Magnet Summaries

The Magnet Summary (Buehl, 1993) is a strategy that helps students rise above the details and construct meaningful summaries in their own words. Magnet Summaries involve the identification of key terms or concepts - magnet words - from a reading, which students use to organize important information into a summary.

  1. To summarize, a reader must identify the most important ideas and omit details of lesser significance. An effective summary also includes paraphrasing--reinterpreting what was read in the reader's own words. As a prelude to summarizing, ask students to retell what they have read. To help students focus during retellings, emphasize that all important elements or ideas need to be included, and that "smaller" details can be left out. When they are done, their retelling should make sense to the listener. Students may also splice in personal commentary and reflections, so that their summaries begin to incorporate other aspects of synthesis. (Paired Reviews can be an excellent classroom vehicle to retellings.) Have partners take turns retelling what they have been reading (or watching in a video or listening to during a classroom presentation). Oral paraphrasing practice can help students become comfortable with composing written summaries.
  2. Introduce the idea of magnet words to students by inquiring what effect a magnet has on certain metals. Just as magnets attract those metals, magnet words attract information. To illustrate, ask students to read a short portion of their text assignment, looking for a key term or concept to which the details in the passage seem to connect. After students finish reading, solicit from the possible magnet words, commenting that these "attract" information in the passage. Note that magnet words frequently appear in titles, headings, or may be highlighted in bold or italic print, but caution students that not all words in bold or italic are necessarily magnet words. Write the magnet word on the chalkboard or overhead. Ask students to recall important details from the passage that are connected to the magnet word. As you write these details around the magnet word, have students follow the same procedure on an index card. Allow them a second look at the passage so they can include any important details they might have missed. Ninth-grade students studying a U.S. history section on the westward movement of settlers may decide on the magnet word Homestead Act. Key details surrounding this concept might include 160 acres, and farm for 5 years.
  3. Ask students to complete the reading of the entire passage. Distribute three or four additional index cards to each student for recording magnet words from the remaining material. In cooperative groups, have students decide on the best magnet words for the remaining cards. Have them generate the important details for each magnet word. When the groups are finished, each student will have four or five cards, each with a magnet word and key related information.
  4. Model for students how the information on one card can be organized and combined into a sentence that sums up the passage of text. The magnet word should occupy a central place in the sentence. Omit any unimportant details from the sentence. Have students return to their cooperative groups to construct sentences that summarize each of the remaining cards. Urge students to combine information into one sentence, although it may be necessary to construct two sentences for a particular card. They may decide to omit some details if they judge them to be of secondary importance. Have students write their sentences on scratch paper first. Then instruct them to put the final version of each sentence on the back of the appropriate card and underline the magnet words. For example, the card for the Homestead Act might be summarized as follows: Many people went west because of the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres to people if they farmed them for 5 years.
  5. Direct students to arrange the sentences in the order they wish their summary to read. At this point, the sentences will need to be altered to flow smoothly from one to another. Model inserting connectives and other language that integrates the sentences into a summary. At this point students should also judge whether all the important ideas have been included, and whether anything further can be detected. Students can then test their summaries by listening to how they sound when they are read aloud. The following example is a Magnet Summary for a history passage on life in the Great Plains in the 1880's:
Many people moved west because of the Homestead Act, which gave them 160 acres if they farmed this land for 5 years. But in the Great Plains, people had hardships from the very hot and very cold weather, and their crops failed due to drought and insects. Therefore, farmers needed to do dry farming, so they dug wells, made windmills, and changed the way they plowed to grow wheat. The farmers' homes on the prairie were sod houses, called soddies, because there were no trees. The people were lonely because the houses were far from one another.

Magnet Summaries for History Example

  • Students learn to prioritize what they need to remember, and develop facility in separating main ideas from supporting details.
  • Students flesh out their understandings of key vocabulary and ideas.
  • Students gain practice in reducing texts to their most essential elements, allowing them to reflect on their personal understandings of what a text means.

Buehl, D. (2009). Classroom strategies for interactive learning, 3rd Ed. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Buehl, D. (1993). Magnetized: Students are drawn to technique that identifies key words. WEAC News & Views, 29(4), 13.
Buehl, D. (1995). Classroom strategies for interactive learning. Madison: Wisconsin State Reading Association.