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Teaching Summary and Synthesis: Helping Students Understand the Difference

teaching summary and synthesis

Are your students struggling to differentiate between summary and synthesis? Get ready to dive into the differences and similarities between summary and synthesis. Learn engaging activities to help students effectively utilize both strategies, too!

Summary and synthesis are essential comprehension strategies for secondary students. They are vital skills for reading, writing, and researching. The only problem? Students often get stuck in the land of summarizing. (Or, at least mine do!)

However, as students progress through their secondary education, synthesis allows them to move from reiterating the ideas of others to joining the conversations by forming new and original perspectives of their own. Therefore, it’s vital that students understand the difference between summary and synthesis, and know when to employ which strategy. 

That’s why I’ve dedicated this post to breaking down the differences and similarities between summary and synthesis and providing activities to help students utilize both strategies effectively.

Get ready to say goodbye to the summary slump and hello to students who know how to summarize, how to synthesize, and when it’s most appropriate to use which.

From Summary to Synthesis: Understanding Student’s Struggle

Secondary students confuse summary and synthesis thanks to their similarities. After all, both require students to identify key ideas in a text and involve condensing information. However, the key distinction lies in the purpose and outcome.

While summary provides a concise overview of a single text, synthesis involves combining multiple sources to generate a new perspective or argument. This might seem like a small difference at first. Thankfully, with explicit instruction, guided practice, and engaging activities, students can better differentiate between the two and develop a deeper understanding of summary and synthesis.

Mastering Summary

At its core, a summary focuses on boiling information down into its most concise form. Summarizing requires students to capture a text or passage’s main points, central arguments, and relevant details. Students demonstrate their comprehension skills by condensing a larger piece of writing without losing its essence. 

Summary is an essential skill for secondary ELA students to master because it enhances their reading comprehension, critical thinking, and overall communication skills. Summarizing requires students to become active readers, identifying and prioritizing essential information as they work through a text. Students can showcase their understanding of the main ideas and key details by breaking down complex texts into clear and concise summaries. This helps students retain information and analyze the deeper meaning.

Overall, summary equips students with the essential skills needed to navigate a plethora of information and effectively communicate key points. And, in the age of information overload and waning attention spans, what could be a more vital real-world skill?

Strategies for Teaching Summary

To guide your students in effective summarization, consider emphasizing the following activities in your classroom:

  • Encourage active reading: Teach students to engage with the text by annotating as they read. That means highlighting key ideas, underlining essential details, and taking concise notes. Encourage them to identify the main argument or purpose of the text.
  • Identify supporting details: Help students distinguish between crucial information and minor supporting details. They should focus on retaining the most critical elements while letting go of less important information.
  • Teach the skill of paraphrasing: Encourage students to rewrite the text’s main ideas in their own words. Emphasize the importance of clarity and conciseness, as summaries should be short, sweet, and easy to understand.
  • Check for logical flow: In addition to being clear and concise, summaries should maintain a sense of logic as they unfold. Encourage students to check that their summary reflects the structure and organization of the original text.

When students can pull the main ideas from a text and express them clearly and concisely, it shows they’ve truly mastered the art of reading comprehension. However, synthesis is the skill that helps take summary to the next level by allowing students to join the conversation and share their perspectives.

Introducing Synthesis

While summary focuses on extracting the main points of a single text, synthesis takes it a step further by combining information from multiple sources to create something new. Synthesis combines information from multiple sources to develop a new perspective or argument. This skill allows students to move beyond recapping the ideas of others, learning to blend multiple texts and viewpoints, including their own, into a cohesive whole.

Once students master summary, they can learn how to use synthesis to elevate their critical thinking, analysis, and communication abilities. By synthesizing information from multiple sources, students learn to identify connections, evaluate different perspectives, and form their own informed opinions—Because we all know there is nothing worse than students on a rant without anything to back them up. Ultimately, students will walk away with a new, deeper, or changed understanding of a particular topic.

Once your students master synthesis, I’m willing to bet their essays and research papers are far more enjoyable to read. After all, synthesis promotes a deeper understanding of complex topics and encourages students to think beyond the surface level. (Hallelujah!)

Strategies for Teaching Synthesis

Consider incorporating the following strategies into your lessons as you work toward guiding your students through effective synthesis—then, eventually, they’ll be able to do it on their own!

