Sunday, 22 March 2015

I am literally summarising this

Summarising is one of the new components of the new English Language GCSE and it is something of a neglected skill in English. All too often, we are looking for layers of meaning and not the bog-standard-it-is-staring-you-in-the-face meaning. We infer this. We deduce that. We have so many phrases or words in English to describe the opposite of what is obvious. To make it sound sexy, we use the word ‘explore’ in English marking. If they are not saying the most obvious thing in their writing, then the student is some kind of Indiana Jones type, exploring the hidden depths of a text.

I think the rest of the world is a bit fed up of this constant search for different interpretations of what is hidden in the text. Speech is now littered with words like ‘literally’ and ‘basically’ to assert that nothing else should be read in what we are saying. Keep your mitts off the meaning of my words. When I say, I was ‘literally’ unimpressed, I mean, I was unimpressed and nothing else. So, don’t read anything else into what I have said. No double meanings. No hints. No implications. Nothing.  

The new GCSE paves, as does the current iGCSE, the way to this focus on summarising. Yet, there are some elements on the current GCSEs that allude to summarising. Literature GCSEs and Question 1 on the AQA language paper are particular papers where there is an indirect need for students to summarise what they have read. The only problem we have with those questions is the difference between retelling the story/text and picking out the key aspects.   

Take Question 1 on the Language GCSE paper. The question is: What do you understand about X in the article? For most students, they just write what the article is saying in their own words. However, summarising is a bit more than that. It is reducing everything to few key bits. It is reading the whole texts and deciding what in it is the wheat, and what is the chaff. It is sifting. It is refining. It is evaluating. Understanding a text from a summarising point of view is more than just a simple case of recall. Unfortunately, the question expects them to infer some stuff as well – except in this case they call it ‘engagement’.  

My problem with the current exams is the insistence of ‘plate spinning’ in answering a question. If we had simpler questions, like summarise this poem, then we would have students understanding what they need to do in an exam. Instead, we have large, incumbent questions which try to address fourteen assessment objectives in one single question. The question is testing students on fourteen skills, yet only uses a ten word question to direct students to showcase them all. You could say that it is my job to teach them about the objectives, but I’d say: isn’t it better to teach a student to do one thing really well than fourteen things badly? Questioning on papers helps or hinders success.  

Instead of writing the question like: What do you understand about X?

It could be: Summarise this text in four paragraphs using quotes and make sure you read between the lines and make some connections between different parts of the text.

So, what am I doing with this current summarising mess? Well, I am telling students that their answers should have 50% summary and 50% inference. No, I am not really. I am getting them to use words that are not in the text to summarise the text. Take poetry. I am preparing students for the conflict poetry section in the AQA anthology. The danger of writing about poetry is default setting of describing what is in the poem and not explaining what the poem is about. Therefore, I have started getting students to summarise a poem in only a few words.


'At the Border, 1979' is a sentimental, nostalgic and spiritual poem about the pain of leaving home as a result of a conflict.


To get student to this stage, I have provided them with a grid like this.



The great thing about this approach is that it steps up their writing quickly and instantly. We move instantly to summarising key aspects of a poem and start making some ‘evaluative’ comments. Look at the first line of a typical student’s work about a poem and they rarely get to those levels of opinion. Often, students plod through the basic meaning of a poem and the well-rehearsed context of it.

This approach I am going to try with Question 1, but with a difference. Instead of providing students with a list of words. I am going to get them to come up with their own words to summarise a text. Boil it down to five key words.  When you make strawberry jam, the end product looks a lot different to the punnet of strawberries that you had at the start. It isn’t the same colour, but keeps the same flavour.

Literally, thanks for reading,


P.S. Summarise this blog entry:

The writer is frustrated with the vagueness of the current exam questions and assessment.

The writer looks forward to the new GCSE structure.


  1. One of my favourite poem activities to help them understand a poem is to get them to choose from each line of the poem one word they think is significant, then write a new poem - haiku-style - with the words they chose. They're allowed to add a maximum of 10 function words such as 'and' or 'then' and they can do minor grammatical changes such as tense. They're always surprised that it's possible.

  2. Ah, summarising... we did it in the 60s and it was a very useful skill to acquire. And I do agree about the complicated questions. In Scotland, where I taught, pupils are asked to do far too much at one time, when really (for essays about literature) the examiners want them to write about the literary techniques, not just vaguely waffle about characters. But that isn't really clear from the questions.

  3. You should make you own decision. And I just give you a piece of advise. Look for awesome writer, and you'll never regret.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.