Summarising & note-taking
One of the most important aspects of reading for academic study is
reading so you can make use of the ideas of other people. This is important as
you need to show that you have understood the materials you have read and that
you can use their ideas and findings in your own way. In fact, this is an
essential skill for every student. Spack (1988, p. 42) has pointed out that the
most important skill a student can engage in is "the complex activity to write
from other texts", which is "a major part of their academic experience." It is
very important when you do this to make sure you use your own words, unless you
are quoting. You must make it clear when the words or ideas that you are using
are your own and when they are taken from another writer. You must not use
another person's words or ideas as if they were your own: this is
plagiarism is regarded as a very serious offence.
A summary is a shortened version of a text. It contains the main points
in the text and is written in your own words. It is a mixture of reducing a
long text to a short text and selecting relevant information. A good summary
shows that you have understood the text.
Look at this example:
The amphibia, which is the animal class to which
our frogs and toads belong, were the first animals to crawl from the sea and
inhabit the earth.
The first animals to leave the sea and live on
dry land were the amphibia.
The phrase "which is the animal class to which our frogs and toads
belong" is an example, not a main point, and can be deleted. The rest of the
text is rewritten in your own words.
Try this exercise:
The following stages may be useful:
- Read and understand the text carefully.
- Think about the purpose of the text.
- Ask what the author's purpose is in writing the text?
- What is your purpose in writing your summary?
- Are you summarising to support your points?
- Or are you summarising so you can criticise the work before you
introduce your main points?
- Select the relevant information. This depends on your purpose.
- Find the main ideas - what is important.
- They may be found in topic sentences.
- Distinguish between main and subsidiary information.
- Delete most details and examples, unimportant information,
anecdotes, examples, illustrations, data etc.
- Find alternative words/synonyms for these words/phrases - do not
change specialised vocabulary and common words.
- Change the structure of the text.
- Identify the meaning relationships between the words/ideas - e.g.
cause/effect, generalisation, contrast. Look at
Signalling for more information. Express these relationships in a different
- Change the grammar of the text: rearrange words and
sentences, change nouns to verbs, adjectives to adverbs, etc., break up long
sentences, combine short sentences.
- Simplify the text. Reduce complex sentences to simple sentences,
simple sentences to phrases, phrases to single words.
- Rewrite the main ideas in complete sentences. Combine your notes into
a piece of continuous writing. Use conjunctions and adverbs such as
'therefore', 'however', 'although', 'since', to show the connections between
- Check your work.
- Make sure your purpose is clear.
- Make sure the meaning is the same.
- Make sure the style is your own.
4b/c. Distinguish between main and subsidiary information. Delete most
details and examples, unimportant information, anecdotes, examples,
illustrations, data etc. Simplify the text. Reduce complex sentences to simple
sentences, simple sentences to phrases, phrases to single words.
- People whose professional activity lies in the field
of politics are not, on the whole, conspicuous for their respect for factual
Politicians often lie.
- Failure to assimilate an adequate quantity of solid
food over an extended period of time is absolutely certain to lead, in due
course, to a fatal conclusion.
If you do not eat, you die.
- The climatic conditions prevailing in the British
Isles show a pattern of alternating and unpredictable periods of dry and wet
weather, accompanied by a similarly irregular cycle of temperature
British weather is changeable.
- It is undeniable that the large majority of
non-native learners of English experience a number of problems in attempting to
master the phonetic patterns of the language.
Many learners find English
- Tea, whether of the China or Indian variety, is well
known to be high on the list of those beverages which are most frequently drunk
by the inhabitants of the British Isles.
The British drink a large amount of
- It is not uncommon to encounter sentences which,
though they contain a great number of words and are constructed in a highly
complex way, none the less turn out on inspection to convey very little meaning
of any kind.
Some long and complicated sentences mean very little.
- One of the most noticeable phenomena in any big city,
such as London or Paris, is the steadily increasing number of petrol-driven
vehicles, some in private ownership, others belonging to the public transport
system, which congest the roads and render rapid movement more difficult year
Big cities have growing traffic problems.
Example 1: Volcanic Islands
Example and exercise:
A synthesis is a combination, usually a shortened version, of several
texts made into one. It contains the important points in the text and is
written in your own words.
To make a synthesis you need to find suitable sources, and then to
select the relevant parts in those sources. You will then use your paraphrase
and summary skills to write the information in your own words. The information
from all the sources has to fit together into one continuous text.
The following stages may be useful:
- Find texts that are suitable for your assignment.
- Read and understand the texts.
- Find the relevant ideas in the texts. Mark them in some way - write
them down, underline them or highlight them.
- Make sure you identify the meaning relationships between the
- Read what you have marked very carefully.
- Organise the information you have. You could give all similar ideas
in different texts the same number or letter or colour.
- Transfer all the information on to one piece of paper. Write down all
similar information together.
and summarise as necessary.
- Check your notes with your original texts for accuracy and
- Combine your notes into one continuous text.
Example 1: Protecting