Category Archives: paraphrasing

Citing evidence, paraphrasing and quoting

When students are expected to cite evidence from readings, beginning in late elementary grades, the problem of when and how to use paraphrasing and direct quotes arises, as well as how to combine the two seamlessly.

Let’s start with a story everyone knows, “The Three Little Pigs.”  Suppose the version of the story being analyzed says,

The wolf walked up to the door of the first little pig.  The wolf saw that the house was made of straw.  Silly little pig, thought the wolf.  I’ll have you for my dinner today.  So the wolf knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” 

Now suppose the student has taken the position that the wolf is a polite creature.  The student needs to cite information from the article proving this point.

What I have observed is that most students equate the word “cite” with “use direct quotes.”  To do that, students might quote the whole paragraph as their citation.  (I see this all the time.)  But that is not a good way to cite.

One good way is to cite by paraphrasing without ever using direct quotes.  For example, to prove the wolf is polite, the student could write,

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in.  In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

But suppose the student wants to quote the words, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” because they are so identified with the classic wording of the story.  The student could have written most of the same citation as above, changing it this way.

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in, saying, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

This too is a citation.

However, what I see is that students directly quote two or three sentences or a whole paragraph without connecting the quote to their own grammar.  Both the students’ ideas and the direct quote stand alone in a paragraph with no transition from one to the other, and no attempt to shorten the quote to only a few key words.  If there is a transition from their own words to the direct quote it is stilted or confusing.

Students need much practice paraphrasing without using direct quotes, and paraphrasing plus using direct quotes.  This can be done using single paragraphs from fairy tales, songs, or news stories until students are comfortable with this kind of writing.

To hand write notes or to use technology?

As you or your kids prepare to return to school (here in Georgia some schools open the first week of August) , you might be considering the purchase of technology for note taking.  Should you?

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, there were two kinds of technology to choose from:  a pen and reporter’s notebook or a tape recorder.  No laptops, tablets and smart phones then.  I opted for the old fashioned pen and paper for several reasons.

  • It was more reliable.  No machinery to malfunction, no tapes that could run out, no batteries that could die.  And my newspaper provided pens and reporters’ notebooks.
  • I thought more during interviews. With no tape recorder, I couldn’t tune out and let the machine do the work.  I needed to pay attention, to understand what the speaker was saying and to prepare follow-up questions.
  • Since I couldn’t write down everything, I needed to prioritize what was important either by summarizing or by quoting well-said ideas—of which there usually weren’t many. I became more of a paraphraser than a direct-quoter.
  • I could locate an idea from an interview quickly by paging through my notes. No need to hunt through long sections of tape for just one idea.
  • I wrote my final copy quickly. I could turn in a story and move on to the next one, while someone else was still transcribing from a machine, making me a valuable employee.

What has this to do with note taking in school today?  Research shows that college students who take notes by hand, paraphrasing and summarizing, do better understanding a lecture than do students who key in every word.  They do so for the same reason I wrote good interviews.  They listen.  They attempt to put ideas into a useful order and into their own words.  They question concepts as they listen even if they don’t raise their hands.  They focus.

On the other hand, technology has improved since my reporting days.  Today it’s possible to word search faster than I could page through my reporter notes.  If you remember to back up, your notes don’t get lost.  In fact, they exist in a cloud somewhere indefinitely, ready for you to access long after you’ve thrown out your composition notebook.

So should you buy note taking devices?  They rang from $200 to $600.  Many are in their infancy.

Here’s a compromise.  What if you hand write legibly, and when class is done or at the end of the day, take photos of your notes using your cell phone?  You always have your phone with you—right?—and so you’ll always have your notes as nearby as a clock on your phone.  If you have a reliable classmate, you can offer to photograph each other’s notes, and compare what you each thought important.

But can you hand write fast enough to keep up with your teacher?  For students no longer learning cursive, this can be a problem.  Maybe instead of investing hundreds in technology, invest $5 in a cursive handwriting notebook, and practice. Usually some combination of printing and cursive suffices for fast and readable handwriting.

For information about  note taking technology available, see an article by David Pierce in the July 16, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, “Handwriting Finds Ways To Fit Into Digital Life.”

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: exciting writing topics

Students love to talk about current events.  But usually their ideas lack facts—high on “Well, I heard” but low on hard facts.

