The Power of Rephrasing

Exercises that involve rephrasing a text can be powerful tools for student practice, and often can lead to a surprising amount of interaction. Take this exercise I recently performed with my students.

I wrote a long-winded sentence on the board and then asked the students to count the words in that sentence. I wrote that number above the sentence. I then asked the students to offer suggestions on what I could do to shorten the sentence while preserving its meaning.

Students offered suggestions that included:

  1. Removing a redundant phrase.
  2. Replacing a phrase with more concise wording.
  3. Rewriting a section to use shorter grammatical forms.

In the process, students needed to decide what was and wasn’t essential in a sentence, and I milked this for all it was worth. When a student offered a suggestion, I asked what would happen to the sentence if it were employed, and I let them debate as to the validity of this change.

In cases of more ambiguous sentences, the debate got quite lively and got into some deep meanings, such as the intended audience of the sentence and even implied author intent.

When done, I wrote the number of words in the new sentence on the board so students could see how much they improved the original sentence.

The net result was a lot of English practice. Students spoke, exercised their vocabulary, and even had to get into some grammatical details as some rewording required grammar changes downstream. 

This also provided ideas for other lessons when I found places students made mistakes.

I’ve used rephrasing in the past, and found it a powerful tool. For instance, I’ve had students rephrase…

  1. Emails so they were more professional
  2. Complaints and requests so they were more polite
  3. Other passages to introduce different connotations.

In each case, we got into subtle language issues and found this quite relevant.

Plus, just about any text can work, whether or not it’s intended for teaching. Just grab an authentic piece of text and get to work.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Rephrasing

  1. Rephrasing seems like it’s very much purpose driven. Some years ago I sent out an organization wide email which I had worked and reworked extensively. A colleague felt the need to contact me and point out all the redundancies and unnecessary words. I agreed with his critique, but pointed out that the redundancy and extra words served to soften the tone, which for this particular message, was important.

    The colleague disagreed that softening was necessary and regretted the lack of efficiency. He wasn’t known for his diplomacy.

    1. Good point. Sometimes, redundancy and extra words serve a purpose, like emphasis, idiomatic usage or especially — as you point out — politeness. In fact, it seems a good deal of polite language in English is accomplished by adding more words! “Pass the salt” -> “Please pass the salt” – “Could you pass the salt?” -> “If you could pass the salt, that would be great”. Each form, longer and progressively more polite 🙂

    2. I also forgot to mention that rephrasing can help draw attention to these polite forms. Since the process of rephrasing includes justifying a removal, if a student were to try to reduce a form by removing the words that make it polite, we’d discuss why those words were there, and why they did or did not consider them essential. In the process, we’d highlight such forms in actual use. It’s a way of consciousness-raising/inductive learning as another effect is to increases engagement with a form.

      Great comment!

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