Teaching Concision

June 15, 2020

To teach students the distinction between summarizing and paraphrasing, I used two Emily Dickinson poems: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” (Fr372) and “Much Madness is divinest Sense –” (Fr620). (Due to copyright restrictions, I’m unable to include the poems here, but both are accessible online through the Poetry Foundation, and the hyperlinks above should take you directly to each poem.)

First, I explained what “summarize” and “paraphrase” mean. Then, I distributed the poems on a single sheet of paper, asking students to summarize Fr372 and paraphrase Fr620. I asked everyone to preview the poems and shout out any words they did not know, such as “discerning,” “demur,” “assent,” and “ought,” and then I wrote the definitions on the board.

The first time I did this assignment, I had students write on the paper and turn it in without any discussion. I described it as a quiz, but they got full credit if they tried; it didn’t matter whether they were “correct.” I wanted to see how students understood the poems without the temptation (or ability) to google for interpretations. I immediately learned the assignment was too difficult to assign it as such. 

I tried several variations over the years. The assignment was most successful when it was the first part of an in-class discussion about summarizing and paraphrasing—students wrote their initial responses, followed by corrections or notes during the in-class discussion, and then turned in the paper at the end of class to get credit for the assignment.

Here are some variations I tried:

  1. After giving students time to write their summaries and paraphrases, ask for volunteers to write theirs on the board and then discuss.
  2. Have students work in pairs with each student writing on his or her own paper.
  3. Divide students into groups; have each group write their summary and paraphrase on the board and then discuss how they arrived at their answers.
  4. This one is slightly terrifying for students but can be very effective, depending on the type of class you have: Pick one or two students at random to present their responses to the rest of the class.

I used this in introductory college writing classes as well as American Literature, British Literature, and an upper-division course on the American Renaissance, and I always taught it during the first week of the semester. Very few students can understand these poems in a single class setting without any discussion or assistance, but the lesson makes for a very effective introduction to difficult texts and illustrates why summarizing and paraphrasing are necessary initial steps in reading and writing. Even though I used this lesson for college courses, it would work well in high school classes with a bit more practice beforehand or as group work.

My summary of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” (Fr372): Stages of grief follow a traumatic experience.

 My paraphrase of “Much Madness is divinest Sense –” (Fr620): The majority defines insanity; going along with the majority means you are sane, but going against them means you are a threat.

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