Helping Your Child with the Research Process

The way students do research has changed a lot in a generation. Not so long ago, a research project for elementary students involved little more than copying from the encyclopedia. We now seek to help students to develop information expertise as active learners, constructing meaning from the sources they find and creating products that communicate that meaning effectively. Our school library collection has been carefully selected to meet the needs of our students and should be a first stop in any research project. When students undertake research, we hope, over time, to help them achieve these goals:

  • to understand how to access and use information
  • to analyze complex and conflicting presentations of information
  • to appreciate a variety of perspectives
  • to use information competently in critical thinking, decision making and problem solving
  • to produce new information and create products and presentations that communicate ideas effectively
  • to develop into lifelong learners who can assimilate varying viewpoints, accommodate change, and contribute to the well-being of the community.

Dealing with the information explosion of our time can be daunting. Helping students find, evaluate and synthesize information is the job of the teacher, the librarian, and often, the parent. The following instructions may help your child see the process in its entirety.

Overview: When Should I Begin My Research? Now!

While the research process is presented as a step-by-step activity, it is actually a cyclical process. You should remember that you may need to return to the beginning because the information you find actually raises new questions.

Research often involves investigating many different resource tools and may require several visits to the library. You may need the assistance of a librarian — and it is hard to help a student whose project is due in a few hours.

Get a research journal or a special section of a notebook for this process. Think of the project in three parts:

Beginning — Plan
What am I supposed to do?
What will the result look like if I do a really good job?
What do I know already?
What do I need to find out about in order to do the job?

Middle — Do
Read or view the information in the sources, take notes
Write an outline
Put it all together as a finished assignment.

End — Review
Before assignment is completely finished and turned in, stop and think:
Is this done?
Did I do what I was supposed to do? Look again at the original assignment to be sure.
Do I feel OK about this?
Should I do something else before I turn it in?

1. Selecting a Topic

If your topic is clearly defined, the research process will go more smoothly.

It is a common mistake to start gathering information without spending time figuring out what it is you are trying to do. Select a topic of interest to you, or if assigned a topic, seek out an aspect of the assigned topic of interest to you.

2. Formulate a Focus Question to be Answered (Thesis Statement)

Brainstorm — Make two lists in your research journal —

What do I know already? What do I want to learn?
Write out as many questions as you can think of and plan to add to this list.

Then: Try to write one or two questions that you would like to answer. Example:

Topic > Vincent Van Gogh
Initial Focus questions > What kind of work did Vincent Van Gogh do? Why is he important?

Topic > Pandas
Initial Focus questions > How does the panda behave and survive in its natural habitat? Why is the panda endangered?

As you learn more, you may need to broaden or narrow your question.

For example, “When was Vincent Van Gogh born?” is too narrow.
“Why do pandas live in China?” is too broad.

Later, after you have read about your subject, you will revise this question into a final topic statement such as:

> The artist Vincent Van Gogh, who lived a troubled life, changed painting by exploring new ways of depicting light and color. He created a style now known as postimpressionism.

Pandas are one of the rarest mammals. They survive by eating huge amounts of bamboo, and they are threatened by habitat destruction, poaching and the dying out of bamboo forests.

STEP 3 : Information Seeking Strategies

3. Determine possible sources — Make a preliminary list (working bibliography) in your research journal .

  • Human resources — teacher; librarian; parent; experts on the topic
  • Reference Books, such as the encyclopedia and the dictionary
  • Library Catalog, for books.
  • Magazine and newspaper articles – Provide current information and specialized information. For example, Cobblestone, Calliope, Odyssey, National Geographic and several other magazines are excellent and often overlooked resources. They are indexed on the ProQuest database (ask for help!).
  • Internet Resources – When using the Internet, always start with a subscription database, such as NetTrekker, rather than a general search engine such as Google. For more information, see Evaluating Website Validity.
  • DVDs and other videos
  • Local sites

This preliminary search will help you determine how little or how much information is available on your topic. You may have to go back and refine your focus question based on this early search.

In your research journal, you should have individual pages for

  • your list of what you know already
  • your list of what you want to find out, and new questions you think of
  • keywords, new terms and their definitions — your GLOSSARY
  • your list of possible sources — your WORKING BIBLIOGRAPHY
  • where you can jot down what worked, and especially what didn’t work.
  • writing down how you feel as you go along—some of your frustrations, some of your successes.

4. Locate and Retrieve Materials

5. Use of Information:

A. Note taking

When you take notes from your reading, instead of photocopying or printing web pages, you learn more about your subject–the information sticks in your brain better.

Look back at your focus questions and your list of things you want to know. This will save you lots of
writing. Some students have such a hard time deciding what matters that they write out by hand entire chapters!

Try to find short “notefacts” about your topic. Don’t copy whole sentences. For example, for the report on pandas:

  • diet– bamboo — hard to digest, must spend lots of time eating
  • bamboo — forests dying out — live 100 years; natural causes and deforestation
  • survival — low birthrates — poachers

To take notes from the Internet, DO NOT PRINT ENTIRE WEB PAGES. It wastes paper.

