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Teaching Paraphrasing to ESL Writing Students

Teaching Paraphrasing to ESL Writing Students

Learning to write academically in English is a huge challenge for second language students. While they must deal with complex syntactical structures and academic vocabulary in a second language, they also face the unfamiliar notion of rhetoric in English academic writing (Steinman, 2003). In the previous articles of EFL magazines, many writers have discussed the challenges for students learning English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and shared useful resources in EAP instruction.

Regarding format and finding topics, Thorkelson (2019) introduced tools that help students write a good essay and provided a list of online resources for students to find topics and manage citation formats. In terms of managing the content and organizing ideas, Owen (2019) discussed how to help students plan academic writing by a series of pre-writing strategies. Likewise, Bonkowski (2016) used his writing class as an example to explain how to solve the problem of organizing and sequencing excessive resources and materials with a clear focus. 

While all of these –format, organization of ideas, use of various materials- account for the challenges that second language students are facing in the English academic world, one of the predominant difficulties for non-native English speaking writers is paraphrasing and citing sources. These challenges arise with the increasing emphasis on formal academic writing in higher education setting. This article will address the challenges for L2 students in paraphrasing, and the tips for teaching paraphrasing skills.

Challenges in paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is defined as the ability to transform a sentence in a way that makes it semantically equal with the original sentence, but different lexically and syntactically (McCarthy, Guess & McNamara, 2009). It often includes a change in sentence structure, using synonyms to replace original vocabulary, or changing the parts of speech, etc.

Paraphrasing source proves to be difficult for L2 students. Even when students have gained the basic communication skills in English, the productive skills (such as speaking and writing) have long been the center of students’ linguistic problems (Evans & Green, 2007) in an academic context. Even advanced level graduates often face challenges in developing such intertextual skill as paraphrasing (Yamada, 2003). In scientific writing and publishing, the malpractice of copying text has been denoted by terms such as close paraphrases, misappropriating text, reusing language, text recycling (which specifically refers to recycling one’s own previously published text), or outright plagiarism (Li, 2015).

Problems facing students

Research regarding how to deal with sources in students’ academic writing has revealed that patchwriting and exact copying are common among novices (e.g., Howard, Serviss & Rodrigue, 2010). It has also been shown that students who are new to English academic writing also lift their citation (borrow second-hand references from others) (Li and Casanave 2012). These are just a few examples of the problems facing second language students in academic writing. Thus, paraphrasing skills is proven to be a challenge as well as an important component in learning academic writing.

Teaching paraphrasing to ESL students

Paraphrasing skills is extremely important, as it could strengthen one’s writing by providing evidence, add credibility to work by referring to other sources, and help writers avoid plagiarism. In most university EAP programs, citing practice and paraphrasing is always an essential topic of the class agenda. Below are several tips to teach paraphrasing.

Resources for students

Here are several resources that could be introduced to help students deal with paraphrasing. These resources are tools for students to re-phrase and re-structure sentences, which is a crucial step in paraphrasing. 

Academic Phrasebank:Students could find phrases and sentence starters for defining ideas, comparing and contrasting ideas, describing cause and effect, and explaining evidence on this site. This phrase bank would be really helpful when students feel there is a lack of vocabulary, and do not know where to start when doing paraphrasing.

Online paraphrasing tools:

There are also several online paraphrasing tools. Students could type in the original text and then it will generate a paraphrased version. For example, “paraphrase project topics” and “rewriter tools” are examples of such online tools and it is convenient to use. However, these machine-generated versions sometimes contain errors, and students need to really be careful while using them. It is advised that while one can refer to the paraphrases generated by these tools, it is better to read them again and correct the errors.

University writing center websites:

Most universities have writing center websites, which post contents and guides on the format and skills of writing. These posts can answer most of their puzzles about paraphrasing. For example, there is a “five-item-quiz” for students to identify which paraphrase is correct. Many websites also teach students about the concept of paraphrasing and steps to do it. Just by exploring writing center sites of different institutions, students could benefit a lot from the university resources worldwide through the internet. 

Tips for teachers on how to teach paraphrasing

Play the childhood game: telephone

Although paraphrasing is basically an academic writing skill, it could be learned from a less formal way at the beginning. In the telephone game, the teacher often starts by whispering a message to a student. Then the student will pass the information along to the next person, and it goes on. The last person who receives the message will tell it to the whole class to see if it has changed or has kept the original ideas. This casual game of telephone is a good way to engage students in the practice of paraphrasing skills. It also connects paraphrasing to real life and makes it easier for students to understand. This is a fun way to have students turn the information into their own words and pass it along to others, which is the nature of the practice of paraphrasing.

