Free English Lessons

How to Summarise a Text – Video

by Gina Mares on 9 August, 2019 , Comments Off on How to Summarise a Text – Video

In this lesson, you can learn how to read and summarise a text.

Summarising a text is a vital skill for your English reading. If you can’t make a short, clear summary of the main ideas of a text, then you almost certainly haven’t understood it fully.

Understanding what you read in English isn’t just about the words; it’s about understanding the ideas, how they’re organised, and which ideas are more or less important.

Here, you’ll see some strategies you can use to improve your English reading, read faster, and improve your reading comprehension.

QUIZ: Understanding and Summarising a Text

Now, test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying this quiz.

The first five questions are about the ideas and strategies for understanding a text, and questions 6 to 10 review the text you studied during the lesson.

For questions 11 to 20, you will read two new texts and answer questions to check your understanding and help you write a summary.

You will get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.

Guugu Yimithirr—an unusual Australian language

Guugu Yimithirr is an indigenous Australian language, spoken in northern Queensland; the majority of speakers live in the town of Hopevale. The English word ‘kangaroo’ originates from Guugu Yimithirr, but the language is perhaps more notable for entirely lacking ‘egocentric’ directions. This means that there are no words for ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘backwards’ or ‘forwards’, and speakers of Guugu Yimithirr give directions exclusively using points of the compass. For example, you might hear “Your pen is on the table, just north of the fruit bowl.” While this sounds strange in English, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker would see nothing odd about it. Linguists and anthropologists investigating this unusual trait discovered that Guugu Yimithirr speakers use subtle environmental cues to orient themselves to the points of the compass; specifically, they use the position of the sun, the position of landmarks, or the way that plants grow. In this way, they are always aware of where north, south, east and west are, although they can temporarily lose this ability if they move a large distance, for example if they fly to another region. A group of Guugu Yimithirr speakers who were flown to Brisbane—a journey of around 2000km—were unable to identify compass directions for around one week after their journey; thereafter, they became oriented and were able to communicate direction and position as they usually would.

‘Sprites’ and high-altitude lightning

When most people hear the word ‘lightning’, they will think of an electrical discharge between a thundercloud and the ground. However, since 1989, scientists have discovered that thunderstorms will typically generate a range of electrical phenomena, including discharges which reach almost 100km in altitude—close to the edge of space. The most common of these are known as ‘sprites’, named after the air spirits of European mythology. Sprites last a few milliseconds, and they appear as huge, dark red flashes, which are often shaped like a jellyfish. Although sprites are believed to occur millions of times per year, they were not discovered until 1989, and have rarely been photographed since then. How can this be? One reason is that sprites are generally only observable from very high altitudes or from space. Sprites can rarely be observed from the ground, but only under extremely specific conditions. Another reason is that sprites do not appear as predictably as ‘regular’ lightning, and a high-speed camera is required to have any chance of capturing an image of one.

In this lesson, we’ll work with a sample text. You can see it higher up on this page. We recommend reading it before you continue watching. Now, let’s look at the most important reading strategy you need to use.

1. Finding the Main Idea

How to Summarise a Text - magnifying glass

To understand and summarise a text, you need to find the main idea. Every coherent text has one central idea, which connects the different parts of the text. You need to know what this is. But, every text is different, and there isn’t one way to find the main idea. Instead, you need to look at the whole thing.

Here are some things you should look at: One: is there a title or headings? These will often highlight the most important points. Two: what is the first sentence about? Often, the first sentence of a text or paragraph will summarise the main ideas. Three: what does most of the text talk about? Look at each sentence and paragraph. Is there a single topic which connects them? Look at our sample text and think about these questions. Pause the video if you need more reading time.

So, what do you think the main idea of our sample text is? We’ll show you three possible summaries. Which do you think is best?

