Teaching Writing: When to Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize


Students often struggle to integrate sources into their writing. After the difficult process of finding evidence to support their thesis, they face the new challenge of deciding whether to quote, paraphrase, or summarize sources.

Before asking students to paraphrase, it’s important to explain what that means. In the simplest terms, paraphrasing is rewording AND rearranging. A common pitfall is rewording without rearranging. This is a classic case of plagiarism: the student replaces a few words with synonyms and calls the writing their own, even though they still have the same ideas in the same order. Students need practice replacing and rearranging before they can be expected to properly paraphrase.

Another common misconception is that paraphrased information does not need an MLA in-text citation. This relates back to the false idea that slight changes make an idea your own and therefore do not require proper credit to the original source.

Summarizing is the process of taking a longer work, like a novel or a news article, and condensing it to its main points. It requires the skills of finding the most important parts of a work and then weaving them together to create a concise picture of the whole.

Once all of this has been clarified, students are ready to determine whether a source needs to be quoted, paraphrased, or summarized. Below are a few guidelines for students on quoting vs. paraphrasing vs. summarizing.

You should quote when…

  1. The passage has three or more “keywords” per sentence

Keywords include names, dates, places, technical terminology and other words that cannot be replaced with synonyms. (The number three is there to provide a  specific guideline; it’s certainly possible that there will be exceptions to this “rule.”)

  1. Specific evidence is required

Directly quoting from a book or poem is often a rubric requirement. Even when it’s not, it often helps prove a writer’s point. Try explaining it to your students like this: If you’re trying to show how a character is characterized, for example, strong evidence could be the character’s own words or thoughts. Instead of describing how the character thinks or speaks, using a quote will show it. This allows your audience to think for themselves and assess your point instead of taking your word for it.

You should paraphrase when…

  1. The passage is longer than three lines of text

Again, three lines is a preference, not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s a good starting point. Students like to bend rules so it’s  better to start small and let them ask to go over a few words into the fourth line. I remind my students that I want to read their words in their papers. If I wanted to read the source they used, I would click the link in their MLA works cited page and read it for myself.

  1. You already have two quotations in a paragraph

Too many direct quotations make a paragraph choppy and hard to follow. Students need to introduce and explain all their quotations, so paragraphs can get very long if they contain too many quotations. Paraphrasing wraps the evidence up with its introduction, leaving more room for analysis.

You should summarize when…

  1. You’re introducing a quote

Summarizing what is happening in the scene before quoting a piece of evidence is essential in order to contextualize the quote. This may seem obvious, but many students don’t consider that their audience may not have read the book they’re discussing. This is especially true for my classes that read independent, free-choice novels. I usually haven’t read the books they choose, so I won’t understand their point if they don’t give me a little background.

This can also be effective if a point covers multiple scenes in a novel. Rather than quoting each individual instance, the student can summarize the plot at a few crucial points to pull together a cohesive point.

  1. You’re integrating many sources in a longer paper or presentation

In a longer paper, like a senior thesis, it adds credibility (and length) to explain where the information came from. I encourage students to look up the author and explain his or her credentials for the same reason. You can also have students create an MLA annotated bibliography to practice this skill.

As I mentioned, these are not ironclad rules. Writing is an art and sometimes it’s necessary to break the rules for a particular effect. However, these guidelines will  provide a starting point for developing writers while helping students understand why it’s important to choose their method of integrating sources with purpose.

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About the Author

Jamie Breitner

Jamie is a high school English teacher at a charter school near Denver, Colorado. She has taught Language Arts and Creative Writing in the United States and overseas, including middle school Language Arts and three different IB and AP English courses. Jamie loves teaching and constantly strives to improve her pedagogical methodology to better serve her students.