Here’s a way to give them the facts on Hurricane Irma or Hurricane Harvey—the geography, the science, even the math.

Order* “Hurricane Irma (or Harvey):  storm graphing, tracking and analyzing.”  With the information provided, students will be able to

  • Plot the latitude and longitude of Irma (or Harvey) on their own maps. Then they can use that data to write about the day-to-day path the hurricane took, where it crossed land, and where it went next (or where it stalled, in Harvey’s case).  This essay would be heavy on geography—what Caribbean islands the storm passed, what waters it passed through, what states, cities or counties were involved.
  • Create bar graphs of the lowest barometric pressure and the highest wind speed of either hurricane. Then students can compare the two graphs and notice how higher wind speed correlates with lower air pressure and with Saffir-Simpson categories.  Numbers are details, and with two graphs plus the Saffir-Simpson chart, the students would have plenty of details to write an essay heavy on science and math.
  • For a comparison/contrast essay, students could interpret a chart comparing Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Harvey. Plenty of facts describe both storms.
  • Or for an expository essay, students could write an essay explaining why Hurricane Harvey was so destructive. All the information is provided.  Students could use this same information to paraphrase one paragraph or several.
  • A different expository essay could focus on why hurricanes form and strengthen, using scientific facts about Hurricane Irma. A shorter writing assignment using the same facts could be a summary or a paraphrase of a single paragraph.
  • What makes for an accurate forecast of a hurricane’s landfall location could be another expository essay, focusing on why meteorologists had trouble pinpointing the landfall location of Irma. All the information is provided.  Or a paragraph or two could be paraphrased.  Or the ideas could be summarized.

I wrote the lesson plans and gathered the facts, focusing on activities appropriate for fifth through eighth graders.

*To check out one or both lessons, click on Irma or Harvey.  The cost is $5 each.

To paraphrase is not to summarize

Paraphrasing means restating, using your own words and grammar to interpret the essence of a document.  Paraphrases contain about the same number of words as the original.  In paraphrases, you write the ideas in the same order as in the original.  You include all the original ideas and details, but you use spot-on synonyms for all key words and you use your own phrasing and sentence structure.  To follow the original sentence structure, merely substituting synonyms for significant words, is plagiarism.girl writing and thinking

Summarizing also means restating while using your own words and grammar.  But summaries are much shorter than the original.  A summary includes all the main ideas, but names only the most important details.  Summaries need not follow the original document  in order of presentation of ideas, though a summary should identify the original method of organization.  Nor does a summary need to include information from every paragraph.  Hooks can be eliminated.

Summaries distill the focus of the original document into concise language.  If your summary seems like a list of data, then it is poorly written.  You should use logic to connect ideas.

Why are summarizing and paraphrasing so important?  If you can paraphrase or summarize an article well, that shows you understand the original.  Paraphrasing is much like translating from one language to another.  You leave nothing out while finding the right vocabulary, grammar and tone to express the original document’s ideas.  Summarizing is also like translating, but for an impatient listener who wants only the important ideas.

Using long direct quotes is frowned upon in both paraphrases and summaries.  The exception is if the original document contains famous phrases or words.  Even then, only snippets of the original should be used.  If you are paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” for example, quoting “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be okay since those words are so identified with the document.  But quoting the whole sentence from which those words should not be done most of the time.

If you are paraphrasing or summarizing a writer or document whose style is important–Hemingway, for example–then showing that style by using direct quotes would be necessary.  Another way to handle that style issue would be to write your paraphrase or summary in the style of the original document and then point that out to the reader.

How to use vocabulary workbooks as the basis for writing lessons

Teachers and tutors, do you want to save time and get double or triple use from the same source?  Use your students’ vocabulary workbook to teach writing.

EPSON MFP imageMany of my  students use the Wordly Wise 3000 series (which I recommend).  It has 20 lessons per booklet, one booklet per grade, first through twelfth.  In each lesson is an annotated list of new vocabulary words plus exercises using the words.

Like other vocabulary building series, each lesson also has a reading selection in which each new vocabulary word is used.  These reading selections are followed by many questions asking the student to use one of the new vocabulary words in a complete sentence answer.

But other ways to use the vocabulary and reading selections augment their original purpose and make them valuable as writing tools.  Here are some I have used.