Read through the article. Use the mouse to:

  • Select only brief facts that fit with what you need.
  • Copy just those parts, one at a time.
  • Paste those short facts into your word processing document.
  • Copy and Paste the web address onto the same page with your notes.
  • Type in the date you found the information on the word processing document.

Later you will sort these notefacts into categories, such as food, habitat, enemies, physical characteristics, etc.

Example — ‘want to know’ question — How did pandas get their colors? (physical characteristics)

Copied and pasted this short answer: “Scientists aren’t exactly sure. One theory is that pandas developed the contrasting black and white colors over time so they would stand out in the forest and be able to find each other to mate.” [You will re-word this later.]

Copied and pasted this address:
Date: Sept. 16, 2005

B. Paraphrasing, Summarizing and Quoting

  • PARAPHRASING is putting an author’s work into your own words. After you read a section, close the book and write out the important facts as you recall them. Paraphrase instead of copying whenever possible.
  • SUMMARIZING is writing out the main points of someone else’s work in your own words. Although when you paraphrase or summarize information you put it into your own words, it is still the original author’s work. You have merely rephrased it, so you must cite your source (see Citation).
  • QUOTING: Sometimes, when something is expressed especially well, you want to use the author’s exact words. Although paraphrasing is encouraged, you may use quotations when needed, putting the words into quotation marks and citing your source (see Citation.)

C. Citation

Citation is a note in the text, or a footnote, or a listing in a bibliography. It tells where the information came from. Anytime you quote, summarize or paraphrase, you must give credit for words and ideas that aren’t your own.

Whenever you are doing research you need to keep accurate records of all the materials you use. Write down the complete citation, including the author, title, publication date, page numbers, and other information. Accurate citing of sources is very important.

D. Plagiarism

Plagiarism is defined as “presenting the ideas of another as your own.” It is unethical and against the law. When you conduct research, you will be collecting the works of other authors. The materials may be in books, journals, encyclopedias, CD-ROMs or from the Internet. Wherever you obtain information, you must be sure to give the author of the work credit. If no author is given for an article, Web page, or other work, you still must cite the source.


By now you should have several categories based on your original questions plus information that fits those categories.

Sort the notefacts — put similar ideas together.

Set aside any notefacts that don’t seem to fit with the questions you are answering.

Make an outline. Here’s a sample for the topic of Pandas

I. Introduction
A. Topic
B. Background Information
C. Research Questions —
How does the panda behave and survive in its natural habitat?
Why is the panda endangered?
D. Thesis statement — Pandas are one of the rarest mammals. They survive by eating huge amounts of bamboo, and they are threatened by habitat destruction, poaching and the dying out of bamboo forests.

II. Body
A. Characteristics
B. Habitat –Natural, Captivity
C. Diet
D. Reproduction
E. Threats

III. Conclusion

Step 7: Creating Your Final Product

Your teacher may have given you a specific form for your final project. It could be a written report (more on this below), but there are many other formats that you can use to present a research project. For example

  • Action: commercial, competition, dance, debate, demonstration, experiment, game, interview, lesson, performance, play, puppet show, scavenger hunt, speech, treasure hunt
  • Collection: collage, display, learning center, mini-museum, portfolio, scrapbook, terrarium
  • Model: diorama, invention, musical instrument, scale model, sculpture,
  • Technology: animation, computer program, database, overhead projection/power point, photograph, radio program, slide/sound program, tape recording, TV program, video, web page
  • Visual Representation: bulletin board, cartoon, chart, concept map, costume, display board, family tree, flag, float, graph, map, mask, mobile, mural, needlework, painting, picture book, poster, project cube, puzzle, time line
  • Written Work: advertisement, book (ABC, biography,fact, fantasy, flip book, journal, recipe book, science fiction, shape book), brochure, crossword puzzle, dictionary, fact cards, letter, magazine, news report, poetry, riddle, song, travel log, word search.

Writing a Report

At this point you have organized your notefacts and put similar ideas together.

Stages in report writing: pre-writing, writing, revising, editing, and publishing

Step 1: Write the introduction.

  • Your main purpose is most likely be to explain an idea or provide information
  • State what the report is about, or what you are trying to prove. The easiest way to do this is restate the question. Do not use statements such as “this report will be about…”
  • Introduce the topics of each of the body paragraphs which will follow.
  • Topic — brief statement of the issues of the paper
  • Review of the Literature — background information from other researchers
  • The Research Question — the problem you researched
  • Thesis Statement — what you will prove/disprove with your study data

Step 2: Write the body paragraphs.

  • Write the first body paragraph. Be sure to include all of the following components: topic sentence, supporting evidence in the body sentences, and a closing sentence. Follow this same format as you write the second and third body paragraphs.
  • Development of the major issues of the study, supporting data. (If data gathering included action research such as sampling, surveying, and experiments, you must include methods, materials and results.)

Step 3: Write the conclusion.

