Increase Comprehension Through Paraphrasing Activities

Guiding adult learners through the steps of producing an accurate paraphrase of text can be challenging; yet, it is a critical skill for increased comprehension of complex text. It requires the student to actively engage with the text and maintain a high level of attention during the reading activity – no more sleep-reading!

According to the 2010 report, Adult Education Literacy Instruction: A Review of the Research, the most effect practice to increase reading comprehension included providing direct and explicit instruction of comprehension strategies. In addition, long-term studies conducted by the University of Kansas concluded that comprehension and retention of material increased in proportion to the quality and quantity of oral paraphrased statements.

What do the components of explicit oral paraphrasing instruction include? Here are some suggestions that have worked in my classroom. These have been adapted from the Learning Strategies Curriculum from the University of Kansas.

Step 1 – Pretest and Make Commitments

Give your students a simple comprehension assessment to gather “pre” instruction data. I suggest using a passage from Six-Way Paragraphs or Timed Reading Plus (both from McGraw-Hill). This exercise is a silent reading with corresponding comprehension questions. In addition, I find that my students will maintain motivation if they make a formal commitment to the upcoming process and I, in turn, make a commitment with regard to my role in the learning process to my students.

Step 2 – Describe the Process

Create anchor charts or handouts that outline the requirements for a paraphrase, how to find the main idea and support, and steps for paraphrasing. I use the RAP steps:

  • Read a paragraph
  • Ask – what are the main ideas and details in this paragraph
  • Put the main idea and details into your own words

Step 3 – Model the process

Demonstrate the paraphrasing steps while “thinking aloud” so students can experience all of the cognitive processes involved in this strategy. I encourage my students to ask questions as I go through the process.

Step 4 – Guided Practice

Guided Practice should be at their current reading level. The purpose of this step is to give students ample opportunities for practice and to build confidence and fluency of this strategy.

Step 5 – Advanced Practice

Then move to Advanced Practice by using materials at the instructional level and applying the same RAP strategy. The goal is to fade the instructional prompts and cues given during earlier steps and make the students more responsible for their learning using more difficult texts.

Step 6 – Post-test

Give students an assessment to check comprehension skills after they have practiced the previous steps for an appropriate amount of time.

This is a process that can be applied across all content areas and works with native and nonnative speakers of English. It has been my experience that giving students opportunities to orally paraphrase makes transitioning to written paraphrasing a more successful experience. Try scaffolding written paraphrases by beginning with key words, then move to the phrase and sentence level before attempting paraphrasing whole paragraphs. Follow the same process of instruction for writing paraphrases: explain, model, guide, and independent practice.

Finally, giving feedback is a critical component of both oral and written paraphrasing instruction. Develop a simple checklist that can be reviewed with individual students that indicates if the paraphrase maintained the meaning of the text, was stated or written in student’s own words, and communicated the main points. Try to give feedback as soon as possible to help students with future paraphrasing work. A critical component to giving feedback is to ask the student to specify how he or she is going to try to improve for the next time.

Vicki Estrem, Language & Literacy Team Member ATLAS