Compare different versions of paraphrasing 

Another commonly used method to teach paraphrasing is to provide several different versions of paraphrasing to students and ask them to decide which one is a better paraphrase of the original text. When selecting different paraphrases, teachers need to pay attention to some common errors that students like to make in their own paraphrase, and include these errors into the choices. While students work in groups and decide which paraphrase is better, they will be aware of the mistakes in those “not-so-perfect” paraphrases and learn to avoid them in their own writing in the future. Here is an example of how to do this in class.

Teaching the Challenging but Essential Academic Writing Skill of Paraphrasing
Teaching the Challenging but Essential Academic Writing Skill of Paraphrasing

The chunking method

In the chunking method, paraphrasing is divided into several steps, and students are guided to complete the paraphrasing of a text step by step.

  1. The first step is to divide the sentence into small meaningful units called chunks. Then, in step two, students rewrite each chunk by finding synonyms or changing parts of speech. They could refer to or other tools to help them rewrite each chunk.
  2. Next students will rearrange the new words they just wrote for each chunk, and organize them into a new sentence.
  3. Finally, they will read and check that the grammar is correct and if the meaning makes sense, and a paraphrased sentence is created. The chunking method provides a step-by-step strategy for students to deal with complex and long sentences that they often encounter in academic sources. This makes paraphrasing simpler by breaking down the process. Below is an example of using the chunking method.

Read and understand chunks

teaching paraphrasing to esl students

Divide the sentence into chunks

teaching paraphrasing to esl students

Reorganise the new words into new sentences

Essential Academic Writing Skill


Teaching the Challenging but Essential Academic Writing Skill of Paraphrasing

Group paraphrasing practice

Finally, another one of the activities that could be used in paraphrasing practice is to let students work together in groups to paraphrase an excerpt and then give the work to another group to “paraphrase the paraphrase.” The second group can give it to a third group, and so on. In order to use the time more efficiently, each group could work on a different excerpt first, then exchange the paraphrasing draft with another group, and “paraphrase the paraphrase”. At the end of the activity, the class can compare the final paraphrase with the original sentence to see if the meaning has remained the same. If the meaning stays the same, students could be aware of the different versions of paraphrases. If the meaning varies, students could compare each group’s paraphrase to see what went wrong and the type of error.


It is indeed difficult for one to write formally in a second language. Often, students are totally aware that it is important to paraphrase, and that inappropriate textual borrowing is a serious problem leading to plagiarism. However, in many studies and actual class observations, these practices do not match the perceived beliefs about paraphrasing, and malpractices are often identified (Liao & Tseng, 2010). Insufficient metacognitive knowledge and lack of exposure to formal writing in English could be the reasons leading to the challenge. Therefore, helping students to learn appropriate paraphrasing skills should always be an important issue in academic writing class. Please share with us your ideas on teaching paraphrasing or other writing skills to second language students!


Bonkowski, F. (2016, October 21). Teaching academic writing in the blended classroom. EFL Magazine

Bowman, J.D. (2019, March 4). Teaching students to paraphrase. Edutopia.

Evans, S., & Green, C. (2007). Why EAP is necessary: A survey of Hong Kong tertiary students. Journal of English for Academic Purposes6(1), 3-17.

Howard, R. M., Serviss, T., & Rodrigue, T. K. (2010). Writing from sources, writing from sentences. Writing and Pedagogy2(2), 177-192.

Liao, M. T., & Tseng, C. Y. (2010). Students’ Behaviors and Views of Paraphrasing and Inappropriate Textual Borrowing in an EFL Academic Setting. Journal of Pan-Pacific Association of Applied Linguistics14(2), 187-211.

Li, Y., & Casanave, C. P. (2012). Two first-year students’ strategies for writing from sources: Patchwriting or plagiarism?. Journal of Second Language Writing21(2), 165-180.

Li, Y. (2015). ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’: Recontextualization in writing from sources. Science and engineering ethics21(5), 1297-1314.

Madsen, J. (n.d) In Your Own Words 5 Ideas for Teaching Paraphrasing. Busy Teacher.

McCarthy, P. M., Guess, R. H., & McNamara, D. S. (2009). The components of paraphrase evaluations. Behavior Research Methods, 41(3), 682-690.

Owen, J. (2019, February 1). The importance of prewriting in EFL academic writing classes. EFL Magazine. 

Steinman, L. (2003). Cultural collisions in L2 academic writing. TESL Canada Journal, 80-91.

Thorkelson, T.S. (2019, January 7). Tools and tips to help your students write an A+ essay/research paper. EFL Magazine

Yamada, K. (2003). What prevents ESL/EFL writers from avoiding plagiarism? Analyses of 10 North-American college websites. System, 31(2), 247-258. 

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