Miriam Moore

Teaching Paraphrase with Multilingual Writers

Blog Post created by Miriam Moore Expert on Mar 6, 2019

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. One area of concern for many instructors is plagiarism and patchwriting with multilingual writers. A number of researchers and pedagogical experts have weighed in on the causes of this particular challenge and ways to address it (see articles by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue, as well as Pecorari, for example).


I would echo one of their findings: for many multilingual writers, patchwriting often results from a novice attempt at paraphrase – an attempt that can be improved with an increased focus on instruction and practice. 

I begin a discussion of paraphrase early in my FYC and corequisite courses, since much of our text-based writing requires integration of source material via summary, paraphrase, or quote. When I introduce the concept, I ask students to consider how they are already making use of paraphrase in their daily lives. Multilingual students frequently negotiate conversations in multiple languages, and paraphrase is a strategic resource they deploy when moving between languages and audiences. We talk about the quizzical look we might get in our daily conversations, a look that signals that we have not communicated well. So we try again: we re-phrase, and we paraphrase. We also put paraphrase to work in teaching, coaching, parenting, mentoring, training, and encouraging—roles many of my multilingual students are quite familiar with. 


What students are able to see quickly is that paraphrase outside of the classroom is not about checking a box on a rubric; it’s all about communicating a message so that a particular audience can understand it. Our purpose is explanation, and the goal is comprehension. What we do in writing is essentially the same thing: we encounter interesting and sometimes challenging concepts and ideas from the texts we read, and our goal is to communicate those ideas clearly for our own readers. 


Having established the purpose of a paraphrase, students note quickly that paraphrase requires an understanding of the information being shared. The first step is successful paraphrasing is reading for understanding – often reading many times. 


I next tell students I am going to tell them how NOT to paraphrase. I take a sentence or two from a difficult text we are working with, such as this one from Elizabeth Wardle’s essay in Bad Ideas about Writing. We talk about what it means to “put something in our own words,” and I show them a strategy that doesn’t work: we go through and substitute synonyms or related words for each major content word in the passage. Students may use a thesaurus or translator for this activity. Then we look at the results we get. I ask the students to consider whether or not the paraphrase is successful, and most will readily agree that it is not: it doesn’t explain, and it makes no sense. Our criteria for judgment is not how many words are copied before one is changed; rather, it is the effectiveness of the paraphrase in explaining the ideas in the original text.


We also take a look at paraphrases generated by online paraphrase tools, which usually produce a word salad akin to the paraphrase we generated in our first version. We wrap our introductory overview of paraphrasing by looking at a variety of successful and no-so-successful paraphrases, with example of patchwriting thrown in. Setting up the discussion with the purpose of paraphrase allows students to focus first on the meaning communicated in the paraphrase, and second on the language used to convey that meaning.


Finally, I have students work in collaborative groups to practice. I ask a targeted question about a concept from something we have read, and I ask the students to draft a paragraph in which they first quote from the target text to answer the question and then paraphrase the quote they’ve chosen. Finally, they extend the paragraph with an example from their own experience, and we review the paragraphs to see if readers can identify the parts (quote, paraphrase, and expansion) and the boundaries between them.


In peer responses to the paragraphs, students get one more shot at practicing paraphrase: they read a classmate’s paragraph and attempt to paraphrase the topic sentence (main idea), using the following frame.


       “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that __________________, right?”


This intensive practice prepares students to work with blending partial quotes, paraphrases, and summaries later in the term. While the class sessions devoted to paraphrase practice early on do not fully eliminate patchwriting and plagiarism, they provide students with a strong base for continued practice and discussion.