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Teach research writing in smaller mini-units

March 13, 2013

Research writing done in classrooms today looks much different than when we went to school. Gone are the days of World Book Encyclopedia in hardback sets. Gone are the days of limited access to information and the outdated nature of the data.

The students’ problem is no longer having too little information. Now it’s the opposite—too much information and not enough experience applying it to a research paper/report.

Rather than tackle all of the components of a large expository research project with one enormous assignment, consider rolling out a couple skills at a time to be executed within an initial smaller product. Then review those skills and introduce a few more to all be generated within another short piece. Continue this spiral teaching providing multiple smaller writing experiences, rather than one mother-lode unit.

Plan for multiple mini-writing units

When considering how you’ll handle your research writing unit, remember that this type of writing is difficult. Students have to tackle a topic they know little about and then collect and sift through information, determining what’s reliable and relevant. After that comes the daunting task of organizing all these facts and details into a logical order.

When they finally get to the drafting stage, students have to explain the data they’ve collected using content-specific vocabulary and citing sources. This is all more challenging than their usual write-from-personal-experience assignments.

For that reason, plan multiple opportunities for students to hone their skills. Rather than completing a single research project over several weeks, look to incorporate several smaller research opportunities into your curriculum. Students need lots of practice with this genre.

Focus on facts

Within each smaller research project, target a couple of informative writing skills at a time. For example, the first mini-unit might include a focus on narrowing a topic/thesis and collecting facts. Let students hone their ability to search the Internet and identify credible sites and sources. Give them a chance to focus solely on gathering information, without having to then turn it into a massive writing. Such fact-finding activities could culminate in one of these three ways:

  • Create a bulleted list

    Using the subject only, students create a simple list of related facts they found during their research. Each bulleted detail should be written as a complete sentence.

  • Use Q&A format

    Before beginning their research, students generate a list of questions they want to answer about their topics. Then, after conducting research to find the answers to their own questions, students write a simple Q&A list of sentences.

    Within an informative writing unit, initially utilize a simple format. For example, reveal a Q&A format for students to replicate within their own research content. Instead of writing the entire report, they only write the middle–the single question and a very thorough answer.

    • This allows them to focus on collecting facts, explaining information, and providing support. Within a format like Q&A, students don’t have to write an introduction and conclusion or even worry about transitions. Those skills can be introduced in future mini-units and assessed within subsequent writing assignments.
  • Try a Fact Flipper

    Here’s another Q&A concept. Using PowerPoint and following these directions, students create some slides with questions and other slides with the answers. Printing the slides in “Handout” mode, the Questions page lines up with the Answers page to create a fact flipper.

Smekens Original Informative Genre Poster
Fact Flipper Foldable

Schedule a short report

Then, in a month or so, plan for another short informative assignment. Review the initial skills taught in the previous mini-unit (e.g., narrowing a topic/thesis, collecting facts, etc.). Then teach a couple more. Maybe this time you emphasize skills and strategies for fleshing out the facts and research, working on paraphrasing and citing sources. Target these skills in a second mini-research writing unit on a new and different topic.

  • 1-page research paper—If students can’t write a short research paper, they can’t write a long one. Starting with a new topic, have students research and then write a traditional research paper that is significantly shorter.
  • Mini-book—Blair Pointe Elementary (Peru, IN) teacher Louanne Berryman has her fifth graders create mini-book foldables on topics they are studying in social studies. Students synthesize the facts they collect into 6 small pages. You can assign the content required per page or leave it up to the students to determine.
  • All-class big book—Students work in pairs to collect facts on a single facet or sub-topic of the same whole-class topic (e.g., wolves). After conducting the research, each team uses a single piece of flip-chart paper to display the information they learned. The pages are to include written information and visual images. Combine all the pages together to create a big book. Add a title page and table of contents, too.
Wolves: Big Class Book
Alternatives to the Traditional Research Report - Mini-Book Foldable

With each mini-unit, you are reviewing previously taught skills and introducing a couple more. If you did 3-4 smaller research units throughout the year, students would have three times as many experiences with that genre than they normally do. That means they’re three times better at it! (NOTE: Students are NOT returning to the same pieces over and over within each mini-unit. Rather, a student starts a new writing on a different topic with each mini-unit.)

Consider a twist on the traditional research paper

Eventually, you’ll want students to incorporate all the research-writing skills you’ve been targeting all year long. This could be the much longer and more traditional research paper. And with 2-3 smaller research experiences under their belts, you can be assured that students will tackle the task with more confidence and independence than they have in the past.

If you’re looking to stray from conventional report writing, here are three possibilities:

  • Argumentative research paper–Argument is rooted in research. More than just personal opinions and emotional appeals, argumentative writing relies on facts and data to support a position. Students could write argumentative research papers on debatable topics.
  • Multigenre research project–Students collect facts as they would for a traditional report. Students create several different writings done in various genres and formats–all on the same topic. With each additional genre, new information is revealed. Based on the facts and details they have researched, students determine how best to present the information. Check out genre options and more specifics or consult Multigenre Research Project: Everything You Need to Get Started by Melinda Putz for more information. Southside Elementary (Columbus, IN) teacher Mandy Keele tried this idea with her fourth graders with great success.
  • Biographical research unit–A research unit can be focused on a person, making it a biography. Three middle school teachers centered their unit on the famous people mentioned in the song lyrics of Tim McGraw’s country song, “Southern Voice.”
Multi-Genre Options
Multi-Genre Student Samples
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