and nice for the families and the people who lives there. But there is some people in the town who don't like that because when Frank was in town it was very bussie with a lot of people and the Hotel-owner made more money and things like that.

It was also a woman in the movie who was very important (Katy Jurado) who was a very respected and attractive woman. That woman have had an affair with the Sheriff, Frank, and in the movie with the vice sheriff. So Katy Jurado is the old flame.

The sheriff are in fact very tired and would gladly crawl off in a hole if he thought that would mean and avoidance of a showdown--but he knows it won't. He is trying to get help from the citizen but nobody will. Everybody are thinking about themself and they think that the sheriff would not make to put Frank away this time. Like Otto Kruger who packs his law books, folds up his American flag and quietly steals away.

I think the story is based on that people are thinking to much about them selfs and they would not help a man who is nearly to die. The story ends with that the sheriff is shooting all of the bad guys included Frank by him self, all of the people are coming out in the street when the sheriff threw he's sheriff-star away and leaving the town with he's wife. The citizens are fealing guilty by them-self.

This long summary shows that the student has an eye for cinematic detail and visual storytelling and that he seems to take pleasure in recounting the story. When asked to condense this summary he wrote the following:
It's a Western movie about a sheriff who want to save a little town/village from a bad guy who want to make the town lawless. All is based on an revenge and the sheriff will not get any help.
This shorter summary is interesting for several reasons, among which is the use of one relative clause subordinated to another: "a sheriff who want to save a little town/village from a bad guy who want to make the town lawless." This seems to indicate that, if the writer is under the constraint of the one-sentence writing task, subordination will be used by an L2 writer to introduce elements that probably would have been separate sentences in uncontrolled composition. In fact, this version resembles a typical blurb of the type found in TV Guide, giving us the dramatic situation in general terms without giving away the ending. To emphasize this point I read to the class the plot summary which appears in the University media library catalogue listing for the film:
A retired marshal's wedding is interrupted when he learns a killer he had sent to jail will return to town on the noon train to seek revenge. The townspeople refuse to help him, so he is forced to take up his badge and guns again, alienating his new bride, a Quaker who is opposed to violence.
This two-sentence summary was offered to the class as a kind of model of condensation of the essentials of the plot. I asked them what was missing and they recognized that the ending was not given in this summary because it was written for a reader who has not yet seen the film. This led to a discussion of audience and purpose in writing and how these factors determine what we write.

I believe these few examples indicate the value of summary writing as a multipurpose writing task. In any case, such summarizing activities seem to be a useful alternative to out-of-context drills in sentence combining or the non-communicative analysis of the structure of printed material. Whether students are able to "win the game" by producing a one-sentence summary or not, the attempt to do so has pedagogical value, especially if the instructor is willing to let the students' own writing provide the starting point for discussion both of aspects of English sentence structure and of various rhetorical issues.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1997