  • Summarizing.  I teach students to underline the most important or key words in each paragraph.  Next, I show how to analyze each paragraph and to write an identification in the margin next to the paragraph.  Those phrases might be “dodo bird’s appearance,” “raising $ for Statue of Liberty base,” or “Renaissance dates and definition.”  Then, using the underlines and margin information, I teach the student to write a summary of each paragraph in about one or two sentences.  When he is done, he has a good summary of the reading selection.
  • Paraphrasing.  Taking one sentence at a time, I ask students to rewrite the sentence, keeping the meaning but changing the sentence structure and, where possible, the vocabulary.
  • Writing RACE responses.  I write a question based on the article.  Then I ask the student to respond using the RACE format (Repeat the question, Answer the question, Cite part of the article used as evidence, and Elaborate on that evidence with more evidence).
  • Writing sentences using new vocabulary words.  So many times students can define a word but they cannot use it properly in a sentence. I ask them to write sentences using vocabulary words. This shows their weakness in understanding certain words and helps me to explain the words better to them.
  •  Writing paragraphs using new vocabulary words.  I ask students to write each new word in a coherent paragraph or two. Writing a paragraph takes more skill than writing independent sentences.  Not only does the student need to know how to use the word, but he needs to know its noun, adjective and verb forms and whether it is the best word in a given situation.  Forming a coherent whole takes imagination and hard work.
  • Writing narratives.  Put a person or animal into the nonfiction situation in the reading passage and write about it. What if you were a dodo bird encountering your first human being?  What if you were a Cherokee forced to say good-bye to your land in North Carolina and trek toward the unknown?  What if you were Leonardo’s apprentice, entrusted to carry the rolled up canvas of the Mona Lisa from Florence to France?

If you are teaching children to write, you know that coming up with a writing topic is tedious.  But by using the reading selections from the vocabulary workbooks, the subject matter is identified, the student has prior knowledge, and the vocabulary words are identified.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

How to write clearly for future generations

Among the hardest materials for students to read today are the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (Lexile scores 1350 and 1560 respectively). Because Thomas Jefferson knew future generations would be reading his words in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote them as carefully as possible in 1776.  Even so, they are difficult to understand by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s generation.

Many reasons exist for this difficulty, including sentence structure, sentence length, relative pronouns, and vocabulary. I would like to analyze the first paragraph of the Declaration to see what we can learn from words Thomas Jefferson penned 240 years ago in order to improve our writing today.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

Here is the Declaration’s original first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

To begin, this paragraph is a single, 71-word sentence. We know that the more words a sentence contains, the harder it is to understand (unless the sentence is a list). If a sentence of 30 words is pushing it, a sentence of 71 words is beyond what most people can follow. Many working memories stop after the second clause.

Secondly, this 71-word sentence contains six clauses plus infinitive phrases and prepositional phrases. Three clauses in a single sentence are sometimes two too many for clear understanding. But six?

Another difficulty is the pronoun “which.” It is used three times to introduce three dependent clauses.

But perhaps the greatest problem to modern readers is the vocabulary. Many words are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. For example, the fourth word, “course” is a word we use all the time today (a math course, the course of a river, of course), but the meaning used in the Declaration is “progress or advancement” which is no longer its primary meaning.

When “course” is combined with “events” to form the phrases “in the course of human events,” the meaning becomes more muddled. What if Jefferson had written, “When, during human history”? Wouldn’t those words have said the same thing yet made more sense? To us, yes. But Jefferson was writing the most formal document of his life.  He chose to use formal language—formal even for the 18th century.

What if Jefferson had written something like this instead?

Sometimes a group of people need to sever their political connections with another group of people and to become an independent country. When this happens, they should explain why they are separating.

My 32 words are not nearly as elegant as Jefferson’s, but to modern ears, they are easier to understand (39 fewer words; two sentences instead of one; one simple sentence and one complex sentence with just one dependent clause; and everyday vocabulary).

Think ahead 240 years to the year 2256. Will Americans then still find my words easy to understand? How can we write diaries, letters, memoirs or war stories  which will make sense to our descendants?

  • Above all, write clearly.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write mostly simple sentences.
  • Limit the number of dependent clauses to one per sentence.
  • Make sure pronouns have clearly identified antecedents.
  • Use everyday vocabulary.