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Reading Closely to See the Big Picture: The Power of Paraphrasing for Adolescents

Arthur Unobskey
May 30, 2023
Riveting Results Blog

In a recent class using Riveting Results’ Paraphrase Activity, students discussed their paraphrase of a small piece of text (in bold below) from Chapter 10 of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. In this chapter, Douglass describes how slaveholders purposely pushed enslaved people to drink to excess. Here is the part of Chapter 10 that the students paraphrased: 

One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeeded in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess.

Selena (not her real name) paraphrased Douglass's words: 

“a gamble on people they own.”

Her partner, Jose (not his real name), paraphrased Douglass's words:

“to create stakes on the people they own.”

The two decided that Jose’s paraphrase was closer to Douglass’s writing because its more literal “stakes” better captured the wagering that was actually occurring. In fact, by favoring this more literal interpretation, Selena and Jose had tapped into the most salient point of the chapter: how these drinking competitions degraded the men who participated in them as well as the rest of the enslaved community.

By narrowing students’ focus on a small amount of crucial text rather than on summarizing the entire chapter, the close reading that paraphrasing prompts actually helps students to see the larger picture.

As I watch students paraphrase a variety of texts and explain their reasoning, I see this happen over and over again: They gain insights that they can then apply to a larger section of text. In my next post, I’ll explore more generally why, by paraphrasing text, rather than summarizing it, students gain these powerful insights. 

Arthur Unobskey

CEO of Riveting Results

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