Rethinking How We Teach Paraphrasing

When you teach a course on writing research, of course you do a lot of work with source handling.

I suspect that most of us were taught summary, paraphrase, and quotation as a set, and many of us were given exercises that drilled us to do each of these things with a source on command. That’s practical in that it focuses on the specific act of doing each of these things, but it doesn’t really contextualize when to summarize, paraphrase, or quote. It also doesn’t really conceptualize what we’re doing with the material when we summarize, paraphrase, or quote.

Oh, hey, the apples are back!

Summary and quotation are pretty simple to understand when to do which. Quote when you have a small section; summarize when you have a large one. Quote when you need exact words; summarize when you need whole ideas.

The problem child is the paraphrase. It’s in a weird space that exists somewhere between summary and quotation. It’s hard to conceptualize for students, who are often focused on the distinction between “your own words” and “someone else’s words” because they’re taught to fear plagiarism without really knowing what plagiarism is.

As with so many things about writing instruction, what’s needed here is more focus on purpose and rhetorical situation. But moreover we need a shift in how we conceptualize paraphrase.

Most of us have been given the definition that paraphrase is putting someone else’s idea into our own words. But so is summary. So what makes paraphrase distinct?

Aside from scale, which dictates that paraphrase is more on the small side like a quotation while summary is whole sections or whole texts, paraphrase is fundamentally an act of translation. It’s literally the transition phrase “In other words,…” put into action.

But, students would ask if they were actually inclined to ask questions in class, why would I need to translate something that’s in the same language I’m writing in?

And that’s where a deep understanding of how rhetorical situation and genre shape language comes in.

When we shift audience, we might need to translate what was tailored to the other audience. When we shift genre, we might need to translate the material into the conventions and expectations of the new genre. When we shift any other aspect of the rhetorical situation, we might need to translate the material into the new situation.

And it’s not like these three actions are exclusive things. When we do these drills, we treat the three actions as separate, but paraphrase often accompanies quotation like a little sibling traipsing along behind: “‘Quote.’ In other words, paraphrase,” we write when we need to explain how a quotation fits into our argument. That is, we provide the original and the translation side by side. Indeed, that template is one we often encourage students to do to properly ground their arguments in evidence and avoid dreaded “dropped quotes.”

So, what do we get when we conceptualize quotation, paraphrase, and summary in this way, where paraphrase is translation? We get a really cool matrix:

QuotationParaphraseSummary
DefinitionUsing exact passagesTranslating passages into the target styleCondensing large amounts of material into brief forms
ScaleSmall (sentence level)Small to medium (sentence to paragraph level)Large (section to global level)
Purpose/UseRepresenting exact or precise materialInterpreting material for a new audienceReducing long material into a smaller unit
Matrix for teaching quotation, paraphrase, and summary

This matrix can be expanded as necessary. There’s nothing really novel here except understanding paraphrase as an act of translation, and even that’s probably not that novel. But it may help learners think about how they’re using source material to serve their audience rather than simply to support their points or to meet a quotation quota.

Feel free to use this and modify it as you see fit!

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