Research: Why Wait till High School? Introducing Elementary Students to Research Skills Makes Their Learning More Active and Pays off by Deepening and Improving Their Abilities over Time

By Landreau, Janice | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Research: Why Wait till High School? Introducing Elementary Students to Research Skills Makes Their Learning More Active and Pays off by Deepening and Improving Their Abilities over Time


Landreau, Janice, Phi Delta Kappan


A 6-year-old is sitting on his mom's lap in front of an audience of his classmates and their parents. He's about to read his report on the path of sound waves through the ear to the brain. It's his first, and he's nervous. But he's heard the older kids do this, and he knows what to do.

At first, no words come out, and he buries his head in his mom's lap. But everyone waits patiently. Gradually, a few words emerge, and he gathers courage. His mom helps, and he makes it through the whole page! As the applause reaches his ears, he beams, filled with pride.

The older children are genuinely happy for him when he makes it to the last sentence. They remember their first time reading a report. They've moved on to longer and more complex papers, but they remember.

That is an example of the excitement schools can generate when they begin teaching research skills to students in 1st grade. Unfortunately, most schools don't even consider teaching research skills until high school. Too many educators assume that these skills are appropriate only for older students, that students first need lots of practice writing sentences, then paragraphs, then five-paragraph essays. The assumption sounds quite logical, but it actually couldn't be further from the truth.

Consider the eagerness of 6-year-olds to take a trip to the library. With a little help, it takes them no time to find an armful of books they want to bring home. Let them choose their topic; you'll find their curiosity boundless when it comes to snakes or spiders or frogs or skateboarding. Let them start with whatever holds their interest, and you won't be able to stop them!

For their beginning research projects, children don't need to be burdened by a complicated process for writing. Simply give them sticky notes to mark what they find interesting as they read. They'll be surprisingly adept at knowing which books serve their purposes, and they'll be eager to share what they're learning.

You don't even have to mention the word "research" or tell them to "narrow down" their topic. If you listen to their interest, a paper will emerge. They may discover colorful and deadly tree frogs and want to know why they come in such bright hues. Or they may want to know how a boa captures and devours its prey.

The next step is surprisingly simple. When they've gathered their information, ask them what they want to share and where they want to begin. What do they think would make a good starting place? Guide them informally to capture the facts in an interesting and orderly fashion. This will keep their interest alive instead of killing it with rigidity. They can write introductions and conclusions quite naturally, just by focusing on what feels to them like a good way to begin and end the paper. Even writing topic sentences comes easily when they write as if they were telling someone. Simply teach them to "catch" the ideas and get them down on paper in their own words and to start a new paragraph whenever they change subjects.

Another useful strategy for writing their rough draft is to get them in the habit of reading previous sentences before they go forward. This helps keep the flow of words coming in a smooth manner. This is a very natural process for most good writers, but it needs to be taught. It's best if they read the sentences out loud at first so that they can "hear" where they're headed and stay on track.

In fact, the best tool for turning out clear, appealing writing is to have children read their writing aloud to each other as often as possible. At the rough draft stage, they can give each other invaluable feedback, provided that you first model what helpful criticism looks like. When they're first trying it, it's enough for them to say, "The beginning is great, but the end is kind of a letdown." Later, they get quite adept at giving each other really direct and useful suggestions, such as, "You took too long getting to the point! …

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