One of the most fundamental skills you need in order to comprehend ANYTHING is the ability to put things in your own words—in other words (wink, wink), to paraphrase. Given how important this skill is, it’s stunning how few people actually teach their students how to paraphrase.
I think part of the problem is that we assume that humans paraphrase naturally. And indeed, there is some truth to that. As we learn new words, we learn how they work together, and we learn how to unpack them when they are combined. Our instinct is always to try to make sense of what we encounter.
But paraphrasing is not as simple as it might seem. As I’ve noted on the TLC Website “Comprehension 101” page and in my forthcoming book, THE LITERACY COOKBOOK, paraphrasing requires you to perform three distinct operations:
- Unpack vocabulary (attack roots; use prior knowledge and context clues).
- Unpack syntax and grammar (unpack clauses and phrases; pay attention to punctuation).
- Draw inferences from idioms.
In the next few posts, we’ll dig into these steps in more detail, especially the tricky one about idioms. For now, let’s look at how you can train students how to paraphrase STRATEGICALLY. One reason that students struggle with paraphrasing is that they are unsure which words to CHANGE vs. which to KEEP. They need a strategy for how to make these decisions.
Here’s one that works, no matter what grade or subject you teach:
STEP 1. CIRCLE or BRACKET the words or phrases that you CANNOT or don’t want to change. These words/phrases are crucial to the meaning of the passage and should not be changed because doing so would change that meaning. MNEMONIC HINT: Help students remember what to circle by telling them to “wrap the words you want to keep in protective bubble wrap” and pretend to hug something precious. The words you want to keep or “protect” might include:
- Proper nouns (unless they can be replaced by something that does not change their meaning, such as “Obama”à “the President”)
- Statistics/specific information
- Words that are unique or difficult to find a synonym for
STEP 2: UNDERLINE the words or phrases that you know you CAN change.
That’s it. Here’s an example, using a random sentence from the NY Times:
ORIGINAL: [Jimi Hendrix’s jacket], along with a mesmerizing hoard [of trinkets from rock’s] glory days, [were] stuffed haphazardly into every corner of the shop [until last fall, when rent increases] forced the store to close.
PARAPHRASED: Jimi Hendrix’s jacket and a fascinating collection of trinkets from rock’s heyday were jammed randomly throughout the store until last fall, when rent increases made the owner shut down the business.
*This entry is adapted from a chapter in The Literacy Cookbook, which is available for pre-order HERE.