[This post originally appeared in slightly different form on MiddleWeb on August 16, 2016.]
If you are trying to decide what to teach in the first few weeks of school, I have some advice: No matter what grade or subject you teach, make sure your students know how to paraphrase.
Paraphrasing is the first step on what I like to call The Comprehension Process Staircase.
As this chart indicates, when we’re given a sentence to read, we use our prior knowledge to put that sentence into our own words. For example, if you read, “The man fell down,” you might (very quickly, and without even realizing you’re doing it) turn that into, “He collapsed.” Incidentally, some people think paraphrasing means “simplifying.” It does not. It means “putting something into your own words,” and ideally that means using strong vocabulary. I opted for “collapsed” in this case because at least it was multi-syllabic.
Whether you teach ELA, social studies, science, or even math, your students must be able to paraphrase in order to comprehend the text(s) you place in front of them. If they can’t paraphrase, they will not be able to ask questions about the text or draw inferences from it. And if they can’t draw inferences, they will never arrive at the main idea/argument, which derives from an accumulation of inferences. (For more information on questioning and how it drives inference, see my earlier MiddleWeb post, “The #1 Close Reading Skill.”)
Now, 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. In fact, it requires us 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.
The Literacy Cookbook provides more detail on how to teach each of these operations.
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—again, 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. (PS: I like to introduce this strategy with a discussion about moving, packing, and more specifically, wrapping fragile items.) 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”= “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.