  1. This text is about Guugu Yimithirr, and gives some information about the history of the language and how it has changed over time.
  2. The text is about indigenous Australian languages which are spoken in northern Australia, and which are often different from European languages in interesting ways.
  3. The text is about Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian language which is unusual because it does not have words for ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘forwards’ or ‘backwards’.

What do you think? The best is number three. Let’s see why. First, you should look at the title. The title tells you that the text will be about Guugu Yimithirr, but it also mentions that this language is ‘unusual’. You should immediately focus on this word, because it shows that this language is different in some way. Also, ‘unusual’ could mean many things. What does it mean here? Unusual how? Second, what’s the first sentence about? Here, it gives background information. It doesn’t help you to find the main idea. That’s OK—in this case, the background information is helpful, because most people don’t know what Guugu Yimithirr is. Third, what does most of the text talk about? Apart from the first sentence, every sentence is about the same topic: the fact that Guugu Yimithirr uses compass directions—north, south, east, west—for all directions, because there are no words for ‘left’, ‘right’, and so on. This answers the question you found in the title: why is this language unusual? Now you have a reason. However, analysing the text in this way is complex, and there are other sub-skills you might need.

Let’s look at an important example.

2. Separating General Ideas from Details

To summarise a text, you need to find which ideas are general, and which are details or examples. The general ideas will give you the overall meaning. If you confuse general ideas and details, you might misunderstand the overall meaning what you’re reading. Unfortunately, there are no clear markers which show you what’s general or not. A single sentence might mix general ideas and details together. You need to use context and other clues to work out which ideas are general and which are details. Look at five extracts from our sample text.

  1. Guugu Yimithirr is an indigenous Australian language, spoken in northern Queensland.
  2. The majority of speakers live in the town of Hopevale.
  3. The language is perhaps more notable for entirely lacking ‘egocentric’ directions.
  4. There are no words for ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘backwards’ or ‘forwards’.
  5. For example, you might hear “Your pen is on the table, just north of the fruit bowl.

What do you think? Are these general ideas, or details? Which do you need to understand in order to find the overall meaning? Sentences one, three and four are general. Two and five are details. One is general because it introduces the topic by giving background information. This is like a topic sentence, which tells you what the rest of the text will be about. Two is a detail. It’s more background information; you don’t need it to understand the overall meaning. Three is a general, important idea. This sentence highlights the unusual feature of the Guugu Yimithirr language. The rest of the text expands on the idea introduced in this sentence. We said that four is general; however, it’s kind of in the middle. It explains the exact meaning of ‘lacking egocentric directions’ which is referred to in sentence three. Technically, this sentence isn’t necessary to understand the main idea. On the other hand, most people—including educated native English speakers—wouldn’t know what ‘egocentric directions’ are. This sentence explains it, and so it *is* important for understanding the whole text. Five is a detail. It adds an example of how Guugu Yimithirr speakers talk about position and direction, but it isn’t necessary to understand the main idea. So, what do you need to focus on here? First, it’s a good idea to skim a text first, reading fast and trying to understand the overall idea in a simple way. In order to separate general ideas from details, you need some context. Until you’ve read the whole thing, you won’t have this. Second, look for linking phrases like ‘for example’, ‘for instance’, ‘specifically’ or ‘in particular.’ Linking phrases like these show you that what follows is an explanation of a more general idea that was mentioned before. Third, remember that one sentence can contain both general ideas and details mixed together. For example, this sentence contains both a detail—about the word ‘kangaroo’—and a general point.

  • The English word ‘kangaroo’ originates from Guugu Yimithirr, but the language is perhaps more notable for entirely lacking ‘egocentric’ directions.

Now, why not do some more practice? Look at the rest of our sample text. Which ideas are general? Which ideas are details? Pause the video and try it now, if you want. Did you do it? Here’s a shorter version, with all examples and details removed.

