Summary task woes
Unfound ideas from the texts
Lacking clarity
What is a Haiku?
Distillation of ideas
Concisely worded 
This could go quite wrong
Haiku for summary tasks?
Might be worth a try 

Learners at CPE (Proficiency) level frequently have issues with the comprehension and summary task on the Use of English paper (click here for Cambridge ESOL’s candidate guide).

Answering the comprehension questions can be difficult enough, but the summary task is enough to turn teachers and students into gibbering wrecks, sobbing in the corner of the classroom and wailing at their own percieved inadequacy.  The truth is that they aren’t inadequate in any way – they just need some training!  Using Haiku is an approach I’ve used to try and help learners access the core ideas of the texts in a simple and succinct way.

In my view, Haiku are in essence the distilled ideas of a wider topic.  Consider the differences between the wikipedia description of a frog and some of these translations of Matsuo Basho’s famous frog haiku.  Wikipedia rightly gives us all the facts and information that we might need to know about a frog – Matsuo Basho helps us understand the intrinsic “frogness” of the creature.  In some respects, this distinction is what learners are being asked to do with the CPE Summary task – identify the main points in the texts and elegantly paraphrase them into a brief “distilled” summary.  By training learners to approach larger texts with a Haiku in mind, we can help them to identify the main points of a text and to express them succinctly.

So how to go about this?

The first stage is accessing the texts.  I give the class a sample summary text, either from their coursebook or from a test book, and ask them to underline the key points.  This is an important independent stage, so it’s worth following up with some form of feedback – initially I ask learners to compare their ideas with each other, before comparing with teacher feedback.    Then I give the learners the summary question and ask them to identify which of the ideas they underlined relate to it.  Typically there might be three or four content points from both texts that the learners should be identifying.

At this stage, I usually present learners with some examples of Haiku and ask them for some reaction.  Then we look at the three line structure and the five / seven / five syllable pattern.  There’s some good information and worksheets on Haiku at KidZone if you want a bit more background.

Having looked at the structure – then we try our hand at haiku writing – initially with some simple “what am I?” haiku, just to practice the patterns.  For example, from the KidZone page:

In a pouch I grow,
On a southern continent —
Strange creatures I know.

Feedback on this stage can be the learners displaying their efforts on the walls and the other learners guessing what is being described. This also gives me a chance to check if there are any issues with form.

Having had some fun, we return to the ideas from the summary texts and in pairs, the learners try to represent those ideas in Haiku form.  Feedback on this stage is peer evaluation based, the learners decide (and debate) which of their efforts is most effective and why.

The last stage is converting the three or four Haiku they’ve written into a summary task answer.  In order to fit the idea into a Haiku form they will have already used synonyms and paraphrase, so often it’s just a case of “grammaring” the Haiku lines – extending them back out into full, formal sentences – and linking them together.  If work on linking expressions is needed, then I do this reactively.

Voilà – we have a summary.

It’s not necessarily a process that I would recommend learners follow in an exam situation – time constraints being what they are – but it is a useful and different way of looking at the summary task and might help learners develop their abilities to condense ideas and express them efficiently.

Very interested to hear any feedback on this one – so if you try it, let me know!