Monday, August 30, 2010


In this part of the world, long stories are not cut short; they remain long. What is more, short stories are suitably drawn out; this is what is drummed into students starting form a very early age. Being longwinded is cultivated as an art form in class and during regular exams throughout the year; all official exams, however, involve ticking boxes. Anything in between is studiously avoided. What is more, there is an additional golden rule: parroting is in and individual answers or comments are out. If, for example, you were to ask a secondary school student to recount the effects of a particular event in history, you would get everything the student has heard about this event ; what is more it would come gushing forth at a 100 miles an hour – vociferous being the key word here. You would be completely incapable of stemming the flow – best compared to floods in China during the typhoon season – until it had run its course. If, on the other hand, this student’s German peer were to do the same for some insane reason, he would have to kiss goodbye to the gymnasium. On reading tests in this country, the students are required to use their own words when answering a question; they get no points for parroting the text. One guess as to which student would be better able to put together a decent summary!
The dreaded summary:

Summary writing is perhaps the most challenging reading and writing activity a student can be asked to do; the reason being the complex critical thinking skills that come into play. When Descartes, after much deep thought, reached the conclusion that he thought and therefore he was, I am pretty sure he didn’t include the zombies the system churns out in this part of the world – or in others which have a similar education system. It is tragic that the individuals who compose the student body in systems such as ours are more akin to human tape recorders, yet we have to work with them; a fact we need to remember. We cannot, as has been done in the past and continues to be done today, treat them like their German peers, for instance, and assume that what works with the latter will work with the former. Here, then, is our dilemma: how do we teach a student body such as this to successfully master a reading and writing activity that presents such a mental challenge? Teach we must as they have never been taught to do such a piece of writing, and at university, people expect them to suddenly undergo a transformation and develop critical thinking skills. This is ironic in itself as one would assume that such being the case, some sort of restructuring would have taken place in primary and secondary education; however, I digress. The fact remains that our team has to learn to think fast so how do we go about it?

Common sense would dictate that what we don’t do is require them to think too much, for the simple reason that they can’t. This is such basic commonsense that I have always failed to be able fathom why the practice of giving the students a text, and what to them must be a completely incomprehensible set of instructions, we command them to write a summary. Ideally, it would be good if they were to set off along the path of critical thinking while at the same time learning to summarize; two birds with one stone so to speak. I found the first reference to such a method of summary writing on the web page of The Dubai Men’s College of all places: the Cornell method. The more I read, the better I liked it and the more satisfied I became as to the merits of this method of summary teaching.

The Cornell method and how it works

The Cornell method revolves around a universal habit of good readers; something we all do as we read not only scholarly works but also novels and poetry: making little notes in the margin. These notes organize the reader’s thoughts; reduce the main points to a nice succinct bite sized chunk and serve as a brilliant reminder when the text is next referred to. All the student is required to do is this; the only difference being that he puts pen to paper. The first thing to do is select an appropriate text, which is easier said than done. There are three golden rules that need to be followed at this juncture and they are as follows:

1. The text must be suited to the students’ level lexically.

2. The first couple of texts that are used must not require reorganization when summarized

3. The degree of reorganization needed must increase gradually as this part of summary writing will constitute by far the greatest hurdle.

When the appropriate text is found, it is a good idea to requisition a laptop to demonstrate note making skills. The students should be asked to fold their pieces of paper in half lengthwise; i.e., the paper should only enable the writing of words and phrases but never sentences. Then the teacher needs to demonstrate to the students by putting down a short title and one word or a few words as notes. At this initial stage, it is not a good idea to leave anything out; one needs to remember that the students’ little grey cells have been dormant for a long time. When notes have been compiled on the whole text in this way, students will end up with a piece of writing that is long and narrow; there will be no sentences at all. The next thing to do is direct the students’ attention to the laptop and determine the main focus of the article and the details. As details are pinpointed, they should be deleted leaving students with notes on the main points of the text. The next thing to do is to ask the students to put away their texts and just use their notes to put together a summary joining ideas together in terms of causes and effects, or facts and explanations as much as possible. They should be encouraged to avoid short little simple sentences and focus on saying as much as possible with as few words as possible. The beauty of this system is that with most students, who are after all by no means the idiots they may appear to be to the uninitiated, the penny drops the first time round. The teacher will need to work through a few such texts with the students, gradually introducing small amounts of reorganization of the notes. I can safely guarantee that after two or three such exercises at the most, the problem will be solved. What is more, the dreaded problems of copy pasting, parroting or plagiarism will also be dealt with. After all, the chances of the students coming up with the same sentences the writer used are one in a million.

Props to accompany the Cornell method

The summary writing activity described above can be helped along by the use of various tactics discussed in the paper on the teaching of reading. Students should get into the habit of providing one sentence summaries of paragraphs or assigning subtitles to paragraphs thus perfecting their summarizing skills. It is also a good idea to start quite early on by doing what I like to call sentence squeezing exercises which involve providing a brief and to the point summary of a couple of sentences. Also, it is a good idea to ask students to make notes in the margins of texts as they read silently. This will also catch on pretty quickly as they realize how much better they understand reading passages when they work like this. No activity that the teacher does should remain ensconced in one area of class work; there should be lots of overlap whenever possible. This will provide the much needed consolidation.

What now?

The summary writing skills thus learnt provide the basis for reaction writing and later for papers and projects thus enabling students to see how learning in one area flows into another continuously becoming more complex and developing in the process. The time the teacher invests in teaching the Cornell method will lay the groundwork for seriously sophisticated reading and writing activities which will be dealt with in another paper. In short, the students will acquire those critical thinking skills they were so carefully denied.

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