Paraphrasing and Reading

While you may think of paraphrasing as something you do only when you write papers, paraphrasing, or translating the author's ideas into your own words, is actually an essential reading skill. After all, when we really want to understand something, we paraphrase it.

Think about it. Even if you are just reading instructions for how to construct a simple, three-shelf bookcase, you are likely to paraphrase. The directions might say "Place board 1 at a right angle to board 2," and you say to yourself, "This board goes on the corner of this one." What you've done is automatically paraphrase, or re-word, the directions to make sure you understand them. That, in a nutshell, is the whole point of paraphrasing.

Why Reading and Paraphrasing go Hand in Hand

Paraphrasing while reading isn't just essential to concrete tasks like putting book shelves together. It's critical for every kind of reading you do. Paraphrasing acts as a comprehension check. If you can paraphrase what you've read, you have understood the material. And make no mistake, if you don't paraphrase, it's easy to deceive yourself on that score. When the author's words are right in front of your eyes, you can convince yourself you've understand their meaning. But if you take those words away and can't recap what they say in words of your own, guess what, you haven't really understood the author's message.

And that's not something you want to find out right before a test. You need to know that while you are reading, so you can

  1. re-read the passage more slowly
  2. mark it for a later re-reading or
  3. ask someone for help understanding the author’s words.

Equally important, paraphrasing gives your brain a chance to store what you have learned from your reading in long-term memory. While you are looking for word substitutes that allow you to paraphrase, your brain is re-processing what you have just read.

It's the double processing of new information that makes paraphrasing such a useful learning strategy with three important benefits:

  1. It forces you to re-think and, therefore, better understand the material.
  2. It tells you when you have not fully understood what you have read.
  3. It acts as a memory booster, giving your brain the time to store new information in long-term memory.

Accurate and Inaccurate Paraphrases

An accurate paraphrase has to change the words, but it can't alter the meaning. Look at the examples of paraphrasing that follow and note how the first one distorts the original meaning while the second stays true to the original.

Original: When we are in our twenties, we are confronted with the task of learning how to behave in a world of new responsibilities and demands. This task is very different from the goal of our thirties, when many of us have to take responsibility not just for ourselves but also for other people. [Source: Santos. Life Changes, p42]

Paraphrase a: As we age, we have to learn how to function as adults, which means taking responsibility for other people who cannot help themselves and who need our assistance.

Paraphrase b: Once we reach our twenties, we have to learn how to take responsibility for ourselves, but in our thirties, our responsibilities extend to other people as well.

Paraphrase a is incorrect because it makes the opening phrase more general than it is in the original. The original text focuses on what happens in our twenties and thirties. It excludes other times in our life.

Paraphrase a also distorts the original both in terms of content and relationships. The original text talks about first taking responsibility for ourselves, then for other people. Paraphrase a focuses only on the second task of growing up and taking responsibility for others. The original text, however, describes a two-step process, where we first take responsibility for ourselves and then for others.

Paraphrasing Tip: When you want to paraphrase, think about the relationships between the words before you look for word substitutes. Understanding the relationships can make finding replacements easier.

Last update of this page: Feb. 27, 2014