Hi, I’m Oli.
Welcome to Oxford Online English!
In this lesson, you can learn how to read and summarise a text.
Summarising a text is a vital skill for your English reading.
If you can’t make a short, clear summary of the main ideas of a text, then you almost
certainly haven’t understood it fully.
Understanding what you read in English isn’t just about the words; it’s about understanding
the ideas, how they’re organised, and which ideas are more or less important.
Here, you’ll see some strategies you can use to improve your English reading, read
faster, and improve your reading comprehension.
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In this lesson, we’ll work with a sample text.
You’ll see it in the video, but you can also find it on the full version of this lesson,
which is on our website.
You can find a link in the video description.
We recommend reading it before you continue watching.
Now, let’s look at the most important reading strategy you need to use.
To understand and summarise a text, you need to find the main idea.
Every coherent text has one central idea, which connects the different parts of the
You need to know what this is.
But, every text is different, and there isn’t one way to find the main idea.
Instead, you need to look at the whole thing.
Here are some things you should look at:
One: is there a title or headings?
These will often highlight the most important points.
Two: what is the first sentence about?
Often, the first sentence of a text or paragraph will summarise the main ideas.
Three: what does most of the text talk about?
Look at each sentence and paragraph.
Is there a single topic which connects them?
Look at our sample text and think about these questions.
Pause the video if you need more reading time, and remember that you can also read it on
our website—just follow the link in the video description.
So, what do you think the main idea of our sample text is?
We’ll show you three possible summaries.
Which do you think is best?
What do you think?
The best is number three.
Let’s see why.
First, you should look at the title.
The title tells you that the text will be about Guugu Yimithirr, but it also mentions
that this language is ‘unusual’.
You should immediately focus on this word, because it shows that this language is different
in some way.
Also, ‘unusual’ could mean many things.
What does it mean here?
Second, what’s the first sentence about?
Here, it gives background information.
It doesn’t help you to find the main idea.
That’s OK—in this case, the background information is helpful, because most people
don’t know what Guugu Yimithirr is.
Third, what does most of the text talk about?
Apart from the first sentence, every sentence is about the same topic: the fact that Guugu
Yimithirr uses compass directions—north, south, east, west—for all directions, because
there are no words for ‘left’, ‘right’, and so on.
This answers the question you found in the title: why is this language unusual?
Now you have a reason.
However, analysing the text in this way is complex, and there are other sub-skills you
Let’s look at an important example.
To summarise a text, you need to find which ideas are general, and which are details or
The general ideas will give you the overall meaning.
If you confuse general ideas and details, you might misunderstand the overall meaning
what you’re reading.
Unfortunately, there are no clear markers which show you what’s general or not.
A single sentence might mix general ideas and details together.
You need to use context and other clues to work out which ideas are general and which
Look at five extracts from our sample text.
What do you think?
Are these general ideas, or details?
Which do you need to understand in order to find the overall meaning?
Sentences one, three and four are general.
Two and five are details.
One is general because it introduces the topic by giving background information.
This is like a topic sentence, which tells you what the rest of the text will be about.
Two is a detail.
It’s more background information; you don’t need it to understand the overall meaning.
Three is a general, important idea.
This sentence highlights the unusual feature of the Guugu Yimithirr language.
The rest of the text expands on the idea introduced in this sentence.
We said that four is general; however, it’s kind of in the middle.
It explains the exact meaning of ‘lacking egocentric directions’ which is referred
to in sentence three.
Technically, this sentence isn’t necessary to understand the main idea.
On the other hand, most people—including educated native English speakers—wouldn’t
know what ‘egocentric directions’ are.
This sentence explains it, and so it *is* important for understanding the whole text.
Five is a detail.
It adds an example of how Guugu Yimithirr speakers talk about position and direction,
but it isn’t necessary to understand the main idea.
So, what do you need to focus on here?
First, it’s a good idea to skim a text first, reading fast and trying to understand the
overall idea in a simple way.
In order to separate general ideas from details, you need some context.
Until you’ve read the whole thing, you won’t have this.
Second, look for linking phrases like ‘for example’, ‘for instance’, ‘specifically’
or ‘in particular.’
Linking phrases like these show you that what follows is an explanation of a more general
idea that was mentioned before.
Third, remember that one sentence can contain both general ideas and details mixed together.
For example, this sentence contains both a detail—about the word ‘kangaroo’—and
a general point.
Now, why not do some more practice?
Look at the rest of our sample text.
Which ideas are general?
Which ideas are details?
Pause the video and try it now, if you want.
Did you do it?
Here’s a shorter version, with all examples and details removed.
If you can do this, you’ll be able to read much faster.
Because you only need to focus on the general ideas to understand the overall meaning.
Here, you only need to understand 76 words, instead of 230.
This saves you time, which could be helpful if you are under time pressure, like in an
IELTS reading exam.
There’s another related, skill which can help you to understand a text.
If you’re a non-native speaker reading in English, you’ll probably have this problem
often: there are words which you don’t understand.
Maybe there are several words which you don’t know.
This makes things more difficult, but there are strategies you can use.
First, look for proper nouns, which start with a capital letter.
Sometimes, we see that students think they don’t understand a word, but they don’t
realise that the ‘word’ is actually a proper noun, like a person’s name, or a
Can you find three examples of proper nouns in our text?
Pause the video if you want time to think about it.
You could say ‘Guugu Yimithirr’, ‘Queensland’, ‘Hopevale’, ‘English’ or ‘Brisbane’.
Generally, if a proper noun is important or not widely-understood, it will be explained.
For example, ‘Guugu Yimithirr’ is obviously important, and it’s explained in the first
If a proper noun isn’t explained, you can usually ignore it, or try to work out the
meaning from the context.
For example, look at the first sentence.
Even if you’ve never heard of Queensland or Hopevale, you can work out that they’re
Next, look for words that tell you that an idea is important.
You could look for words like ‘important’, ‘notable’, ‘significant’ or ‘essential’.
For example, you saw this sentence.
The word ‘notable’ highlights something important about the language.
This means you should focus on this sentence.
If you’re under time pressure, you should spend extra time on this sentence.
Also, look for words which were also used in the title, or possibly which appeared in
the first sentence or paragraph.
Remember that writers might use paraphrase, so you might not find the exact same words.
There was a key word from the title used in the text.
Do you know where?
Pause the video if you want time to find it!
The word ‘unusual’ appears in this sentence.
You heard before that ‘unusual’ is a key word in the title.
So, when you see it, you should pay extra attention to this sentence.
In fact, this sentence gives you one of the key general ideas.
Depending on your situation, you might have different options to deal with unknown words.
If you have unlimited time, unlimited patience and access to a dictionary, then you can check
the meaning of every word.
However, this strategy is not possible in most cases.
No one really has unlimited time or unlimited patience.
Plus, there are often restrictions; if you’re taking an exam, you’ll have a time limit
and you probably won’t be able to use a dictionary.
This is why it’s important to focus on the general ideas, and then find key words within
If there are 50 words you don’t know, that’s difficult to deal with.
However, if you can focus on a smaller number of more important sentences, there will be
fewer unknown words.
At this point, you should know how to read and summarise a text in English.
We have a challenge for you!
On the full version of this lesson, which is on our website, you’ll find a second
text to practise with.
If you’re watching on YouTube, you can find a link in the video description.
Can you write a summary of the second text?
Your summary should be maximum two sentences, or ideally just one.
Use the reading techniques you saw in this lesson.
Post your suggestion in the comments, and read other people’s ideas.
Thanks for watching!
See you next time!