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Paraphrasing...what?

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

Learning English can be an uphill battle for many ESL learners for many reasons but today I am going to look at a particular example, namely different “learning habits” that we all grow up with during our school years. For example, where I come from, if you were asked: “What is 'so and so'?” you would have to answer “ ‘So and so’ is…”. That means that you were expected to restate the exact words of the question as a manner to show that you have understood the question and give the person asking it the opportunity to reformulate, if they saw you didn’t.


Not the case when you have to answer some academic question in an English - speaking country or write an essay in IELTS, when it is an absolute “no-no” to restate the question “as is”. It may also be customary to mention the content of the question but only if you do so using your own words rather than the ones used in the actual question. This is a common technique called “paraphrasing”, which all native English speakers learn and perfect since elementary school years but which is a strange concept for some ESL learners.


This common misunderstanding is only one example of why when taking English proficiency exams like IELTS, TOEFL or CAEL, ESL learners sometimes fail to obtain the desired scores. In those cases, failing to use paraphrasing is considered a lack of vocabulary range, when all it is for some ESL speakers is just an old habit acquired in school. Do I think that examiners should be aware of such cultural issues? I do, but when one of their scoring criteria is “vocabulary range”, there is little that they can do, so it is up to the IELTS exam - takers to be aware of the techniques they need to acquaint themselves with, in preparation. And paraphrasing is only one of them.

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