  • Guugu Yimithirr is an indigenous Australian language, spoken in northern Queensland. The language is perhaps more notable for entirely lacking ‘egocentric’ directions. This means that there are no words for ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘backwards’ or ‘forwards’, and speakers of Guugu Yimithirr give directions exclusively using points of the compass. Guugu Yimithirr speakers use subtle environmental cues to orient themselves to the points of the compass. They can temporarily lose this ability if they move a large distance.

If you can do this, you’ll be able to read much faster. Why? Because you only need to focus on the general ideas to understand the overall meaning. Here, you only need to understand 76 words, instead of 230. This saves you time, which could be helpful if you are under time pressure, like in an IELTS reading exam. There’s another related, skill which can help you to understand and summarise a text in English. Let’s look!

3. Identifying Key Words

How to Summarise a Text - highlighted bookIf you’re a non-native speaker reading in English, you’ll probably have this problem often: there are words which you don’t understand. Maybe there are several words which you don’t know. Don’t panic! This makes things more difficult, but there are strategies you can use.

First, look for proper nouns, which start with a capital letter. Sometimes, we see that students think they don’t understand a word, but they don’t realise that the ‘word’ is actually a proper noun, like a person’s name, or a place name. Can you find three examples of proper nouns in our text? Pause the video if you want time to think about it. You could say ‘Guugu Yimithirr’, ‘Queensland’, ‘Hopevale’, ‘English’ or ‘Brisbane’. Generally, if a proper noun is important or not widely-understood, it will be explained. For example, ‘Guugu Yimithirr’ is obviously important, and it’s explained in the first sentence. If a proper noun isn’t explained, you can usually ignore it, or try to work out the meaning from the context. For example, look at the first sentence.

  • Guugu Yimithirr is an indigenous Australian language, spoken in northern Queensland; the majority of speakers live in the town of Hopevale.

Even if you’ve never heard of Queensland or Hopevale, you can work out that they’re place names. Next, look for words that tell you that an idea is important. You could look for words like ‘important’, ‘notable’, ‘significant’ or ‘essential’. For example, you saw this sentence.

  • The English word ‘kangaroo’ originates from Guugu Yimithirr, but the language is perhaps more notable for entirely lacking ‘egocentric’ directions.

The word ‘notable’ highlights something important about the language. This means you should focus on this sentence. If you’re under time pressure, you should spend extra time on this sentence. Also, look for words which were also used in the title, or possibly which appeared in the first sentence or paragraph. Remember that writers might use paraphrase, so you might not find the exact same words. There was a key word from the title used in the text. Do you know where? Pause the video if you want time to find it! The word ‘unusual’ appears in this sentence.

  • Linguists and anthropologists investigating this unusual trait discovered that Guugu Yimithirr speakers use subtle environmental cues to orient themselves to the points of the compass; specifically, they use the position of the sun, the position of landmarks, or the way that plants grow.

You heard before that ‘unusual’ is a key word in the title. So, when you see it, you should pay extra attention to this sentence. In fact, this sentence gives you one of the key general ideas. Depending on your situation, you might have different options to deal with unknown words. If you have unlimited time, unlimited patience and access to a dictionary, then you can check the meaning of every word. However, this strategy is not possible in most cases. No one really has unlimited time or unlimited patience. Plus, there are often restrictions; if you’re taking an exam, you’ll have a time limit and you probably won’t be able to use a dictionary. This is why it’s important to focus on the general ideas, and then find key words within them. If there are 50 words you don’t know, that’s difficult to deal with. However, if you can focus on a smaller number of more important sentences, there will be fewer unknown words.

At this point, you should know how to read and summarise a text in English. We have a challenge for you! At the top of this page, you’ll find a second text to practise with. If you’re watching on YouTube, you can find a link in the video description. Can you write a summary of the second text? Your summary should be maximum two sentences, or ideally just one. Use the reading techniques you saw in this lesson. Post your suggestion in the comments, and read other people’s ideas.

Thanks for watching!

Gina MaresHow to Summarise a Text – Video