Research writing can be an overwhelming process for both students and teachers. We wanted to provide a few tips to help your students produce excellent research reports without causing you to lose your sanity. Here are our top 5 tips for supporting your 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders through the research writing process.

boy typing on computer with head turned looking at camera

1.  Don’t assume your students have been taught how to research before

When working on research skills, it is best to start at the very beginning. And we mean the VERY beginning. Don’t assume your students know that some sources are more reputable than others, or that they aren’t allowed to just copy and paste someone else’s words into their papers. Don’t assume students have completed a bibliography in the past. Don’t assume your students have basic Internet-searching or library skills. Assume that it will be your job to teach ALL. THE. THINGS.

Even if your students HAVE been taught research-writing skills, they need TONS of practice with research skills for them to become second nature. Not to mention, students will benefit from being taught research skills from a different teacher (you).

You may be thinking that teaching research skills from square one will take a long time. This leads perfectly into Tip #2:

2.  Allow triple the amount of time you think you need to get through the project

As stated above, you can’t assume students know certain aspects of the research-writing process. This means that you MUST allow ample time for mini-lessons galore. Here are a few mini-lessons you may want to implement (I like to put them in question form to focus students on answer the question by the end of the lesson):

  • Why can’t I copy what I read online?
  • How do I know if a source is a reputable one?
  • How do I make a bibliography (or Works Cited) page?
  • How can I put an author’s words into my own words?
  • How do I take notes while researching?
  • How do I use quotations in my writing?

There are many more potential mini-lessons you can use with your group of students. I recommend taking a close look at the needs of your students to determine which mini-lessons need to be taught to all of your students, and which ones can be taught within small groups.

Teacher sitting at desk with two elementary school pupils

3.  Allow student choice

Students should be given free choice when assigned research writing, at least as much as possible. Students who get to choose their topics are more invested, and typically have more background knowledge, than students who are assigned a topic. Feel free to assign a choice within a structure that you set, especially in the early grades. For example, all students research an animal (or a state, president, habitat, country, etc.), but students get to choose WITHIN the pre-selected category.

4.  Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold

The goal of early research writing should be on getting students to produce an accurate, high-quality research report and to learn HOW to research. Not taking the time to scaffold for students will lead to messy, inaccurate, and disorganized papers. How do you scaffold? Here are a few ways:

  • Complete an entire research report WITH the students prior to having students complete their own report. This ensures that students can follow along through the entire research process and have a shared, research experience.
  • Read informational children’s books to your class. Give students the chance to discuss and compare how these books are organized so that students can use similar organizational techniques in their own writing.
  • Provide the rubric you will be using to grade the final drafts (if applicable). Students need to know what you are looking for.
  • Provide structured graphic organizers so that students know how to organize their writing. Graphic organizers are a great way to provide varying levels of scaffolded support, depending on student need.

    graphic organizer about an animal's diet
    An example of a graphic organizer from our Animal Report product
  • Meet often with students, especially when they are collecting their notes. As you see groups/categories forming, point these out to the student. Try to help the student identify 3 or 4 categories and then encourage them to take further notes on any categories that may be lacking.
  • If students need extra support, provide the categories of information for them. For example, if all students are writing a report, some students may be able to take notes and then organize their notes based on category, but other students may need YOU to provide that structure. Here are some examples of categories that could be considered for the various types of reports.
    • Animal report – physical features, animal behaviors, habitat/environment
    • President report – early life, education and career, the Presidency, later life
    • Country report – physical geography, industries, people and cultures
    • Habitat report – habitat description, plants and animals in the habitat, importance of the habitat, threats to the habitat, how to help/save the habitat
  • Allow students to work with a partner or in a small group. By letting student work in groups, they can help each other find quality, accurate information, work together to organize the information, etc.

5.  Give students the websites you want them to use

The World Wide Web is HUGE. There are so many websites, many of them highly inaccurate or politically charged. Early researchers do not need to experience ALL. THE. CRAZINESS that exists out there. Provide high-quality, kid-friendly websites so that hours aren’t wasted researching improper or overly complicated text. As students become more adept at using the Internet for search purposes, they can take more ownership in this area.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few tips to help students produce high-quality research papers. We put together a packet to guide you through the process that can be found here.

5 Tips to Support Research Writing in the Upper Grades
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