Last week, as part of our nonfiction study, we looked at how to paraphrase sentences. Paraphrasing is the process of putting ideas from the text into your own words. It's an important skill, one that is used across the content areas as students write summaries, take notes, and answer questions about text.
But teaching paraphrasing is tough! In order to paraphrase, readers need to have two basic skills:
Being able to replace words with synonyms-This means that readers need to have a wide range of vocabulary. When paraphrasing nonfiction, readers especially need to understand general academic vocabulary.
Being able to rearrange sentences-Readers need to be able to change the order of sentences and ideas.
Both of these are hard for fourth graders. Our first step is to look at how we can rearrange sentences. I showed students a sentence with an underlined prepositional phrase.
At the South Pole, no plants can grow.
We looked at how we could move the prepositional phrase around the sentence. Then we tried one that was a little longer:
The seas around Antarctica are filled with tiny plants called phytoplankton.
Of course, just moving around a prepositional phrase isn't paraphrasing. So then we looked at how we could replace words with synonyms:
The United States operates three research stations in Antarctica.
What words could we use to replace the word "operates"? Students came up with several that work--runs, keeps, has. Then we looked at what words we couldn't change in the sentence, like research stations. This phrase has a very specific meaning with no real synonyms. This also highlights the role of background knowledge in paraphrasing. When kids have well-developed knowledge about the topic, they have a better idea of what can be replaced and what needs to be kept.
Finally, kids tried to put it all together to paraphrase a few sentences. It takes some time to teach, but students respond well to the instruction. When we work on summarizing after the holiday break, our task will be much easier.
Looking for help with paraphrasing? Here are some ideas:
1. Work with students to develop their academic vocabulary. The Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead is a great resource for this.
2. Show students how to move ideas around in sentences. This could fit in during writing instruction or even handwriting time.
3. Work with sentences that relate to content. Kids need to have some background knowledge about the topic in order to paraphrase successfully. In fact, when readers are having trouble paraphrasing, that's a good indicator that comprehension just isn't happening!