Summarize the subject of the report. You can often do this by restating the question in a different way. Explain what you concluded about the essay question. Summarize how the information in the body of your essay proves your point.

Remember: Nobody writes a research report fluidly from beginning to end! Good writers revise their work as they go along.

  • Rough Draft — From your outline, write a rough draft using documentation from your notefacts.
  • Revise — Make necessary changes as you reread and rewrite each section of your paper.
  • Edit — Check for correct writing mechanics and style.
  • Final Copying — using all your revisions, formatting and editing, complete the final copy of your paper to hand in to your teacher.

Step 8: Finalizing the Bibliography

What is a bibliography and why do I have to have it?

A bibliography is a list of sources that you use for a research project.

You need to note where you got your information because:

  • it gives credit to the authors or sources — to avoid plagiarism
  • it makes your work appear valid
  • it guides a reader who wishes to know more

It can include interviews, videos, web pages. It is not just padding to tell teacher you looked in more than once source!

Citations and bibliographies give to the reader the opportunity to go to your sources and look more into your topic if your paper sparks their interest, or if they find your research to be biased.

How do I make a bibliography?

The list of sources should appear at the end of a report or somewhere on any research project.

  • It needs to be organized alphabetically by the last name of the author.
  • Authors’ names are inverted (last name, first name).
  • If no author is given for a particular work, alphabetize by the title of the piece
  • The first line of each entry in your list should be all the way to the left. Subsequent lines should be indented.
  • All references should be double-spaced.
  • Capitalize each word in the titles of articles, books, etc. This rule does not apply to articles (a, an, the), short prepositions (of, for) or conjunctions (and, but).
  • Underline or italicize titles of books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and films.
  • A magazine article neeeds to be in quotation marks.

Examples of Bibliography Format:

For a book:

Author’s Last name, First name. Title of Book. Place of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication.

Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux. Almost to Freedom. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2003.

An article from a reference book

“Asia.” World Book Encyclopedia. 2002 ed.

For an article in a magazine or a newspaper:

Author’s last name, first name. “Title of Article.” Title of periodical. Day Month Year: pages.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. “Rise of the Tenement.” Cobblestone. February 2004: 9-11.

For a web page:

Author(s). Name of Page. Date of Posting/Revision. Date of Access. <electronic address>.

You must note your date of access because web postings are often updated, and information available at one date may no longer be available later. Be sure to include the complete address for the site. Also, note the use of angled brackets around the electronic address.

San Diego Zoo. “Animal Bytes: Giant Panda.” 2004. 15 Sept. 2005.


“By Popular Demand: Jackie Robinson and Other Baseball Highlights, 1860s to 1960s.”

Undated. 2 Feb. 2004. <>.

Nonprint sources: Examples — Interview that you conducted; a video

Lesh, Philip. Personal Interview. 12 Nov. 2005.

Save the Panda. Videocassette. National Geographic, 1997.

Step 9: Evaluation:

Your next project will be better because you take the time to think about this project. Use one of the following guidelines to assess your work.

A. Before you turn it in, ask yourself: Did I do what I was supposed to do?

Look again at the original assignment to be sure.
Do I feel OK about this? Should I do something else before I turn it in?
Be sure to have someone else look at it for proofreading and other suggestions.

B. Look back at your research journal.

This should be a log of your progress. You should have notes on what worked, what didn’t work, what was hard, how you felt as you went along. Jot down some quick notes for the different stages of the process:

  • Topic and Focus Questions —
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Information Seeking Strategies
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Locating and Evaluating Materials
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Use of Information — Notetaking, Paraphrasing, Summarizing
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Writing an Outline
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Creating the Project
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Preparing the Bibliography
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Creating the Final Project
    What I did well
    What I will work on next time
  • Write down how you feel now.

C. Another way to assess your process is by using the 6 levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy so that you can see how much you actually learned, not just about your topic but about finding information.

  • Knowledge: List 5 facts you learned about your topic.
  • Comprehension: Explain one of these facts in detail.
  • Application: What did you learn that you could apply to a new situation?
  • Analysis: Compare your product with another one that you saw in your class.
  • Synthesis: Imagine a way your product or the whole unit could have been different.
  • Evaluation: Tell whether _________________ was a topic worth studying and why.

Congratulations! You should be very proud of your project and your expertise in your subject!


American Association of School Librarians and Association of Educational Communications and Technology. Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning. Chicago: American Library Association, 1998.

Eisenberg, Michael B. and Robert E. Berkowitz. Teaching Information and Technology Skills: The BIG 6 in Elementary Schools. Worthington, Ohio: Linworth Publishing, 1999.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. Teaching the Library Research Process: A Step-By-Step Program for Secondary School Students. West Nyack, New York: The Center for Applied Research in Education, 1985.

Nottage, Cindy and Virginia Morse. IIM: Independent Investigation Method: A 7-Step Method for Student Success in the Research Process. Epping, New Hampshire: Active Larning Systems, 2000.

University of Maryland University College. Research Skills Tutorial. Undated.
26 July 2004. <>.