Teaching Research Skills to Elementary Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Elementary school students are full of questions, and teaching them to do research is a great way to help them become sophisticated readers, writers, and thinkers. This lesson helps you teach research skills in the elementary classroom.

Why Research Skills?

Ms. Jackson's fourth-grade students are always asking questions! They want to know why things work the way they do, or how people did things in different time periods. Ms. Jackson herself does not always know the answer to these questions, but she realizes that her students are showing her their desire to learn to do research, reading and exploration that teaches them the answers they are looking for. Even elementary school students are capable of doing research, but it involves some explicit instruction. Ms. Jackson decides to dedicate a unit of study to helping her students become savvy researchers.

Defining the Question

The first step to good research, Ms. Jackson teaches her students, is defining a research question. A research question is a question that the researcher really wants to know the answer to, but it should also be a question that is answerable. For example, 'What will I be when I grow up?' is not a question that is answerable via research, but 'What does a veterinarian do?' is a related question that students will be able to answer. Ms. Jackson also explains to her students that research questions should be broad enough to maintain their interest. 'Where does Taylor Swift live?' is a question that is too narrow, because it can be answered in one sentence, but 'What is Taylor Swift's life story?' is a broader and more compelling question. Ms. Jackson has her students brainstorm lists of questions they are interested in, then work with partners to narrow their lists down to one sustaining inquiry.

Finding and Evaluating Sources

Now that her students have research questions, Ms. Jackson teaches them to find and evaluate sources, or materials they can use to answer their questions. Sources can include nonfiction books and magazines as well as digital media. Ms. Jackson teaches her students that they should work with at least three different sources to get different perspectives on their question. She also teaches them that digital sources in particular need to be evaluated. She encourages her students to ask the following questions about a source:

  • How do I know that the information in this source is accurate?
  • Who is the writer of this source, and how did they get their information?
  • When was this source written, and how do I know it is up to date?

Ms. Jackson gives her students opportunities to practice evaluating sources as a whole class, and she guides them to see that not all sources are equal.

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