Adding Friction. A Teacher Asks, "I'm Confused—What Is a Paraphrase?"

The teacher has reason to be confused! For one thing, the terms summary and paraphrase are often conflated or defined in contradictory ways. For instance, one writing teacher counsels that a well-crafted summary should reflect the structure and order of the original, including the important details (Kissner 8), while a second instructor maintains that these are precisely the characteristics of an exemplary paraphrase (Lunsford et al. 370). However defined, summary and paraphrase are not the same thing. Still, they do share some commonalities. Both are restatements of the original text, grounded in an understanding of its meaning. Paraphrased or summarized notes contain the preliminary thinking needed to incorporate the author’s words into one’s own writing. The more complex the ideas and structure, the more difficulty students will have in representing the author’s meaning succinctly and accurately without sounding like the source. Beyond that, both are a “means to inquiry…[in that] the act of recasting someone else’s words or ideas into your own language, to suit your argument and reach your readers, forces you to think critically” (Greene and Lidinsky 140).

What’s the difference between a summary and a paraphrase?

In short, “a summary faithfully digests the author’s main idea in your own words” (Abilock 46). An economical restatement of the gist or substance of other experts’ ideas demonstrates to the reader that the student is skillful—an expert “in control” of an argument. Students can summarize to restate several authors’ main ideas concisely as they build their thesis or synthesis. In an annotated bibliography, summaries are the bedrock statements upon which one constructs an assessment of the significance and value of a source.

On the other hand, a paraphrase fully restates and clarifies the author’s meaning, mirroring the structure, ideas, reasoning, and point of view of the original in your own voice. Paraphrasing is expansive rather than economical, rephrasing the author’s argument or explanation in about the same length as the original. It re-presents the author’s viewpoint in fresh language and one’s own voice—but maintains the logic or structure of the original text. A writer chooses to paraphrase rather than quote when the author’s main points, evidence and logic are important but the language is not vivid nor the voice unique enough to quote (Lunsford et al. 370).

“If the original quotation is horribly mangled by false starts, labyrinthine syntax, jargon, or grammatical errors, the text should paraphrase the speaker’s point.” —Amy Einsohn, professional editor and author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook.

In practice, a fresh, full, and fair representation of the original text can be incorporated directly into one’s essay where it can be analyzed, argued, augmented, and assimilated. Thus, paraphrasing confers authority by showing that the writer, with skill and confidence, can negotiate and come to terms with others’ viewpoints and, in the process, define one’s own views. In contrast, poor paraphrasing is evidence of an imperfect understanding of the original source and insufficient “word stock”—the dangers of which are likely plagiarism or patchwriting (Howard). Whether intentional, ignorant, or just careless, the student who imitates an author using words that are “so similar to those of your source that they are almost a quotation” is plagiarizing even if the source is cited (Turabian et al. 79).

A paraphrase is “a piece of modern speech you can imagine the speaker of the original poem saying that conveys in different words exactly and fully every shade of meaning in the original poem, both what's said and what's implied." —Seamus Cooney, poetry scholar.

Lauri Vaughan, Upper School Campus Librarian at The Harker School (San Jose, CA), stresses that paraphrasing is discipline-specific:

Word substitution works in English where we can use a whole host of synonyms for the word ‘work,’ but ‘work’ is a technical term in physics—it has a very specific meaning and cannot be replaced. The sciences are so loaded with technical terms, which explains why scientific writing relies so much more heavily on both summary and super-heavy citation.

She teaches students not to paraphrase primary documents and literary texts. While a writer might summarize an event in the plot or “a portion of a historical document to call it to your reader’s attention and ground it in context,” as a rule she counsels them to quote rather than paraphrase primary sources.

Structured Practice with Text Sets

Paraphrasing is a substantial part of every research paper and many other forms of nonfiction writing. Rather than “covering” this essential process in a single lesson, initiate a series of short practice sessions that break the necessary skills into a sequence that can be iterated throughout the year.

