Teaching Research Skills in Upper Elementary & Middle School Grades

by | Oct 16, 2018 | Writing | 0 comments

Learning to research is an essential skill for all students. In primary grades, students complete research projects, but they usually are teacher-led or have a lot of built-in support. As students move into upper elementary and middle grades, they are expected to complete research projects with greater independence. However, many students struggle to complete research projects successfully.

One of the biggest hurdles for students is a lack of skills. Many teachers assume that students already know how to research in middle school. However, students often have not learned how to independently complete the different parts of a research project.

Without realizing it, teachers at different grade levels frequently jump from providing a lot of teacher support to almost complete independence. In reality, upper elementary and middle grade teachers need to continue to model each research skill for students – especially as expectations continue to increase in at grade level.

Common Pitfalls in Teaching Research Skills

In my experience, there are a few main pitfalls that set students up for failure at the beginning of a research project: topic selection, resources, and time management.

Topic Selection

Selecting an effective topic is actually more difficult than it seems. Students frequently select topics that are either too general or too narrow.

An open-ended topic makes it difficult for a student to know what to research – too many possibilities and resources come up. The student has difficulty completing the research simply because he or she doesn’t know how or what to focus on.

A narrow topic has the opposite effect: it can be impossible to find any resources. The student can spend days searching for information but still find nothing.

In lower grades, it is definitely better if teachers create a list of possible topics. This allows students to have a choice while ensuring the topics meet the criteria of the project. (I will talk more about modeling topic selection in the next post in this blog series.)

Selecting Resources

A student might have a “just right” topic but still not find appropriate sources. Access to technology can make finding resources easier, but sometimes there just isn’t much published on a particular topic.

Another drawback when selecting resources is finding texts on the right level. Especially for historical or scientific topics, many texts are written at a higher reading level. Not only are these texts difficult for upper elementary and middle school students to read, but they often go into too much detail for the grade level.

One strategy I use in upper elementary and middle grades is to create a “class reference area.” Before I create a research project, I check what resources are available in our school library. I supplement those with books from the public library. Then I create a list of possible research topics from those resources. (My schools have had limited access to technology, but teachers can also check and make lists of online sources.)

Warning: keep a list of all library resources. Mark down where they came from and their due dates. Keep a list of students and their chosen topics. Reserve 5 minutes at the end of every class to check that all books are returned. This prevents lost books or missing resources (especially if you teach multiple classes.)

For geography research, if teachers can request resources from state tourism agencies and embassies. They both will


often happily send information to use in your classroom, but it can take a few months to receive the brochures and booklets.

Time Management

Ah, time management. No matter what activity the class is doing, some students will always struggle with time management. Some just procrastinate while others simply try to avoid doing any work. However, there are some legitimate reasons students struggle to complete research:

1. Overwhelmed with choices – Honestly, having too many choices is not a good thing. I feel that way every time I try to pick a new shampoo. Having 500 options makes it very difficult to pick just one! Having too many topic choices or resources can cause the same problem for students: they just don’t know where to start. Again, especially in lower grades, teachers can solve this problem by offering a list of choices and providing in-class resources.

2. Resources that are too difficult – If the resources are not at the students’ instructional level, students either won’t work or they simply copy down random bits of information (that they usually don’t understand.) It is important to find resources that fit the ability levels in your class. (Having different resource materials also is a great way to differentiate a research project.)

3. Chunking Work – Most teachers break down projects into pieces. Teachers should go one step further and assign due dates for each chunk. This prevents students from having nothing accomplished at the end of the research project. It also helps when teachers set a specific research goal for each work session. For example, in 5th grade, I use a U.S. Regions research project. At the beginning of each research period (20 – 30 minutes), I tell students they need to complete research for the region we are on. By providing resources and setting a time limit, students usually finish their notes by the end of the period. Otherwise, students who enjoy research spend hours reading about places, while the reluctant workers dilly dally.

4. Confusion about Expectations – So many students are visual learners. Without seeing what they need to complete, many students misunderstand the goal or don’t start because they aren’t sure what to do. How can teachers prevent these problems? Model, model, model! Keep it short and sweet, but spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each period modeling what students are expected to do.


These strategies won’t prevent all problems during a research project, but they will help students be successful. They will also keep you free to walk the room and help students (or monitor behavior) as needed.

Remember, it is always easier to prevent problems than to solve them!

In the other posts in this blog series, I will talk in-depth about teaching specific research skills:

Selecting a Topic

Taking Notes

Making an Outline

Writing the Essay

Creating a Bibliography

Tools for Teaching Research Skills

Are you looking for print and go research units for your classroom?

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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