One of the things I’ve noticed recently is that when they first start working with me, a lot of my students aren’t quite clear on the difference between describing the content of a passage and summarizing the argument it contains. Since the ability to summarize arguments quickly, lucidly, and effectively is perhaps the the skill that is most crucial for success on the Critical Reading portion of the SAT, this is a serious problem. Regardless, once a student has finished reading their first passage, the initial conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: So now I want you to sum up the author’s argument in your own words. What’s the basic point that he or she is trying to make here?

Student: Well, the author talks about x… and then he sort of mentions y…oh yeah, and then there was this thing that he said about z that I didn’t really get.

At which point I explain that I’m not interested in hearing a play-by-play recount of what the author says, but rather a condensed version of the main argument he or she is making. I’ve now gotten so many puzzled looks at that statement that I think I’m just going to nix the question completely and start by explaining the difference.

Most of my students pick it up pretty quickly after I give them some examples and walk them through the steps a couple of times; however, the fact that I seem to be having this conversation repeatedly suggests a couple of thing to me. First, it suggests that schools (at least the ones my students come from) do not ever explicitly teach students the difference between summarizing and arguing. It also suggests that even if the distinction has been covered at some point, they’ve never been asked to apply it in any meaningful way.

Incidentally, this weakness is not limited to high school students; I’ve also encountered it with GRE and GMAT students. Perhaps it’s one of those skills that teachers assume students will pick up along the way. Or perhaps that’s the sort of test prepp-y trick they pride themselves on avoiding (which is shame because it’s really not about test prep). More likely, though, it simply doesn’t ever occur to them that it needs to be taught. After all, they understand the difference. (To any teachers who may be reading this, please don’t take offense; I’m just describing what I experience.) Unfortunately, however, there is a very important distinction between giving a description of content and giving a summary of an argument, and on the SAT, not knowing the difference can cost you literally hundreds of points.

Describing Content = recounting the information presented in the text without necessarily distinguishing between main points and supporting evidence and/or counter-arguments. The goal is simply to relate what is being said, often in a very concrete “first x, then y, and finally z” form.

Summarizing an Argument = identifying the essential point that the author wants to convey and eliminating any superfluous detail. The goal is not to cover all of the information presented or to relate it in the sequence it appears in the passage, but rather to pinpoint the overarching idea that determines the content (supporting details, potential counter-arguments, etc.) of the passage. Summarizing an argument requires you to make a leap from concrete to abstract because you must move beyond simply recounting the information presented to recognizing which parts of it are of primary vs. secondary importance. Let’s look at an example. I’m going to use the passage from yesterday’s post about transitions — the version with the transitions, of course! My apologies for making you read it again, but hey, no one ever said that SAT passages were chosen for their entertainment value. Besides, there are many, many ways to read any given piece of text. But that’s something I’m not going to get into now. Passage

The Panama Canal illustrates the principle that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand. People begin many enterprises because they don’t realize how difficult they actually are, yet respond with ingenuity that lets them overcome the unexpected, as the Apollo program’s engineers and astronauts were later to do. The testimony in [the documentary] Panama Canal also shows the power of the heroic image of technology in the early twentieth century. It was felt even by the exploited laborers, who still shared the nineteenth century’s stoic approach to industrial risk. Three percent of white American workers and nearly 14 percent of West Indians died. Despite improvements in sanitation, it was “a harsh nightmare,” the grandson of one of those workers declares, but he also recalls the pride of his grandfather in participating in one of the world’s great wonders. In fact, many returnees were inspired by their achievement to join movements for greater economic and political equality in the 1920s and 1930s, the roots of the decolonization movement.

Content Description (more or less what I hear when I ask someone to summarize): So, um, the author talks about this guy Albert O. Hirschman’s “hiding hand” idea, which I think, like, basically says that people don’t know how difficult things are when they start but then they find out and overcome them. And then he talks about this documentary called Panama Canal, which showed like about how technology was important in the early 20th century, and how workers were exploited and how awful conditions were for them while they were working. He mentions a guy whose grandfather worked on the Panama Canal, and he says that his grandfather said that it was really bad and stuff… Oh yeah, and then there was something about, uh, decolonization I think, but I don’t know if I really got that.

Notice the how vague this version is. It doesn’t really distinguish between primary and secondary information; everything gets mushed in together. If this were an SAT passage, the summary would give us zero help in terms of figuring out the main point.

Argument Summary (as I would put it): Workers faced immense obstacles and terrible conditions while working on the Panama Canal but persevered and were inspired to begin decolonization process.

Notice how this version doesn’t try to pack in a lot of information — it just hits the big theme.

Argument Summary in condensed SAT terms: PC workers survived awful conditions — > decolonization

Now notice how this version cuts out absolutely everything except the absolute total utter bare essentials. It doesn’t even attempt to incorporate any sort of detail or anything beyond the main focus of the passage and (awful conditions during the building of the Panama Canal) and its result (the “so what?”, the part that tells us why the main focus of the passage is important). If we were to treat this as a short SAT passage, that effect (it set off the decolonization process) would be our focus. It is mentioned in the last sentence, and the last sentence is where the main point usually is. So in six words and an arrow, we’ve managed to capture the essential information — information that we will almost certainly need to answer at least one of the questions.