Pat Klos | June 2013

The Art of Summarizing

More and more I am noticing how well Arts Integration strategies support Common Core: they actually fit like a glove! A case in point: the art of summarizing. I’ve been doing a lot of work this year with elementary teachers using art to inspire all types writing and have found that we can introduce and practice the summarizing skill very effectively in this process.

Summarizing is a skill that students will need to be able to do in every grade.  It is a very important component in Common Core.  Summarizing is embedded in the standards from grades 3 through 12 in ELA Reading (both literature and information texts) as well as in Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and the Technical Subjects anchor standards.   In early grades, students must be able to identify and/or recount the main idea and provide details.  In later grades students must be able to summarize objectively.

Summarizing, in Bloom’s taxonomy, is found fairly low in the taxonomy- it is located in the cross between understanding and factual knowledge.  But, lots of elementary and many middle school kids have difficulty with summarizing correctly.  Across the grades when I ask the elementary teachers where kids are struggling—identifying main idea and determining pertinent details (a skill embedded in summarizing) — is a recurring answer. Figuring out which details support a main idea is skill that requires kids to think abstractly.  This type of thinking needs to be taught!

Usually, I start with a piece of art and an Artful Thinking routine to draw the students’ attention to the details of a ‘story’ because they are visually evident in the art.  Artful Thinking is a set of strategies that teach and practice critical thinking by engaging students in looking at visual art or listening to music.  (See my last week’s entry “Jumpstart Your Lessons with Artful Thinking” for more details.) The routine I would use to teach main idea and detail is What Makes You Say That? 

In this easy and short strategy, the teacher presents a work of art to the class (a painting, sculpture, photograph, text illustration, artifact etc. that has an obvious story in it works best). Then s/he asks students to look carefully at it in order to decide what they think might be happening or going on: the story in the picture. Once this is determined, the students are further requested to identify evidence (things) that they see in the painting that supports the statement about what is happening:  main idea and details!

This activity can be done orally with the whole class or by asking students to individually, or in pairs, complete an organizer and then share.  I might even challenge the class to come up with several possible ideas as to what is going on in the painting and then assign students to create a list of things they see that supports a particular idea.  When students answer What Makes You Say That? they are practicing the art of summarizing and providing pertinent details they see in the art.

The research, and my own experience, shows that with repetition, there will be transference of this skill to reading.  You will find that the students will begin to ask What Makes you Say That? when reading or when answering other classroom questions.  When answering this question, they are also practicing the skill of providing evidence—another Common Core connection.

Looking at and talking about a piece of art is really a wonderful activity for inspiring ideas for writing. I use Artful Thinking strategies to introduce many types of kinds writing activities.  In this case, starting with a routine such as What Makes You Say That? forces kids to look closely and carefully, and to see more details.  I often ask students to write a narrative summary of what they have seen and discussed in the artwork or artifact. Sometimes I choose to have them write poetry to summarize the main ideas in the painting.

Writing responses in poetry formats such as haiku, lune, cinquain, limerick, acrostic, renga or diamante are wonderful ways to prompt students to summarize- they are simple, short, and require kids be concise and thoughtful about word choices—not to mention creative. If you haven’t already tried any of these, check out the Poetry Soup website for help in finding a poetry format for your lesson: Here’s my cinquain!


Concisely pertinent

Looking, thinking, finding

Target the main idea and provide


Photo courtesy of

About the Author

Pat is an arts integration specialist in Anne Arundel County, MD. Having been a mentor teacher and instructional coach, she passionately believes that integrating the arts is the best approach to teaching: it enriches the classroom environment with art, engages students and motivates learning. Her mission is help all teachers realize that they can teach through the arts with a little know-how. Pat appears every Monday. Email Pat.