Preventing Plagiarism: Three Proactive Paraphrasing Lessons

By: Lisa Brennan

You've read it … that one passage in a student research paper that startles you. The sentence structure and vocabulary exceed middle school norms. You raise your eyebrows, shake your head, and take a deep breath. How many times did you say, "Don't copy word for word."

As middle school educators, we're used to saying things more than once; we're also comfortable with learning from mistakes. Middle school plagiarism is often unintentional. Plagiarism prevention, however, needs to be explicitly intentional.

The excerpt below, from, lists six types of plagiarism. Three of them can be avoided when students can confidently paraphrase.

What is plagiarism?
All of the following are considered plagiarism

  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on "fair use" rules)

So what can teachers do? Be proactive.

Introduce your students to effective paraphrasing strategies before they begin a research project. Once a research project begins, students need to navigate a number of new routines, platforms, and skills. Short term assignments are replaced by longer term deadlines. Textbooks are temporarily traded for database articles. Bibliographies, website evaluation, and citation styles (which may not have been mentioned for a few months) are suddenly essential again.

The lessons shared below are designed to require minimal class time while targeting concepts middle schoolers need to paraphrase successfully.

Lesson #1 - Introduction: What is Paraphrasing?

Share the three images below and ask students to explain how they might be sequenced into a simple story. After listening to their ideas, introduce the term "paraphrasing" and its definition. Reveal the image captions, and guide students to apply the image "story line" to the concept of paraphrasing. In this way, you're bridging the concrete to the abstract and offering a visual anchor that can be referenced when the research project begins.

Gather information.
Copyright © Encyclopedia Britannica ImageQuest

Assess what you have.
Copyright © Wells Fargo Bank

Create your own work.
Copyright © DwellStudio

Why are image attributions listed under each picture? Three different artists contributed to my illustration of a new message. That's exactly what students will do when research and writing ensues. Each artist (or author) deserves credit for their work. Not citing sources is one type of plagiarism. For a research paper, full citations would be included in a formatted bibliography.

Lesson #2 - Practice Active Reading and Note Taking

Prior to research, class time is always at a minimum. A review of note taking skills, however, can be paired with a regularly scheduled textbook reading as the groundwork for paraphrasing. Selecting key facts is critical to an effective paraphrase. Remind students to ask questions before they read, highlight only valuable keywords (these are "golden"), and apply a note taking strategy such as two-column notes, bullet notes, or an outline. If your students are well versed in these study skills, a homework assignment is likely to offer sufficient practice. If your students aren't familiar with note taking and highlighting strategies, consider inviting your school's literacy coach to lead a lesson.

Lesson #3 - Paraphrasing Dos and Don'ts

After students have practiced highlighting and note taking, devote some time for paraphrasing practice. Modeling paraphrasing from existing notes is ideal. Offering time for students to work in groups as they paraphrase notes can build confidence. Still, some students rely on "rephrasing" strategies that are within the realm of plagiarism.

Sentence level plagiarism frequently occurs when students reverse the structure of the sentence, substitute a synonym, or delete a conjunction to create two sentences. Try this system to support student understanding. Keep a sense of humor. The reminders are intentionally "light hearted," but middle school students are sure to recognize mistakes they've made in the past and to remember these "labels" in the future.

It is not ok to…. Original Sentence Still Plagiarism
"Flip Flop" When the cell is ready to divide, the nuclear membrane dissolves (Mitosis, UXL). The nuclear membrane dissolves when the cell is ready to divide.
"Quick Swap" The chromosomes, are exactly replicated and the two copies distributed to identical daughter nuclei (Mitosis, Columbia) The chromosomes , are duplicated and the two copies are sent to identical daughter nuclei.
"Chop Chop" In animal cells the centrioles separate and move apart, and radiating bundles of fibers, called asters, appear around them (Mitosis, Columbia). In animal cells the centrioles separate and move apart. Radiating bundles of fibers, called asters, appear around them.
see bibliography below


Plagiarism occurs any time an idea or work is borrowed from someone else without giving proper credit. While proactive paraphrasing lessons enable students to approach research writing with increased confidence, a comprehensive understanding of plagiarism and guidelines for its prevention remain part of an ongoing dialogue. The lessons above, designed in response to a History teacher's request, are now reviewed prior to English class research projects as well. Collaboration between departments, grade levels, and librarians can ensure that plagiarism prevention is dovetailed with meaningful student practice.


DwellStudio. Gold Horse Figurine. N.d. DwellStudio. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <>.

Gold pan full of bullion. N.d. Wells Fargo Bank. Guided By History. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. <>.

"Mitosis." UXL Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. Amy Hackney Blackwell and Elizabeth Manar. 3rd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: UXL, 2015. Research in Context. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

"Mitosis." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. Research in Context. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Prospector pans for gold. Photography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 14 Feb 2016.

"What Is Plagiarism?" IParadigms, LLC, 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Lisa Brennan is a librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.

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3 comments on article "Preventing Plagiarism: Three Proactive Paraphrasing Lessons"

I like this article and would like to use it with students. However, I can't make sense of the captions to the three pictures. I understand the first one, but not the other two. Are they correct?

2/24/2016 8:28 AM

Hi Janet - The captions, initially misprinted, were corrected this morning. I'm glad to hear that you found the article useful.

~ Lisa

2/24/2016 10:57 AM

My name is Shelly Dewar and I'm one semester away from graduating with a degree in middle grades education. During my field hours, I have seen students do this very often. They were writing an evidence based paper and were just taking 4 sentence long "quotes" and just putting it in their paper. I will use these lessons in my future classroom. I think it's important that students get practice and consistent reminders of how to paraphrase and take notes without copying. Thank you so much for these helpful lessons!

12/5/2016 2:14 PM

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