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5 ways I help students to work with quotation

posted: 6.15.07 by Barclay Barrios

When I teach expository writing I tend to spend a lot of time helping students use quotations effectively to support their arguments. Too often, students just sprinkle quotations throughout their text without providing any sense of how those pieces of text relate to their larger argument. I have a few strategies I use to get them to engage the text closely in ways that support what they want to say:

1. The Super Secret Formula
This activity is designed to help students build a paragraph that works with two authors in support of the paper’s argument. This exercise has to be one of the most successful activities I’ve ever created. Not only is it the one that seems to help students the most but it’s also the one that other teachers seem to bring into their classrooms the most often. The Super Secret Formula is:

Cl > I > Q1 > E > T > Q2 > Ce

Students start their paragraphs with “Cl,” a sentence that states the claim of the paragraph. Then, with “I,” they introduced a quotation from the first author, adding a sentenced that explains it (“E”). The next sentence makes a transition (“T”) to a quotation from a different author, “Q2.” Finally, students take a sentence or two to explain the connection between the two quotations (“Ce”) and how it supports the argument they’re making in the paper.

The concrete structure of a “formula” provides a good scaffolding for students to build a solid paragraph that works with quotation but the risk is, of course, that all their paragraphs will becomes (literally) formulaic. When I use this exercise in the classroom, I start by having groups use the formula to make a sample paragraph. Then I challenge groups to come up with other formulas for working with quotation.

2. Close Reading
Sometimes students have difficulty analyzing a quotation; pieces of text will be sprinkled through a paper seemingly with the assumption that their relationship to the argument is self-evident. Here’s an exercise that can help students with this problem. Ask students to write or type a quotation they want to work with. Then ask them to underline the key sentences or phrases of the quotation, the parts that they feel are most important for the point they’re trying to make. Then have them construct sentences that use these pieces of the quotation and that explain how they relate to their arguments.

3. Facts and Ideas
Quotations that only contain statements of fact provide little opportunity for analysis; quotations with ideas do. Bring in examples of each kind to class for discussion and then during peer review ask students to identify each quotation in the papers they’re reading as either fact or idea. This exercise will give them practice distinguishing between the two and will provide useful feedback for paper authors on what type of quotation they’re favoring.

4. Short and Long
Another problem students seem to have in working with quotation is choosing quotations of appropriate length: they might choose quotations that are too short and thus don’t provide enough support or they might choose very long quotations and then say little about them. Have students look through their drafts and determine the length of each quotation by noting how many typed lines it takes. They can use the resulting report to reflect on their tendencies with quotation: do they always use very short ones? Always use very long ones? After the exercise challenge students to use a variety of lengths in their papers.

5. Peer Review Boost
During peer review, ask students to suggest at least three quotations that could be added to support the paper. This exercise will encourage paper authors to use more quotation while helping peer editors to dig deeper into the text to locate quotations that can help the paper authors.

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Categories: Citing Sources, Integrating sources, Peer Review
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5 Responses to “5 ways I help students to work with quotation”

  1. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys. And RWL, I love that idea of having them record the quote AND why they want to use it. I find even in my own research I sometimes jot down passages and then later have no idea what I was going to do with them LOL…

  2. RWL Says:

    I always have difficulty helping students clarify when/how to use quotations effectively–this looks like a helpful set of exercises! An exercise I’ve used that’s similar to your example in #2 is to have students keep a list of quotes throughout the research process. Every time they write a quote down, they should write a few sentences explaining why it might be important to their argument. At the least, those sentences serve as reminders when it comes time to actually write. At best, they can serve as the intro or summary for the quote itself.

  3. JP Says:

    Very sharp tips, Barclay. I particularly like the “Super Secret Formula.” Although, as mentioned, it could possibly lead to formulaic writing, if the students understand that the sequence is meant to be an inventional exercise – that they should start with the formula and then remix the order, cut some bits, extend others, etc. – it can be reliable without being too constraining. I often use larger versions of such formulas for entire essays (where each variable stands for the work of an entire paragraph), but hadn’t thought previously about such a micro-scale version for quotations.

  4. Jessica Kidd Says:

    Great formula. I can see it being a comfort to students who have more of a mathmatical or scientific aptitude and are intimidated by the writing process. I feel like it would give all students a comfortable starting place for using quotes. As they get more practice, they can experiment with more organic writing.

  5. Derek Says:

    I’ve never worked with a formula like the one you suggest, Barclay, so I’ll have to give it a try. At a fall colloquium last year, one of my mentors talked about matters of citation and helping students toward effective and responsible work with quotations. I mentioned that I was having trouble (especially when teaching research-based writing exclusively online) with students over-quoting, turning again and again to the source texts and generating unwieldy strings (a yarn of quotations), much to the detriment of their own prose (as one would expect it to work with the quotations, to connect, etc.). The suggested solution: begin by asking them to write summaries and absolutely forbidding them to use any quotations whatsoever. It’s counterintuitive, I suppose, to think that students would start to think more carefully about their use of quotations by being forbidden from doing it. It reminds me of basketball practices where we were forbidden from dribbling (and instead made to rely solely on passes and cuts) so that we would be more conscientious of needless dribbling and turnovers that piles up as a result of such habits.