In this blog post, we are interviewing INTO OSU Instructor Allison McMurtrey on her approach to teaching summarizing & paraphrasing. We hope to feature a couple of these interviews each month on the blog as a way to share the unique contributions that teachers at INTO OSU provide to the center.

Q: At one of the past PEDs you presented on a unique approach to summarizing & paraphrasing that included breaking down ideas in a passage among other steps. What led you to develop this approach?

A: It came from two places. My dad used to tell me that any process is “awfully simple” if you knew the next step and “simply awful” if you didn’t even if you could see whatever your ultimate goal was. I also used to do tech support (live and over the phone) for people who really struggled with computers, and I developed a reputation for doing click by click instructions. I realized that even when students know what a summary or a paraphrase is supposed to look like, they may not know how to take the right steps to accomplish that. Therefore I broke paraphrasing down into the smallest  8 steps I could; summarizing soon followed.

Q: Summarizing and paraphrasing are taught in many classes at INTO and across multiple skill levels. What are some issues you see with the way these two skills are generally approached by the textbooks that we use in our courses?

A: I think many textbooks assume students understand how to apply information just because they understand what a summary or paraphrase is, basically its definition. Textbooks often rely too heavily on models, which are great, but they assume that students can glean how to do something just from seeing that example. Those skills are higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy than a lot of our students are. I am just trying to meet students where they are really at.

Q: Can you describe the way that you approach paraphrasing & summarizing by breaking a text down into ideas, say in a reading/writing class? What are the steps involved in this approach?



(I always use a quote from the previous night’s assigned reading so that it is as relevant as possible to the student’s work.)

Step 1: Choose a quote from the essay that is approximately 40 words or fewer. Make sure it is relevant to your own ideas.

Step 2: List all of the ideas the author includes. Use the original author’s words. Sometimes an idea will be a single word. Sometimes it will be 2-4 words. (See the example.)

Step 3: Change vocabulary words. Remember that some words have a lot of possible changes. Some words are very specific or technical, and it is okay to to keep those words if they are the only accurate possibilities.

Step 4: Rearrange the ideas into a new order. Maybe Idea #1 becomes Idea #3 or maybe Idea #6 becomes Idea #1. Remember that sometimes an idea will stay in the same position as the original.

Step 5: Change the grammar structures to fit your new order of ideas.

Step 6: Put away the original so that you cannot see it. Rewrite the sentence in your own words. Use your new vocabulary, sequence of ideas, and grammar. Read the sentence out loud to yourself so be certain it makes sense.

Step 7: Look at the original quote. Does your paraphrase have all of the same ideas as the original?

Step 8: Check for the three major problems.  Is your paraphrase too similar to the original?  Is your paraphrase incomplete or inaccurate? Did you accidentally include ideas of your own that were not included in the original quote? If you see a problem, go back and fix it.


Step 1: Gather your supplies: a pen or highlighter is a color you like (more than 1 if you want), a blue pen, and your book.

Step 2: Read the entire article. Use the colored pen or highlighter to underline the main idea.

Step 3: Write 1 to 3 key words in the margins next to each paragraph as you read using the blue pen.

Step 4: Paraphrase the main idea on a blank piece of paper. Remember to follow the process completely.

Step 5: Write a list of all of the keywords that you wrote down.

Step 6: Close your book so that you cannot use it as you write.

Step 7: Look at the list. What ideas appear multiple times? What ideas can be combined? What can be condensed?

Step 8: Write a topic sentence that introduces the article. Include the name of the author, the author’s expertise, the title of the article, and the date. Remember that you need all of this information, but you can write it in any order you want.

Step 9: Write the rest of the paragraph using the information from your keyword list. Cross off each idea as you incorporate it into your summary. This will help you to be sure you have included everything that you need to include.

Step 10: Open you book and skim the article one last time. Did you leave anything out of your summary? Did you add any of your own ideas? Are all of the ideas connected in a logical way?

Step 11: Cite your source! Add an APA in-text citation and a correctly formatted and punctuated reference on your reference page.

Q: How has this approach been received by your students? How successful has this been in the courses where you’ve used it?

A:  It’s pretty successful. I always model it the first time in class, going over each step carefully and thoroughly. Then they practice in class with partners and with me there to help. The first time, I make them show their work at each step so that I can see they aren’t missing anything. Some students get it faster than others and are able to start sliding through the steps really quickly. Others really need to go meticulously through the process more times, but because the steps are clear, they are able to do so relatively independently.  By the end of a term, most students can manage to do the whole process with realistic speed. I also like it because I can ask a struggling student where s/he got stuck; we can focus on that step so that they genuinely understand what to do. I can also tell a student who has made a mistake to go back to a particular step and start again from there.

Q: Can you comment on how this summarizing/paraphrasing technique might work in a low level course verses a higher level course?

A: I typically use this technique most in level 4 -6; however, I’ve used a version that was only slightly modified in a Foundations Prep class. We did it the first time as a class, and then they followed the steps on their own. Of course, the reading was very simple, but they were able to manage it. I’ve also used it in level 2 reading, so it can easily be simplified. On the other hand, I used it in a STEM graduate level course, and it worked just as well there too. My grad students like the process nature of the activity, but it is possible that it was because it appealed to their engineering natures.

Q: This is a very interesting approach to summarizing/paraphrasing. For teachers who are interested in trying out this technique in their classroom, what advice would you give them?


  1.  Work through ALL of the steps. Students get confused because teachers don’t realize that they are taking logical leaps. 
  2. I like to show higher level students how to use the thesaurus tool in Word, just to jog their memories about words they already know. 
  3. As part of the modeling process, I do one of my own for real. I work through the steps, I make mistakes, I correct them, I blank out on vocabulary words and look in the thesaurus, etc. Summarizing and paraphrasing are hard skills to master even for native speakers, so I think it is good for them to watch me do one.


Q: For our last question, we would like to know what are you currently reading?

A: I just started a couple of books. Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky, who is a local Corvallis author. It’s about a teenage girl who lives in a world where everything is done by computer, and she has to figure out if that is the life she wants. Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie, who is just brilliant.

This has been a very informative interview. Thank you for your contribution to the OSU Professional Development Blog.

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