The Summer Schools of Semiotics were initiated by Juri Lotman, who, inspired by the first symposium on Modelling Systems in 1962, invited Moscow scholars for cooperation. At the end of 1963 Lotman writes to Vladimir Toporov: "A. M. Piatigorsky wants you to know that together with the rector we have decided to organise a 10-day symposium in Tartu (near Tartu, in the forest near a lake), where we could invite about 20 people (more, I think, are not necessary), for a real discussion "between ourselves".

The First Summer School took place on 19–29 August 1964 at the University of Tartu Kääriku sports centre. A separate 110 page compilation of theses was published, comprising 30 presentations. Participants were mainly philologists and mathematicians from Moscow and Tartu.

The 2nd Summer School was held, as planned, two years later, on 16–26 August 1966 and included as guests Krystyna Pomorska and Roman Jakobson. The organizing committee presented the following topics for the programme: typology of culture, typology of texts, modelling of space and time in semiotic systems, person and collective.

The 3rd Summer School shifted to spring and was somewhat shorter – 10–18 May 1968. Yet there were almost as many presentations as before – the 255 page compilation of theses includes 43 presentations.

The 4th Summer School in 1970 (17–24 August) took place in Tartu. Cultural semiotics was the general topic, with 42 presentations in the compilation of theses.  Thomas Sebeok was present as a foreign guest, giving a talk on types of signs. In 1970, the Soviet authorities exterted an increasing pressure on semiotics, and volumes of Sign Systems Studies were increasingly difficult to publish.

After the First All-Union Symposium on Semiotics of the Humanities in Tartu in February 1974 (Winter School), this period of Summer Schools came to its end. There was an attempt to reanimate them in 1986, when a Summer School took place in Kääriku.

In 1995, the Summer School was organized in Saarjärve for the first time by the Department of Semiotics that was formed a few years earlier. It was an international conference with over 30 presentations and in keeping with the Summer School's tradition, included discussions on central questions in semiotics.

A new period of Tartu Semiotics Summer Schools began in 2011, when it was organised in Palmse. In 2013, the Summer School took place again in Kääriku. In 2015, we will have it (the 10th) in Tartu.