Thursday, January 7, 2010

Paraphrasing Progress

Upon our return from the break, I've been teaching paraphrasing. Of course, in fourth grade, paraphrasing has a very different meaning from what high school teachers hope to see. Not quite ready for locating and citing sources, we talk over and over about how paraphrasing means putting ideas into your own words.

Pictures were a great way for us to begin. We looked at a picture, read a sentence that described the picture, and then tried to write our own sentences to show the same idea in different words.

Students have made some great progress with choosing synonyms that closely relate to the meaning of the original text. Consider this sentence:

Dark clouds filled the sky.

As students worked with a partner to try to paraphrase the sentence, I heard some great conversations. "What's another word for dark?" one asked. "Mrs. Kissner, could we use 'de-exposed' instead of filled?" The room filled with talk about which words could be replaced, and which words needed to stay the same. One student said, "We could call them 'puffy white things in the sky', but that would just be too many words. I think we should keep the word 'clouds'."

But they are still very much clinging to the original structure of the sentences that we talk about. For example, students worked on this sentence:

In the field, the horses grew nervous and restless at the coming storm.

Of course, to a skilled adult, the phrase "in the field" is a perfect candidate for moving around. "The approaching storm made the horses in the field skittish" or something along those lines would be fine. But my fourth graders kept on wanting to begin with "In the ....", and trying to replace "field" with "meadow". Which isn't bad--I'm glad that they know what a meadow is! But understanding how to move ideas around in a sentence is really a key to strong paraphrasing, and my students just aren't there.

I thought that some cross-genre paraphrasing would help them to break free of this pattern. With new partners, students tried to paraphrase a nursery rhyme. I modeled this by showing students how to visualize what is described in the nursery rhyme, and then describe their mental images. (We used "Little Boy Blue", which worked pretty well. Narrative nursery rhymes work best for this--the ones that tell stories instead of just repeating lots of lines.) Even as students tried to move across genres, they still stuck with the structure of the original. "It's really raining, the old man was snoozing..."

So we will keep going. Reading several books on the same topic is a slow but powerful way to help students see how the same ideas are expressed in different ways. We just read three books about puffins, and are now starting several about turtles. One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies worked wonderfully...her text is a lovely description of a sea turtle's life, and students found it easy to paraphrase ideas from several pages.

All of this underscores the truly hard work of paraphrasing. In fourth grade, I only want my students to be able to paraphrase from one given text, and use their paraphrased ideas to answer questions. In just a few short years, however, students will be expected to:

1. Find a text
2. Read and understand the information
3. Paraphrase the text
4. Accurately cite the source
5. Interweave ideas from multiple sources to support a thesis

Wow! We have a long way to go. For now, though, we'll keep trying to find synonyms and looking for ways to rearrange ideas.

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