Helping our students recognise paraphrase in exams (and beyond)

I hope you enjoy this blog post and find it useful. I trust you’ll like this article and get something out of it. I’m hopeful you’ll appreciate this piece and deem it helpful.

This post is about paraphrase. Paraphrase is something our students will use in real life, for example when telling someone about something they’ve read or heard (such as in mediation), or when reformulating when they sense someone hasn’t understood what they’ve said.

And moving to receptive skills and exam questions, spotting paraphrase in a text is often a key to getting the answer right. Indeed, these GSE descriptors indicate what a learner at a B2 level should be able to do:

It is an (exam) skill that we can help our students develop and in this blog post we’ll be looking at how both by using course material and in other ways.

  1. Using course material

Our students are going to read a text about the effect daylight has on animals and people. Here’s our warmer:

I like doing brainstorm activities like this one as a ‘Think, Pair, Share’ – everyone gets a chance to think and write down ideas on their own, then we share with a partner, then a group of four, then the class – depending on time. We can identify synonyms and similar ideas – remember our focus is paraphrase.

Read the following Exam Focus box. Can you match up the different ideas in the question and extract?

Let’s look at our next task:

So, as well as identifying key words we are also engaging in predicting possible paraphrase – how might these ideas be expressed in the text? For question 1 we might expect words like ‘worry’ ‘anxious’ ‘extinct’ ‘die’ etc.

We then go onto reading the two sections, identifying paraphrase for questions 1-5, before attempting a full exam question: it’s a scaffolded approach to building up skills. Now, if your curiosity has been piqued and you’d like to go on and read the text in question or examine the progression of activities further, feel free to download a sample of Formula, which is the course I’ve taken the above activities from (the B2 level).

2. Developing paraphrase recognition is other ways 

Modelling ourselves and ‘upgrading’ how our students record vocabulary

Bound up in recognizing paraphrase is recognizing synonyms (and antonyms for that matter), so eliciting and pointing these out as part of our general teaching is good practice. We can also paraphrase and use synonyms ourselves in our instructions and explanations to the class. For example:

“Sit down guys, take a seat, take the weight off your feet!”

“Time for quiet now, I need a bit of silence, let’s turn down the noise!”

Now, I’m not advocating repeating everything in three different ways and turning our class into some sort of riddle – particularly not with beginners! But we are usually our students’ main language input and as such can actively consider what language to expose them to. And sometimes giving them two or three for the price of one makes sense.

Of course, were we to do the above, we could explain why we are doing it – we want our students to appreciate the importance of both recognizing and having at their disposal a range of synonyms – both for success in exams and for general language learning. So we want to put the onus on our students. We want them moving towards writing down all different parts of speech when recording a word and the next step is noting related synonyms and antonyms – which could be learning eight words in one.

Activities and games

Other activities we can do with our students include:

Spot the original

Plenty of exercises in course material include lists of sentences, be they questions the students need to ask each other, grammar practice sentences where the students choose the right option etc.

Put the students in groups and each student chooses one of the sentences and expresses it in another way, then reads it out. The other students need to identify the original sentence. And if they think the reformulation needs work, they can say so, explaining why!

If an activity with five or ten sentences is too easy, we could use a reading text or even a whole page! Our students are still scanning for a detail expressed differently and the examples are student created, which adds fun and motivation.

Synonym memory game 

When our students have read a text and done the activities we can play a game to help the vocabulary they encountered in the text stick and work on paraphrase.

The teacher simply reads out one at a time a synonym, antonym or paraphrase of ten of the words or phrases from the text. The students try to remember the word the teacher is referencing from the text, or use a word or phrase they know. BUT, the students don’t write them down, they simply try to hold the answers in their heads! Who can remember the most?

We can try it here. Rather than reading the questions to you, you’ll have to read them yourself (but looking back at previous questions as well as making notes is cheating!). Here go the questions (you haven’t actually read the text in question and been exposed to the original vocabulary, but as English teachers I’m sure you’ll be ok!). How many words can you keep in your head?

1.Means the same as ‘fortunately’

2.Means the same as ‘in a bad mood’

3.A synonym of ‘funny’

4.The opposite of ‘low point’

5.Means the same as ‘defenceless’

6.The opposite of ‘very ugly’

7.A synonym of ‘set off’

8.Means the same as ‘become happier’

9.The opposite of ‘sunrise’

10.Means when you look for a long time


Got the words? How many? Remembering six is pretty good good effort. Now, scroll down for the ‘right answers’ from the text.



1.Means the same as ‘fortunately’ – LUCKILY

2.Means the same as ‘in a bad mood’ – GRUMPY

3.A synonym of ‘funny’ – AMUSING

4.The opposite of ‘low point’- HIGHLIGHT

5.Means the same as ‘defenceless’ – HELPLESS

6.The opposite of ‘very ugly’ – STUNNING

7.A synonym of ‘set off’ – LEAVE

8.Means the same as ‘become happier’ – CHEER UP

9.The opposite of ‘sunrise’ – SUNSET

10.Means when you look for a long time – GAZING

Particularly as you haven’t read the original text, you may have come up with other words. But even if you had read it, you would have come up with other words too.

So, the fun of this activity is the game element (who can remember the most?), but it’s also very useful to compare answers and talk about to what extent alternatives proposed by students are acceptable and what the differences in meaning are. This activity generates a lot of language.

So, we’ve looked today at how spotting paraphrase is key to exam success and ways to develop the skill, referencing course material and other activities. What are your top tips?

If you would like to know more about Formula,  Pearson’s new 3-level flexible, unique and enjoyable route to Cambridge exam success, click here.






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