Paraphrasing Text: Skim and Copy No More

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While I was still a novice, teaching English 11, I was naively shocked at how many of my students were used to applying a technique I called “skim and copy.”   They first skimmed the question(s).  Then they skimmed the reading, presumably in search of words and phrases that corresponded to something in the question(s).  Then they copied, lifting and inserting blocks of text verbatim.

These were good students,  who cared about their work. They were diligent.  They didn’t mean to plagiarize.  Most of them honestly believed this method of writing was perfectly acceptable. And for most of them, this had been what had worked across the curriculum.

Skim and copy originated with us: teachers.  It arose from the types of questions we asked kids; it came from the work we asked them to complete. It came from what we expected and what we accepted, what we thought demonstrated learning.

I believed that kids mastered this strategy early in their academic careers. Questions in content area textbooks on all levels quite often sent kids to boldfaced headings, italicized names. These same questions were also frequently worded to encourage skim and copy.  Kids learned where to go to find the “right” answer, but they didn’t truly own the information; even though they could produce blocks of text, they were unable to demonstrate that they had understood what they had read and/or written.

Enter the Common Core and skim and copy no more. This is just one of the things that, as an English teacher, I love about the Common Core.   Even multiple choice questions on new standardized tests demand more than superficial comprehension. Writing assessments require that students be able to explain and connect supporting details in organized, developed responses. Recopied blocks of the original text don’t merit much.  To achieve mastery now,  kids must do more than skim and and copy.

One way I think we can help kids move beyond past skim and copy is to explicitly teach paraphrasing. When kids can put a text into their own words, they  also own the text. This supports reading in all content areas.  If kids can put informational text from a science book or from an historical document in their own words, they truly “own” that reading.

Paraphrasing has always been a requisite skill for research and presentation.  What I have found is that paraphrasing also supports reading comprehension and promotes better writing. Not coincidentally, it also helps kids perform better on high stakes Common Core tests.

While this may not be the end all and be all of how to introduce this skill, here is how I have tried to tackle paraphrasing.

Starting in the first week of school in seventh grade, I introduce students to paraphrasing. Because this is a new concept for most of my students, I start very small, with a quote and a thesaurus.

“We gain strength, confidence and courage by each experience in which we really stop and look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

I ask kids to recopy the quote, using quotation marks.  I ask them to tell me what they think Eleanor Roosevelt meant.  Though most will be able to summarize the gist of the quote, they typically miss the nuances. As we all know by now, the Common Core is all about close reading. A generalized summary usually won’t be enough for skills delineated by the Common Core.

That’s when I explain that paraphrasing means putting a text into their own words.  I instruct them to take the quote apart word by word and rewrite it in their own words.  I encourage them to use their own vocabularies, but allow them to fall back on the thesaurus if they get stuck.

Then we sample responses, guiding kids to see that though there is always some overlap, each person’s paraphrasing is necessarily unique. I liken it to the view from our classroom windows.  Though we see the same basic scene, each person’s vantage point is just slightly different.

I ask them to again explain the meaning of the quote.  Kids always have a better grip on meaning after paraphrasing.

Finally, I ask them to write a brief, supported paragraph about the validity of the quote. As support, they must use something from their own experience and something from history to prove or disprove Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote. For each element of support, I ask them to cite the example, explain the example, and connect the example to the position on the quote (Cite, Explain, Connect).

Over the next two weeks, kids continue to practice through  given quotes related to our core readings as Do-Nows or Exit Tickets.

When the kids and I are comfortable with quotes, I transition them to  a very short informational passage, no more than a paragraph.  This is sometimes from the newspaper, sometimes from the literature anthology, sometimes from a content area textbook.  I instruct kids to read the paragraph silently. By this point, we have also practiced some annotation, so I ask them to read with a pen in hand, too.  I try to give ample wait time so that everyone gets through the paragraph.  When it seems that everyone has finished, I read the paragraph aloud.

Then I set them loose in pairs to paraphrase.  The pairs share with other pairs.  It usually gets a little loud as pairs work together, but it is the noise of kids discovering language.

It is the start of a journey toward stronger reading and writing skills that we work on throughout 7th grade and again in 8th grade.

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