How to Teach Paraphrasing

It’s an unfortunate truth that many students simply do not understand how to paraphrase.

This is an issue not just for middle or high school students, but even for students who are doing post-graduate work and may be struggling to write a thesis or a dissertation. 

There are many reasons for this. However, one of the most obvious is that, over the past 20 years, plagiarism detection software, like Turnitin, have put an excessive focus on specific word choice rather than the writing process itself.

As such, many students have come away with the impression that, as long as their text doesn’t trip a plagiarism checker, that they must have paraphrased correctly. This has left an opening for “automated paraphrasing tools” and the use of AI to rewrite original content as “legitimate” ways to paraphrase.

However, that is not how paraphrasing works and not understanding that can cause problems for students as they work on various types of projects both inside and outside of academia.

But paraphrasing isn’t something that most students instinctively know. It’s a skill that has to be taught and practiced. As such, if you’re an instructor and struggling to help students understand paraphrasing, here are some ideas and resources that may be able to help.

How to Teach Paraphrasing

The most important thing for students to understand is that paraphrasing is not about rewriting or editing the original text, it’s about taking the ideas and information and rewriting them in your own words.

This is why I strongly advocate for the cleanroom writing method, where notes and original writing are kept separate, citations are added as the student writes and students limit themselves to either writing original (paraphrased) content, or directly quoting source material with citations.

However, this is something that can actually be simulated in a classroom or writing lab. Here’s an example of a simple assignment:

  1. Display a Paragraph Quote to the Class: Tell the students this is the source material and to read the quote thoroughly, taking in the information. After they’re done, take the quote down. 
  2. Discuss What the Quote Means and What Was Learned: Spend a few minutes hosting a class discussion about what the quote means and the important pieces of information that they learned from it. This both helps them remember the information but also makes it difficult to just memorize the quote.
  3. Have Them Write That Information in Their Words: Task the students with writing a sentence or two that conveys the same information in their words. You can also have them practice their in-text citations by providing instructions to cite the source at the end.
  4. Compare the Paraphrases: Show the students how different the various paraphrases are, both from the source material and each other.

The idea is to give students practice writing passages without access to the source material. This forces them to paraphrase and not focus on rewriting or editing the original passage.

Another idea is to have the students shift from one format to another. For example, show them a short clip of a video that conveys information or a photograph of an important event, have them write what they saw without access to the source material.

You can also perform a format shift with the assignment itself. You can present information from a formal source, like a research paper, but task the students with writing a casual letter to a friend or simply providing an oral presentation on the topic.

The idea is to get students used to the idea of reading information, interpreting the important elements, and then expressing those elements in their own words. 

As such, the task is to create assignments that teach those three elements in that order and give students a no-risk chance to practice those skills.

Other Resources

If you’re looking for tools to assist with teaching students how to paraphrase, here are a few resources that can help make the process easier.

  1. University of Arizona Paraphrasing Practice Activity: This is a short five-question quiz that displays some good “real world” examples of both good and bad paraphrasing. Not only good for teaching, but for assessing if students need extra help.
  2. Boston University Paraphrase & Quotation Lesson: This is a lesson plan that goes into more detail than this piece. It also delves into the difference between paraphrasing and summarizing, and includes several lesson ideas.
  3. Purdue University Paraphrasing Exercises: Includes several exercises that students can perform to learn paraphrasing. This includes five separate quotes that students are tasked with paraphrasing. Also provides assistance with generating citations.
  4. Worksheet Library Paraphrasing Sheets: Worksheet Library has a collection of worksheets on this topic. While they don’t make it possible for students to not look at the source material while writing their paraphrases, they provide some good examples and some interesting exercises to help students think like someone who is paraphrasing.
  5. Mondays Made Easy Guide: Several more assignment ideas for introducing paraphrasing to students, with more of a focus on helping older students learn.

All in all, while there are definitely good resources to be found to help teach paraphrasing, there are also a slew of bad ones. In gathering links for this article, I ran across a variety of sites with very poor or misleading guides on paraphrasing, some of which may actually get students accused of plagiarism even if they follow the guide fully.

However, that just speaks to the amount of misinformation on this topic. That is why it is so important for teachers to provide good guidance on this subject and help students who are struggling or may have not learned it earlier in their academic career.

Bottom Line

One of the great things about paraphrasing is that, once one understands it and is comfortable doing it, it becomes more or less automatic. It’s a skill that many experienced writers don’t think about, simply because, once they learned it, they never put much thought into it ever again.

This has the added benefit of making actual paraphrasing easier than using automated paraphrasing tools or even relying on AI-generated content. The reason is that editing such content often takes longer than simply writing original material, especially if one knows how to paraphrase from the beginning.

However, that automated nature is why paraphrasing often gets overlooked as a skill that needs to be directly taught. It’s not something that a person is born with or learns organically as they do other things, it’s a skill that needs to be explained, taught and exercised.

In that regard, paraphrasing is much like citation itself. It’s a skill that often gets overlooked, but has high stakes for students should they get it wrong. That confusion combined with heightened fear of consequences for mistakes creates an environment where plagiarism, contract cheating and other unethical shortcuts become tempting.

We can’t hold students accountable for what they were never taught or had the opportunity to learn, and that includes the fundamentals of writing, including paraphrasing and citation. 

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free