Guiding Questions
  1. Why is summarizing an important skill?
  2. What structures help ELs summarize narratives?
This Article’s Goal

The goal is to share a practice that develops ELs’ ability to summarize an extended text.  

Research Suggests

Dr. Marzano identified nine essential skills that improve student achievement across content (2000).  The ability to summarize accurately is one of those nine.

Summarizing is briefly describing the main idea of an event or a text that is either visual, oral, or written.  It requires the ability to understand many details, identifying the most significant information, and connecting the ideas in a cohesive manner.  Summarizing a narrative involves describing the major events in the plot while summarizing a concept requires identifying and linking the various topics.

Summarizing helps ELs develop their thinking skills because they are making connections between details. It also develops the ability to evaluate details because only the most significant ones are included in the summary.

Summarizing is also a required skill of academic achievement because it helps ELs construct comprehension.  Since this mental move is highly complex, the responsibility to explicitly teach it belongs to educators.  Research suggests that when teachers help students understand academic vocabulary such as “summarizing,” their achievement increases (Freeman & Freeman, 2008; Zwiers, 2008; Frances, et. al., 2006).

Past Practices

After “reading” a text, I would ask students what was its main idea.  The responses I got ranged from lacking the essential information to answers that contained insignificant details.  At other times, I would get back “What is ‘a main idea’?” This was because the prompt (“What is the main idea of this text?”) provided no support or guidance to developing readers.

Current Practices

I realized that I had to explicitly teach the skill of summarizing.  I luckily invested time in reading Kylene Beer’s When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 (affiliate link). This is a practical resource with ready-to-use strategies to help adolescent learners develop their reading skills.  I found this book at the end of my first year of teaching, but I wished it was mandatory reading during my pre-service training. Even though I found it years ago, the ideas and concepts continue to support my work with adolescent readers today.  

I used this book somewhat like a “turn-read-go” approach.  I turned to the chapter on the skill I needed students to cultivate, read the key points, and then applied it the next day.  For example, Chapters 10-12 provided strategies on word recognition and fluency while Chapters 4-9 are dedicated to teaching reading comprehension. Reading Kylene’s book was like having the Yoda of adolescent literacy teach beside me.


Chapter 8 is devoted to post-reading strategies.  One easy-to-implement strategy that helped ELs summarize texts is called “Someone Wanted to But So” (MacOn, Bewell & Vogt, 1991).  Kylene found that this structure captured the main idea of any story.  “Someone” refers to the main character in the story.  “Wanted to” and the “but” capture the central problem the main character is facing.  Finally, the “So” represents the solution.  

An Example

I will use the fable of “The Three Little Pigs” to demonstrate this strategy.  Below is how I used SWBS to summarize the story:

Someone: The three little pigs

Wanted to: run away from the wolf

But: the houses made of straw and sticks were not strong enough,

So: they ran and took shelter with the third pig, who had a brick house.  

An extended version of SWBS

When a story is rather complex and has many events or details, Kylene adds two more elements to this structure. She includes “Then” and “Finally” to SWBS. These two elements are explained below and continue on with the “Three Little Pigs” example:

Then: the wolf tried without success to blow the brick house down

Finally: the wolf gave up and the pigs were safe.

This example demonstrates how a story with many details and events can be summarized.  Using this structure helps students develop comprehension of both nonfiction and fictional texts.  In my class, I use it to help students summarize and comprehend nonfiction texts.  When we move to literary texts, students then apply this strategy to assist their comprehension of a narrative.

More Resources

If you would like a sneak peak at the concepts and ideas in Kylene’s When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do (affiliate link), then you can download this PDF that extracts the core strategies and ideas in each chapter.  This PDF is provided by Jenn David-Lang’s The Main Idea website, which produces incredibly detailed summaries of each chapter from current education books.  Emily Mitchell’s blog also covers the strategies in Kylene’s book in depth.  

If you want more SWBS resources, the West Virginia Department of Education has collated PDFs, examples, and videos on how to use SWBS.  If you like a graphic organizer of SWBS, the Utah Education Network has created such a resource.

SWBS is one approach students can use when responding to the text.  There are numerous others.  If you want to give students a choice in how they respond to texts, consider reading Tara Smith’s article published on Two Writing Teachers.


1.ELs can learn to summarize texts.

2.Summarizing is an important academic skill.

3.Teachers can provide a visual scaffold to teach demanding academic skills such as summarizing.

Next Blog Post

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.  I hope the SWBS structure will help your students master summarizing different text types.   Please share your comments and questions below.

The next blog will describe my process of helping students summarize on-grade level nonfiction texts.  The SWBS structure can work for nonfiction texts as well but works better with narratives.  The next structure I will share can more appropriately capture abstract concepts and themes specifically in nonfiction texts.

A4 When ELLs Can't Summarize


Beers, K. (2003). When kids can’t read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E. (2008). Academic language for English Language Learners and struggling readers: How to help students succeed across content areas. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Francis, D. J., Lesaux, N., Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions. Houston, TX: Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics at the University of Houston for the Center on Instruction.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5–12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.