Teaching Research Skills to Elementary Students

Teaching research skills to elementary students takes the entire year. Start with short, teacher-generated activities. Continue with guided subject-area projects. Finally, your students will be ready for independent research.

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Let’s continue planning our ELA block,” she said. “Today, we’ll talk about teaching research skills to upper elementary students.”

“Great!” Mr. Grow responded. “When does the project start?”

Ms. Sneed smiled slightly. “Not one project,” she said. “Dozens. Let me explain.”

What to Do Before Teaching Research Skills

“Before we begin teaching research,” Ms. Sneed said, “we’ll build some background skills. For example, kids need to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, as well as first- and third-person.”

Introducing Genres of Writing

Without warning, Ms. Sneed spread her arms out wide. “First,” she said, “we’ll talk about the two sides of writing.

“On this side,” she said, wiggling the fingers on her right hand, “we have expressive writing. This is where we find fiction. On this side, writers use a story arc for narrative writing. Elements include characters, settings, plots, and themes. Writing on this side tends to use sensory language and dialogue.”

Now Ms. Sneed wiggled the fingers on her left hand. “Over here, we find informative writing. Obviously, research belongs here. On this side, writers use what I refer to as the hamburger format. The top bun introduces the topic and tells the main idea. The burgers offer the meat of the piece with sup

porting information. Finally, the bottom bun concludes.”

Pointing to the portion of her left arm nearest to her body, she continued. “Argumentative writing falls on this side. It’s written with the hamburger format and offers lots of facts. The purpose, however, is to persuade. Therefore, the author carefully organizes information to support their own opinion. Before they can choose reliable sources, kids should be able to spot writing slanted to a certain point of view.”

Before teaching research skills to elementary students, show them the difference between expressive and informative writing.
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Mr. Grow nodded. “I never thought about writing that way before. When will we teach this?”

“Early and often,” Ms. Sneed responded. Every time kids read or write, I spread my arms out wide. Then we discuss where the piece will fall on this spectrum. This simple practice improves kids’ writing, as well as their reading comprehension.”

Teaching Point of View

Next, the mentor opened her laptop. With just a few clicks, she opened a unit on point of view. “In fourth grade,” she explained, “I focus on first- and third-person points of view. Of course, understanding pronouns like I and me, they and them, helps. This lays the groundwork for discriminating between informative and argumentative writing.”

Before teaching research skills to elementary students, explain first- and third-person points of view. This will help them understand the difference between subjective and objective pieces.

Mr. Grow shook his head slightly. “Honestly, I never knew that all of these concepts were interconnected. Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Before teaching research writing, kids need to understand point of view. But in order to do that, they need to know first- and third-person pronouns.”

“Yep,” his mentor replied with a grin. “Nothing’s really taught in isolation. Good teachers purposefully sequence learning experiences. That way, students have the background information needed for each activity.”

Front-Loading Writing Skills

“As we move through the first quarter,” Ms. Sneed continued, “we’ll also work on writing skills. Regardless of the genre, kids will use transition terms to link ideas, select precise language, and vary sentences.”

Locating and Analyzing Information

Ms. Sneed turned her attention to her laptop. Then she turned the screen toward Mr. Grow.

“For this activity,” she said, “kids don’t actually research. Instead, they check facts about several animals. We provide questions and sites. As the students look for information, they also analyze each site’s features. Finally, they rank the sites and list three top features. For example, they might say that a good website includes images, sidebars, and graphs.”

Give kids some practice locating and analyzing online sources.

Teaching Research Skills with Guided Subject-Area Research

“After teaching these research skills, I like to engage kids in a variety of seasonal or subject-area reports. For example, as we study women’s suffrage, each student can research a key figure.”

Once again, Ms. Sneed clicked around on her laptop. “Check this out. For a super short research project, kids can fill out this first page. It only asks for basic information about the person. If, however, you want kids to look deeper into the person’s life, they can analyze difficulties in their life and who helped them. To promote greater historical awareness, students can also consider how history changed the person and the person changed history.

“When they finish, kids write multi-paragraph essays on themed paper and hang it with a picture of the person. It makes a great display in the hall or classroom.”

“Nice,” said Mr. Grow. “Then they can read one another’s papers to learn more.”

“Exactly. It also helps if the principal comes in for an observation. That way, he sees learning in action – right on the classroom wall.”

Short guided projects give kids the skills and confidence they need before tackling independent research.

