I teach a class to Foundation students called Text Practices, which is designed to move students from focusing on what a text is about, the topic, to understanding what a text is doing, which is how lecturers and researchers at university view texts. I’ve just marked the first assignment and it has made me realise how little impact I’ve actually had on helping students to escape from the prison of the texts they want to use. With one or two exceptions, the students ignored my advice to write more simply than the sources they read in order to show what they have understood. When they borrowed ideas from sources, these were often ’patchwritten’ or ‘plagiphrased’ by copying sentences and substituting synonyms for some words.
It can be fun to blame SELTs for the poor academic practices which students bring to university. However, SELTs only test students’ ability to produce grammatically accurate language and do not require them to borrow and transform ideas for their own use. Although training for SELTs does lead students to believe they should produce long complex sentences to achieve higher scores, I believe the blame for poor use of sources can more likely be laid at the door of English for General Academic Purposes text books or in-house materials, which approach paraphrasing and summarising on the basis of form rather than function.
I have seen advice about paraphrasing in these materials which shows students that they can change the grammatical form of words, e.g. verb – noun, that they can switch polarity, e.g. from positive to negative by adding prefixes, or that they can move ideas to different positions in a sentence, e.g. using passive verbs. All of this advice directs students to focus on words in sentences rather than ideas in texts. The logical conclusion students draw is that paraphrasing involves staying within the prison walls of the source but substituting words, as in the following example:
A student responding to an essay prompt on a taught postgraduate programme was writing about the impact on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) of the rise of China. He had found a useful source: Delios, A. Beamish, P.W. & Zhao, X. (2009). The evolution of Japanese investment in China: from toys to textiles to business process outsourcing. Asia Pacific Business Review, 15/3, pp. 323-345 and borrowed the ideas as shown below.
Original source: Late entering foreign companies to China’s market are likely to face even more substantive disadvantages because the best potential domestic allies for facilitating investment are often already tied-up in alliances with the early entrants to China. (Beamish,P.W. and Jiang,R. 2002, pp. 135-151).
Student paraphrase: Some late entering MNEs to China’s market was facing a more realistic risk due to the best underlying local allies for promoting investment are already built-up favorable relationships with early entrants to China. (Beamish,P.W. and Jiang,R. 2002, pp. 135-151).
This is an almost exact copy of the original with synonyms substituted. Because the words are changed the grammar is now incorrect and the meaning changed. Originality software such as TurnitinTM picks this up by showing a match to the parts of the sentence that were not changed. The student has also incorrectly cited a source that he found in his source but did not read.
In attempting to move students away from the prison of this focus on form, it is important for them always to have a purpose for their paraphrase or summary, e.g., an essay question to answer or a context for research to establish. It is then important to remove the original source(s) and work on Tiny Texts (Patter, February 2019). These can be written or oral and based on notes or a selection of keywords from the sources. The keywords for the example above are late, allies investment, early. Using only these as a prompt the student could write a claim about the importance of early investment in China, e.g.,
Companies who want to invest in China have to form alliances with a Chinese company. If they wait too long, the best partnerships will already be taken by their competitors (Delios, Beamish & Zhao.,2009).
Once on their degrees, students have to be able to talk about the subjects they are studying in order to internalise the concepts and show a lecturer that they have understood. Oral summaries can be practised in EAP classes in a number of ways, e.g. students form pairs and each explain a concept they have researched. The listener takes notes. Students then join another pair and the listener explains the concept to the new audience. The original speaker is not permitted to speak but must take notes to record what the first audience did not understand. The class can also be asked to produce an oral paragraph with students in turn contributing more detail to a first general response to a question or topic. A follow-up to both of these is for the students to take 10-15 minutes in class to write a Tiny Text, capturing the main points discussed in the summary.
Giving oral summaries and writing tiny texts frees students from the prison of the original source and allows them to take control of the ideas using the language they already have available.