  • Avoid limited perspectives: Have students explore a wide range of sources to gain diverse perspectives and gather relevant information pertaining to a specific topic. Sources may include articles, books, and online content.
  • Analyze and evaluate often: Guide students to critically examine each source, assessing its credibility, relevance, and underlying biases. This analytical process lays the foundation for meaningful synthesis—and is an essential component of digital literacy!
  • Encourage making connections: Prompt students to find connections and patterns among various texts they have gathered. Help them identify common themes, contrasting viewpoints, and supporting evidence.
  • Include original thought: After carefully reviewing all sources, ask students to craft a well-reasoned argument or thesis. While the argument should incorporate the information from the source texts, it should also include students’ insights and interpretations.

The Similarities and Differences

Both summary and synthesis skills require critical thinking, analysis, and the ability to communicate information concisely. However, despite students often confusing the two terms, it’s important for students to understand that summary and synthesis are not one and the same.

Although synthesis and summary share common ground, students need to understand their distinctive differences in use. Let’s break down the similarities and differences:

Summary vs. Synthesis: The Similarities

  • Comprehension: Both require a deep understanding of the source material.
  • Condensing Information: Both involve condensing information into a more concise form.
  • Focus: Both emphasize identifying and highlighting the key points or central ideas of a text.
  • Engagement: Both rely on active reading and note-taking skills.

Summary vs. Synthesis: The Differences

  • Priority: Synthesis emphasizes originality and interpretation, while summary prioritizes clarity and conciseness.
  • Analysis: Summary often focuses on condensing a text into a brief overview while synthesis requires a deeper level of analysis to compare, contrast, and make connections between multiple sources.
  • Originality: Summary aims to provide a concise overview of an existing text while synthesis involves combining information from multiple sources to generate new insights or perspectives.
  • Sources: Synthesis involves combining multiple sources to create a new perspective, while summary often involves condensing a text’s main points.
  • Outcome: Synthesis requires students to form an argument or thesis, while summary focuses on providing an overview of a text.

Understanding these similarities and differences can help students develop proficiency in both skills and become effective communicators and critical thinkers in the ELA classroom and beyond.

Engaging Activities to Teach Synthesis and Summary

1. Summary Activity: The One-Sentence Challenge

If you’re looking for a fun, quick, and effective activity to emphasize summary, this is it. Challenge students to summarize an entire chapter, article, or passage in a single sentence. You can even turn it into a friendly competition by rewarding the most concise and accurate summaries with a small prize (or bragging rights). Either way, encourage students to share their one-sentence summaries and discuss their effectiveness as a class. This activity promotes the skill of condensing information while focusing on the central message or argument of the text.

2. Synthesis Activity: The Mosaic of Ideas

Provide students with a selection of articles or essays on a specific topic. Assign each student a different article and instruct them to read it carefully. Then, ask them to create a visual representation, such as a mosaic, where they incorporate key ideas and arguments from their assigned article along with those from the other articles they have read. This activity encourages students to synthesize information and analyze connections between different sources.

3. Differentiation Activity: Have a Class Argument!

It sounds super basic—and it is. But it is also a highly effective activity that can help students work to understand the roles of both summary and synthesis. Start by choosing a controversial topic and assigning each student to a side of the argument. Next, task each student with finding one source text related to the topic at hand, supporting their team. However, instead of sharing their entire source with their team, each student must write and share a one-paragraph summary of their source. Each team will then choose the three best supportive sources, based on summaries alone. From there, students will have access to all six sources in full. Give them 15-30 minutes to synthesize the information and craft a strong argument to present to the class. Feel free to make this as much of a formal or informal debate as you’d like.

Looking for argumentative prompts to get started? Read this!

4. Differentiation Activity: Station Rotations

This station rotation activity is very similar to the argument activity above but places a heavier emphasis on writing and independent synthesis. Once you choose a controversial topic, find five to six texts to support various perspectives on the topic. Set your classroom up in five or six clusters of desks, placing a source at each “station.” Put students in groups to cycle through each station, working together to write a comprehensive summary of each source. As they work through their summaries, encourage students to think about their stance on the topic at hand. Lastly, have students work independently to craft a one-page argument, incorporating a synthesis of at least three texts from the station activity.  This activity encourages students to consider different viewpoints, analyze their merits, and form their own informed opinions.

Looking for a creative way to assess student summary and synthesis skills? Consider one of these research paper alternatives!

A Final Word on Teaching Summary and Synthesis

Are you ready to say goodbye to the summary slump?

If so, the time is now! I hope this post served as an inspiration and resource to help you empower your students to become effective summarizers and synthesizers. By teaching these skills, you are helping them do more than write better essays, make stronger arguments, and find success in your class. You are also equipping your students with essential tools for navigating the abundance of information, effectively communicating their ideas, and contributing meaningfully to conversations in the real world. 

Cheers to teaching transferable skills!

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