How To Teach Students to “Put It In Your Own Words”

“This needs to be in your own words.”

“Rewrite this in your own words”

“You just copied this out of the book. It’s not your own words.”

If you teach any grade level doing research, you’re probably guilty of saying one, two, or in my case, all three of these statements. We tell kids they cannot copy out of the book, and that if they do, they are plagiarizing which is breaking the law. Their eyes open wide. We say you can get kicked out of college for plagiarizing, and their eyes get even wider. They truly and completely understand they cannot copy out of the book. But just a few days later (or maybe the same day), their writing looks mysteriously like the source they were reading.

Why does this keep happening?

Unfortunately, we fail to teach students any alternative to copying out of the book. We tell them not to, but we do not show them HOW not to. As a result, they fall back on the only thing they can think of…copy straight out of the book.

As a recent professional development session with Smekens Education, I finally heard a presenter actually address this problem. Thinking back to the many hours of professional development, I wonder how this went unsaid for so long, but I was certainly thrilled to have some suggestions for teaching students how to paraphrase a nonfiction text. I tried it the following week, and the results were amazing.

Step 1 – Read the text. – An obvious one, but a necessary start. We read a passage out of our Social Studies book describing a Native American tribe.


Step 2 – Put away the text. – Make the students close their books. I had done this one in the past as well. Unfortunately, without the upcoming Step 3, this would just turn into a memory contest. The students would try to memorize what they would write when I said to close books. However, this problem was solved with the new Step 3…

Step 3 – Explain what you read to a partner. – Hallelujah! This was the missing piece! This turned the complex text into student language because they were no longer trying to memorize the book. Their explanations were inherently in their own words. As they talked, I prompted them with, “I don’t want to hear the book talk; I want to hear you talk.” It worked!


Step 4 – Write down what you said. – If they can say it, they can write it. Our bulleted list about the Native American tribe looked like this (all student words)

  • The Miami tribe used to live in Indiana.
  • They had two chiefs.
  • The men would hunt for animals to eat.
  • The women would take care of the kids and grow the plants.

Now, is this really a simplistic view of the text? Absolutely. Do we need to work on developing more precise vocabulary? Sure. However, this list was truly their OWN words. It’s what we’ve always wanted.

I hope you give this a try. Smekens adds a fifth step on their website about confirming you can use if needed. I hope this works for you!


About mrwhitehb

I teach 4th grade and am the chair of the Young Hoosier Book Award Committee for grades 4-6.

Posted on September 28, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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