Learning how to paraphrase is a crucial academic writing skill. Teaching paraphrasing is also a great way to teach critical thinking skills, because the struggle to write a succinct paraphrase forces students to wrestle with the underlying meaning of a writer’s statement. Here’s how I introduced this topic in my English for academic purposes class this semester.
Rather than give my students long blocks of text to paraphrase, I started with simple aphorisms by some of America’s greatest writers. Take, for instance, the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
How, I asked my students, could they express the underlying idea of this quotation in their own words? And could they do it in fewer words than the original quote?
I began by giving my students 10 minutes to speak first with one classmate, then with another, and then another to see if they could jointly unpack the meaning of the quote and explain it to each other (whence the parallel to “speed dating”). I then gave students 10 minutes to work with a partner to come up with a written paraphrase. Then I asked them to dictate their paraphrase to a classmate at the board.
Here are some of the paraphrases we ended up with:
- It’s easy to write but hard to think.
- Creating is a piece of cake. It only costs you your life.
- To make something written, you need to torture your mind.
- Writing is not a big deal. Sit in front of your computer and let your imagination come out.
- Writing hurts.
- Expressing my thoughts is a pleasure. All I need is to print words on paper.
The next challenge was for students to evaluate their classmates’ paraphrases in small groups. I challenged my students to review the paraphrases on the board and decide: Did any of their classmates’ paraphrases capture Hemingway’s sense of irony? Which ones did they think best captured the underlying point that Hemingway wanted to make?
As the students debated among themselves the merits of the different paraphrases on the board, they began to realize why some of the efforts fell short, (i.e., paraphrases #4 and #6 missed the point of the original quotation). Paraphrase #5 got high marks for succinctness from students who liked that it went right for the jugular (no pun intended). Paraphrase #1 was also judged to be close to the original in spirit, and praised for being more succinct than the original quotation.
This semester, we also tackled an even shorter, more challenging quote (often misattributed to Mark Twain):
“If I had more time, this letter would be shorter.”
What better way to teach writing students the virtues of being concise and succinct than to have them ponder the meaning of that paradox and attempt to paraphrase it?