Teaching Research Skills with Independent Projects

Ms. Sneed shifted in her seat and smiled. “Once kids have a few guided projects under their belts, they’re finally ready to try it on their own. Of course, we’ll continue teaching research skills along the way.”

Once again, she turned to her laptop. “I’d like to show you a project that’s ready to go. As you’ll see, the teacher will still provide guidance. But kids become much more independent.”

She pointed at the screen and explained page by page.

Choosing a Topic

“This activity focuses on birds and their adaptations. In groups of three, kids select a tropical, temperate, and arctic bird from a specific group. Here, we’re teaching research skills related to limiting a topic. Students need to know that topics shouldn’t be too broad or too narrow.”

“In other words,” Mr. Grow said, “they should be just right. Sort of like the Goldilocks principle.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. “Additionally, kids need to be able to find plenty of information on the topic. After they choose their birds, I ask them to do a quick search. If they can’t find enough, they must choose another topic. Furthermore, if everything out there is written for adults, they should choose something else.

“This step is critical. Otherwise, a student may waste several days on a dead-end topic.”

Evaluating, Selecting, and Citing Sources of Information

“Before moving on, we spend time teaching an important research skill: evaluating sources. They must be relevant, reliable, factual, accurate, and objective.

“You can do this in several ways. At first, you may want to talk through the list while kids look at a site. Then they can use a checklist. Eventually, we want this to be second nature.”

Ms. Sneed slid a list across the table for Mr. Grow to see.

  • Relevant – Does this source contain information that will support my research topic? Was the source created for someone like me (e.g., for a fourth grader)?
  • Reliable – Was it created by a trustworthy person or organization?
  • Factual and Accurate – Is the information factual? Can I confirm this information with other sources (or does the source cite it sources)? Is the information up-to-date?
  • Objective – Has the creator presented information to support multiple points of view?

Gathering Information

Returning to her laptop, Ms. Sneed scrolled through some note-taking sheets. “When teaching research skills to elementary students, we must provide guidance for gathering and organizing information.”

Mind Maps

She pointed to a sample page. In the middle, Mr. Grow noticed a picture of a nest. Branching out in a web, he saw notes about eagles’ homes.

“This,” said Ms. Sneed, “is a mind map. It promotes divergent thinking. As you can see, this student has found and listed lots of facts.

“At this grade level, I provide mind maps for specific categories of information. In this case, for example, kids get pages for appearance, habits, and habitat. Of course, they can add other information on a blank sheet.”

Mind maps provide a great format for note-taking.

Note Sheets

Next, she scrolled to a page with four sections. “When I first began teaching, I tried traditional note cards with my students. What a disaster. At this age, kids lose the cards and have trouble sorting them. Then I came up with the idea of note sheets.

“Each page has four cards, all with similar topics. For example, on this sheet, kids take notes on food and adaptations. They sort the information by what they eat, how they get it, how they eat it, and adaptations that accommodate all of this.”

Instead of traditional note cards, try note sheets for kids in fourth and fifth grades. When categories are grouped together, it models the process.

“That’s brilliant!” Mr. Grow exclaimed.

“Thanks. Best of all, it works. With this method, we train students to categorize. It really helps to organize their writing.

“In fourth grade, my students are only allowed to take notes in short phrases. They’re not allowed to quote until fifth grade. This way, kids master paraphrasing, and plagiarism isn’t an issue.”

Organizing Information

Quickly, she scrolled to the next page. “As you see here, I like to use boxes and bullets. Kids write the main idea, or topic sentence in the box and supporting details next to the bullets.”

Forget about traditional outlines! For elementary students, use boxes and bullets to organize research writing.

Drafting and Revising

“After filling in the boxes and bullets, the paper practically writes itself. Drafting is easy.

“When that’s finished, kids revise using familiar strategies: improving word choice, adding transitions, varying sentences, etc.

When you ask for specific improvements to paragraphs, you get it! Don't leave anything to chance when teaching research skills to elementary students.

“I like to use checklists for peer or individual editing. That encourages them to be self-sufficient, and my life is easier.”

Enjoy Teaching Research Skills to Elementary Students

“So there you have it! Everything you ever wanted to know about teaching research skills to elementary students. In fourth grade, we start with prerequisite concepts. Then we conduct a bunch of short research related to seasonal or subject-area topics. Finally, kids work on independent research projects. I love watching them become autonomous learners!”

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