Teaching Students to Paraphrase

Ideas for scaffolding paraphrasing so that students correctly learn this valuable but difficult-to-master skill.

March 4, 2019

When discussing text in the classroom, it’s tough for students to shift from utilizing an author’s words (copying) to accepting the challenge to express that author’s idea in their own words (paraphrasing).

But teaching effective paraphrasing is necessary because the use of paraphrasing facilitates important literacy skills: It encourages repeated reading, develops note-taking habits as students track quotes and outline text details, and expands vocabulary as they consider appropriate ways to describe the original text. The skill may seem daunting to students because it takes time to find the appropriate words to reshape a sentence, but that is time well spent.

We also need to teach paraphrasing, of course, so that students develop the skill set required to avoid committing plagiarism unintentionally.

Student Tools

One way to support students is to make them aware of tools that may help when they’re paraphrasing. Think of these as training wheels—students won’t use them forever.

Academic Phrasebank: Ready-made phrases help students organize their sentences when they paraphrase. The site provides sentence starters for defining ideas, comparing and contrasting ideas, describing cause and effect, and explaining evidence to support statements.

For instance, if a student were paraphrasing vocabulary word X, they would be able to find sentence starters such as “The word X encompasses...,” “The word X is challenging to define because...,” and “The word X is intended to....”

Ashford University Writing Center: This website has a five-item quiz to review the paraphrasing process. It allows students to identify examples and non-examples of paraphrasing for a given text.

When examining non-examples, students are shown how replacing or rearranging words is akin to copying and pasting on a computer. Students see examples of effective paraphrasing, including a change of sentence structure or personal elaboration combined with limited quoted information.

Tone Analyzer: This tool allows students to enter a brief sample from a text and receive an analysis of the tone. When using this tool, students can request an assessment of whether the text illustrates anger, joy, sadness, etc. In addition to these emotions, the website includes language descriptors such as confident (used to describe texts that use active voice and/or words such as will, must, etc.) or tentative (texts with words such as seems, appears, might, etc.). This tool is useful in helping students successfully align the tone of their paraphrased material with the tone of the original text.

Student Self-Check Prompts

Students should outgrow the tools above, and teachers can encourage that growth by showing them how to monitor their own progress with paraphrasing. Students can self-check to determine how on track with paraphrasing they are by asking themselves these questions:

  • Can I identify elements of the text that are most significant (and thus appropriate to preserve) when I put it in my own words?
  • Can I recite elements of the text from memory in order to prepare to put it into my own words?
  • How can I adjust the sentence structure to preserve the meaning of the text?

Student Cautions

Because the journey to paraphrasing may involve a few hiccups, it’s a good idea to identify potential student challenges. When paraphrasing, remind students that they should:

  • Attempt to describe the text in their own words gradually, one component at a time (thanks to Doug Lemov and Maggie Johnson for this close reading strategy). For instance, they might first use their own words to describe significant phrases in the reading, and then make an effort to explain one or two key sentences, and finally attempt to paraphrase an entire paragraph.
  • Monitor the similarities between the text and the paraphrase. For instance, after describing specific sentences or paragraphs, they should note how many words are shared. Instead of using the same words as the author, focus on mirroring the same main idea. The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale offers easy-to-follow models for how to achieve this.
  • Ensure that there is a sufficient number of word substitutions in the paraphrased material. (Substituting only a couple of words could constitute plagiarism.) Students should focus on changing the structure of the sentence. This may involve converting a simple sentence to a compound sentence or adding a prepositional phrase.
  • Avoid adjusting special language (acronyms, figurative language, jargon, etc.). These kinds of terms are considered common knowledge, so using them in a paraphrase doesn’t constitute plagiarism. Resources such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab can help students figure out whether a particular term is common knowledge.

Teachers can push students to move beyond copying by encouraging them to see paraphrasing as the go-to reading response. When we equip students with needed resources, we make student voice the rule instead of the exception.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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