Good paraphrasing exercises?

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In the latest batch of student papers, I'm finding that many of them do not know how to paraphrase. They think they are paraphrasing and they are attributing the idea to the appropriate author. But it is very clear that they are this close to plain old plagiarism -- the language of the paraphrase is more sophisticated (thanks thesaurus) and the sentence structure is more interesting and smoother than their standard prose.

I want to call this to their attention in a way that helps them learn how to effectively paraphrase rather than just making them decide to stick in the quote next time. Any good ideas for teaching paraphrasing?  Drills? Exercises? Other activities?


I give them an article to read. After they've read it, I have them turn it over so they can't see the text and then paraphrase it from memory.

The problem you're talking about happens when they try to paraphrase directly from the text, rather than understanding it first and then expressing what they understand of it.

Sometimes you can combine practice in paraphrasing with practice in making judgments about what to paraphrase and what to quote, and even with a little practice in critical thinking.

Try this. Take a few simple, common-sense ideas--students generally get better grades by studying than by not studying; professors should be fair--and express them in the most bloated academese you can write. Turn a sentence of plain English into a paragraph of opaque drivel. Use only big words. Avoid active verbs; use passive voice throughout. Turn verbs into nouns; e.g., replace "conclude" with "arrive at a conclusion." As an in-class exercise, give your bloated, opaque drivel to students and have them rewrite it in plain English, using a dictionary and thesaurus. Remind them that one of the best reasons to paraphrase is to turn gibberish into clear, simple English.

Then have your students read their translations aloud. Point out the paraphrases that change the meaning of the idea (bad paraphrases) and those that miss chances to replace passive voice and vague ideas with active verbs and concrete language (another kind of bad paraphrase). Naturally, point out the good paraphrases and note why and how they're good.

Go through short examples of difficult (or just plain bad) writing word by word and ask students to identify subjects, verbs, objects, and modifiers. Many of your students have probably never done this. Remind them that parsing sentences might help them understand the stuff in their textbooks.

Here's an example of something I've used: "Among the symptomatic manifestations of a schizophrenic condition is the occurrence of hallucinations of an auditory or visual nature." When you beat that into normal order, you see that an occurrence of something is among the manifestations of something else. There's not a concrete idea in sight. Have your students chew on it until they reduce it to something like, "Schizophrenic people sometimes hear or see things that aren't real."

If, as they do these exercises, students figure out that many textbooks and journal articles are perfect specimens of wretched writing, so much the better. They might also figure out that some writing uses a smokescreen of big words and turgid sentences to tart up a few lame or obvious ideas, or to make lies sound good. This is a good time to steer them toward Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."

Also ask your students to rewrite (and that's the word I use; students understand it better than they understand "paraphrase") some passages that no one could improve. For instance, have them try to rewrite the Beatitudes or a paragraph from one of Martin Luther King's speeches. They'll paraphrase it and wreck it. And that, you tell them, is why sometimes one should paraphrase and sometimes one should quote.

Thank you for these suggestions.

I really like the idea of giving them academic obsequiousness and making them turn it into understandable English. I think they need to actively make the connection that published does not necessarily mean good or quotable and that, with some effort, they can do a better job. I'd like to think this may even improve their writing. I also like the idea of having them try to paraphrase something that should be left as is.

I just had my students doing quote, paraphrase, and summary exercises.  I pulled some handouts off the Purdue OWL which go over the basics of these and offer some examples, and then I read a short editorial to the class outloud.  I made photocopies beforehand and handed them out.  I then asked the students to do three things as I read 1) underline for quotations, 2) "star" the sections they would use for paraphrase, and 3) designate the "outline" of the argument to help with their summary.

I asked the students to underline anything that they thought would be a direct quote because of the well wrought phrasing or because it provided an overview of the author's position.  I asked them to mark with a star any ideas that they thought were important enough to translate into their own language in a paraphrase.  And then I asked them to mark the "turns of thought," or the basic structure, of the argument - this, I told them, would form the basis of a summary.  Then I asked students for examples of each out loud in class.  I think it helps to read it slowly out loud to them and then ask their opinions.  It's an active exercise and seemed to get the basic idea across.  It helps to do this in class also, I think, because you can make sure they are actually taking these steps. 

These ideas in the thread are great and I plan on using them next week.  So cool.


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