Reading Reconsidered: Paraphrase vs. Summary

I have already posted a review of Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway's new book, Reading Reconsidered, but I've been experimenting with some of the strategies I learned there, and I want to share them with you, dear blog readers.

One significant change I made to my teaching after Common Core was reading out loud. I'm almost ashamed to share how much I used to use this strategy, justifying it with the idea that it was the only way most students would "get" what the text was saying. As a Common Core teacher, I let the text speak for itself, seldom going beyond the first paragraph of the reading.

Lemov, Driggs and Woolway pushed me on this by showing that Close Reading wasn't just about text-based follow-up questions.
Too often, conversations about literature, from the gelementary to the college level, are "gist" conversations--conversations wherein readers understand a text at a broad and general level and proceed to develop and share opinions about it.... The assumption is that, because students have gotten the main idea, they know the text comprehensively. Of course, this is not true. There is much more to a text than a pithy statement of its general argument...
Close Reading, then, starts with establishing meaning via sustained and methodical attention to what the text says, a task that can be iimmensely challenging. (101-102 of my galley copy)
This leads to an extended discussion of "summarizing" versus "paraphrasing" as teaching tools. Having students summarize a text can be a great way to assess whether or not they get the gist of the work. It's a good step for a first-read, especially with nonfiction.

Paraphrasing on the other hand, "is a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still captures all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible." What' I've learned from Lemov, et. al., is that it can be used with paraphrasing to get students deep into a text.

Right after I read the book, I began a unit on Moby Dick. I decided to immediately try out the summarize/ paraphrase strategies with my students.

The first text I assigned was informational--a whale hunt described in Chapter 3 of Nathaniel Philbrick's book, In the Heart of the Sea. This is a text I once read aloud to students, just to get their reactions to Philbrick's vivid prose. This time they read silently and answered the prompt, "How to hunt a whale in (numeral) (adjective) steps." I got back summaries like "How to kill a whale in four inhumane steps." Other adjectives included "wicked," "bloody," and "slippery" (one of my favorites). (Later, I would ask students to support the adjective they used with evidence from the text.)

Now it was time to try the paraphrasing. I found a sentence in the text in which Philbrick explicitly stated the direction that his descriptions would take:
While each mate or captain had his own style, they all coaxed and cajoled their crews with words that evoked the savagery, excitement, and the almost erotic bloodlust associated with pursuing one of the largest mammals on the planet.
This sentence had some challenging Tier 2 words like "cajoled" and "evoked." Students had wrestled with it in the discussion that followed the first reading. This would become my first stab at paraphrasing (pardon the whaling pun). It was worthy of the direction found in the book, where Lemov, et. al., state, "the ideas here are interwoven and complex and relate to the important themes in the book."

In class we went over key words and wrote them on the board. Yes, we got a little sidetracked on the words, "erotic bloodlust," these are teenagers after all, but the discussion didn't get too kinky, I assure you. Then students paraphrased the sentence.

Here were some of the results:
  • Even though each mate or captain had their own style, they all said things to get each other excited and ready to kill whales.
  • Although each captain had their own way of doing it, each accomplished the ultimate goal of arousing the crew into a state of obscene and carnal thrill that is associated with stalking and killing one of the biggest animals on the earth. 
  • Each whale hunter killed whales in a different way, but all of them invigorated their crews with the feelings of bravery and daringness required to kill a beast. 
  • In their own ways, each person encouraged one another to bring out the fierce and passionate attitude that accompanied the hunting of a whale.
What I found interesting was the variety of responses. I was expecting more sameness, but kids really took up the challenge using their own, strong vocabulary. These sentences don't seem "dummed down" as one might expect from a paraphrase at all.

I enjoyed this so much, I practiced it on the next reading, an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Moby Dick. I began with a general question, "What's wrong with Ishmael?" or something like that. Once students had discussed suicidal thoughts, window-shopping at coffin stores, a lust for adventure, and others, I refocused them on a single idea in the chapter--a complex sentence in which Melville reveals Ishmael's essential truth:
Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.
The negative at the beginning, "not ignorning what is good..." always throws readers off. Yet this sentence predicts how Ishmael will interact with a madman like Captain Ahab. It was a way to get at one theme of the text in a very quick, very thorough way.

Students weren't as successful with this one--possibly because I didn't go over any obvious vocabulary--"inmates" is the only one that may need explaining. The complexity in this sentence is in the way Melville sets it up.

Here is one response I got
  • I’m not ignoring what is well, I am trimbling of what could happen and i’m still aware of it, would my fear haunt me? Since my fears haunt me i still have my inmates to comfort me.
This was an indicator for re-teaching and a reminder to myself of just how thorough a teacher needs to be to get the most out of student paraphrasing activities. Still, I don't know that I would have had any indication of this given student's ability without such an activity.

This week we will read our final scene, "The Chase, Third Day." I already have my sentence for paraphrasing picked out, along with notes about the key first paragraph.

What do you think?


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  2. Great post! I'm working on incorporating the ideas from Reading Reconsidered into lesson plans (4th graders reading Holes), and it was really helpful to the examples you gathered through your own application of the text. The inclusion of multiple student responses really elevated this beyond the original work of Lemov, et al. Love the (number) (adjective) activity especially.


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