Use text sets that are relevant to the class curriculum or about which students have some prior knowledge. If these texts include videos and visuals, it will enable students to ramp up their background knowledge quickly. Select engaging topics of varied genres and length (for some examples go to http://noodle.to/paramulti). With a free NoodleTools account, you (and your students) can download a template project which includes notecards that model good and poor paraphrasing that you can ask students to evaluate and revise.

Suggest that students experiment with an auto-paraphrasing tool that substitutes often inappropriate synonyms to hilarious effect. Make the point that a paraphrase is not a mindless substitution exercise; it requires that the reader understand the main idea, the logic and the meaning of the entire source. In the bizarre auto-paraphrasing result below (right column), the software has substituted the word “summarizing” for “paraphrasing,” (see bold) and uses synonyms that sound impressive but obscure the meaning of my original definition (left column).

My definition of paraphrasing auto-paraphrase software* result
* Paraphrasing Tool (Rogerson and McCarthy)

Paraphrasing is expansive rather than economical. In about the same length as the original, it rephrases the author’s argument or explanation, using fresh language and one’s own voice, modeling the original structure as it re-presents the author’s viewpoint.
A writer chooses to paraphrase rather than quote when the author’s main points, evidence and logic are important but the language is not vivid nor the voice unique enough to quote (Lunsford et al. 370).
Summarizing is far reaching instead of temperate. In about an indistinguishable length from the first, it rewords the creator's contention or clarification, utilizing crisp dialect and one's own particular voice, displaying the first structure as it re-shows the creator's perspective.
An essayist summarizes instead of quote when the writer's fundamental focuses, confirmation and rationale are vital yet the dialect is not clear nor the voice sufficiently exceptional to cite (Lunsford et al. 370).

Many LibGuides contain tutorials and adult-generated paraphrase examples (and non-examples) for students to work through. You can extract examples from student papers on the MLA site (https://style.mla.org/sample-papers/) or from NHD award winners published in The History Teacher (http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/NHD.html). Collect your own students’ writing, with permission, to reuse as practice examples in subsequent years. As you select and evaluate these samples, you will develop new respect for the challenging task of paraphrasing.

In the last analysis, paraphrasing is more than a technique for avoiding plagiarism. Paraphrasing is a powerful vehicle for vocabulary acquisition and a means to inquiry through critical thinking. By thinking about what an author means and making choices on how to best present it in fresh language to one’s readers, students develop into flexible writers who are capable of joining the scholarly conversation with confidence.

Works Cited (MLA format)

Abilock, Debbie. "How Do I Teach Students to Summarize in Their Own Words?" School Library Connection, vol. 33, no. 1, Aug.-Sept. 2014, pp. 46-47, slc.librariesunlimited.com/Home/Display/1949174.

Greene, Stuart, and April Lidinsky. From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2012.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Video-Understanding Patchwriting." Writing Matters, McGraw Hill, 21 May 2009, www.rebeccamoorehoward.com/videos/video-4.

Kissner, Emily. Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking. Heinemann, 2006.

Lunsford, Andrea A., et al. The St. Martin's Handbook. 5th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.

Rogerson, Amy M., and Grace McCarthy. "Using Internet Based Paraphrasing Tools: Original Work, Patchwriting or Facilitated Plagiarism?" International Journal for Educational Integrity, vol. 13, no. 2, 26 Jan. 2017. SpringerOpen, doi:10.1007/s40979-016-0013-y.

Turabian, Kate L., et al. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. 8th ed., U of Chicago P, 2013.

Vaughan, Lauri. "A Question of Paraphrase." Received by the author, 8 May 2017.

About the Author

Debbie Abilock, MLS, cofounded and directs the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service teaching platform for academic research. Her column is based on over 55,000 research questions from educators and students that have been answered by NoodleTools' experts. As a former school administrator, curriculum coordinator, and school librarian, Debbie works with district leadership teams and professional organizations on curriculum and instruction. She was founding editor-in-chief of Knowledge Quest (1997-2010), writes for education publications, and has co-authored Growing Schools (Libraries Unlimited) about innovative site-based leadership and professional development led by school librarians.

MLA Citation Abilock, Debbie. "Adding Friction. A Teacher Asks, 'I'm Confused—What Is a Paraphrase?'." School Library Connection, August 2017, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2221946.

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