Category Archives: paraphrasing

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.


Writing summaries of nonfiction

By middle school, today’s students are required to write summaries even though a generation ago this kind of writing began in high school. The Common Core promotes this kind of writing, as does students’ need to be able to write research papers at younger ages than in the past.

Summaries are written for many reasons:

  • Notetaking (listening to a lecture and discerning the important parts, or reading research and paraphrasing the important parts),
  • Understanding a reading passage (rewriting the main ideas to better understand them), and
  • Identifying the main points (turning an outline into a paragraph or two, or gathering information to use for later studying).

Students encounter two problems over and over when writing summaries:

  • How long should a summary be?
  • How much detail should be included in a summary?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers to either question, but here’s what I tell my middle grade students about summarizing nonfiction reading selections:

  • First, read the whole reading selection so you know what it is about and so you can judge what is important and what is not. If you don’t understand the selection, this is the time to ask questions.
  • If a reading selection has eight paragraphs, then (for middle grade students) its summary should have about eight sentences. Summaries are concise versions of the original, with major ideas included and most supporting details eliminated.
  • However, if the first paragraph or paragraphs are there only to hook the reader, then their ideas should not be included in the summary.
  • If a paragraph is a single sentence, perhaps it can be combined with another sentence in the summary. Or perhaps it is not important.
  • If a paragraph is more than five sentences, or if it contains a series of important ideas, then more than one sentence should be written to summarize it.
  • At the beginning, even before the topic sentence, the student should name the piece of writing being summarized and its author, and any particular ideas that would be helpful to the reader. The student writer should let the reader know that he is reading a summary. Sometimes this information can be included with the topic sentence.
  • Even though a summary is not an essay, a topic sentence is essential to help the reader to understand the summary.
  • A conclusion is sometimes not necessary if it would summarize the summary.
  • A good summary should be complete; that is, it should include all the important information in the original. If an author spends five paragraphs on subtopic A but only one paragraph on subtopic B, then the summary should include more information about subtopic A (about five times more) than subtopic B.
  • If the original text shows a point of view on a topic, that point of view should be replicated in the summary (letting the reader know that the point of view is that of the original author).
  • If the original text is factual and objective, so should be the summary.
  • The student writing the summary should not include his own perspective on the topic. Sometimes this happens unconsciously, for example, by using the word “only.”

How to write a summary or a nonfiction reading selection:

  • When I am teaching summaries to a student, I ask the student to write the main idea of each paragraph being read in the margin next to that paragraph or on a post-it note pasted next to the paragraph.  If the reading selection contains chapters, then I ask the student to write the main ideas of the chapter at the beginning of that chapter.
  • After each paragraph’s (or chapter’s) main idea is identified, the student needs to read all those margin notes and ask himself how they relate to the whole. Why did the author include each of those ideas in his passage? From that musing by the student often comes the topic sentence of the summary. That sentence is the most important one, from which all the others flow.
  • Information in a summary should be paraphrased. Occasionally, quotation marks can show the original words of the author being summarized, but direct quotes should be the exception, not the rule.
  • Summaries are usually written in the present tense.
  • If the summary is more than five sentences, remind the reader that this is a summary by using words like, “as author so-and-so says,” or “as article such-and-such relates.” If the summary is several paragraphs, a reminder to the reader that he is reading a summary should be included in each paragraph.

How do you paraphrase?

In the 21st century, middle school students are writing research papers, so they need to know how to paraphrase. Quoting word-for-word is no longer the preferred way to present information in a research paper; paraphrasing is.

So what is paraphrasing? Paraphrasing is saying what someone else said (or wrote) using your own vocabulary and grammar. Paraphrasing turns antiquated writing into easy-to-understand modern writing; paraphrasing captures the essence of a writer’s ideas while ignoring his boring language; paraphrasing avoids plagiarism.

Paraphrasing is not the same as summarizing. In a paraphrase, the writer tries to capture all the important details of the original; in a summary, the writer leaves out most of those details.

How does a student paraphrase?

  • First, read the selection to be paraphrased. If you don’t understand every word and idea, read it again, look up words and ask for help. You can’t paraphrase what you don’t understand.
  • Carefully study the first sentence. Put it in your own words, being careful to use different vocabulary.   In particular, change the verbs if you can, using specific synonyms.
  • Now change the grammar. Try changing the order of the parts of the sentence so the ideas are the same, but they are not stated within a sentence in the same order.
  • Of course, you will need to use some of the same words in the original for which there are no synonyms, or for which alternatives would be cumbersome. If you are paraphrasing rules about how to play soccer, for example, you would need to use “soccer,” “ball,” “goal, “field” “play” and many other soccer-specific words.
  • Move through the selection one sentence at a time. As you get more experience, you can paraphrase ideas rather than sentences, combining ideas in several sentences in the original into one sentence in the paraphrase.  Or you can cut long, verbose sentences in the original into two or more shorter sentences in the paraphrase.
  • Paraphrases don’t need to be exactly the same length as the original, but all the important ideas in the original need to be stated in the paraphrase.
  • Read over your paraphrase to be sure it is clear to the reader.

Notice the difference between the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and a paraphrased version:

The original words:   “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.”

A paraphrase: Sometimes, one group of people who have been politically connected to another group of people decide it’s necessary to go their separate ways and to become a new country. Out of respect for everyone involved, it’s a good idea for the country which is separating to explain the reasons why the break is necessary.