One of the many reasons I love teaching third grade is witnessing the amazing growth that takes place throughout the year, especially in writing. Many of my students have gone from working on writing complete sentences with capital letters and periods in September to writing research reports by the third quarter. How do they come so far? My students learn research skills, note-taking, and purposeful expository writing in a step-by-step manner that makes it easy and manageable for young writers.
This week, I’m happy to share with you my strategies and graphic organizers that help my students write clear, informative, five-paragraph research reports. While my focus is on the specific reports that we do, the ideas can easily be adapted to any topic of your choosing.
Before beginning this project, my students have already been introduced to nonfiction text features. To see some of the activities that take place see my previous posts:
Step 1: Choose a High-Interest Topic and Build Background
One of the most important things I do to prepare for this project is introduce nonfiction text that is high interest. I’ve discovered the topic that engages my students like no other is disasters. For this report we concentrate on natural disasters. You can use any topic of interest to your students that has plentiful resources available such as endangered animals or habitats.
To begin, we read the book, Pompeii . . . Buried Alive, as a class. Each year students are fascinated to learn how repeated eruptions of Mount Vesuvius covered an entire city that no one even realized existed for centuries. We connect this story to our science lessons, looking at how volcanoes form, what causes them to erupt, and the types of damage they can cause.
Over the next few days, I introduce different disasters using short video clips found on Discovery Education Streaming and Scholastic’s StudyJams!. We focus on earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, and wildfires. Tip: no matter what nonfiction topic you choose to focus on, StudyJams! most likely has a video and information on it!
During this period of background building, I also make a tub of my disaster-themed books available for independent reading.
Step 2: Model Note-Taking Strategies
While watching the video clips and reading books from the disaster tub, my students take notes in their writer’s notebooks. Before doing so, however, I go over some note-taking strategies that younger students are not always familiar with, such as:
Write down key words and phrases — complete sentences aren’t needed
Bullet or number your notes
Categorize your notes with headings
Use images to help you remember key ideas
This year, for the first time, I introduced my students to visual note-taking, which I had just read about the previous day in a post by fellow blogger, Meghan Everette. Many of my students loved using this method to make their notes more visual.
When you are just beginning to teach note-taking, the resource below can be a big help.
Step 3: Students Choose the Topic They Want to Research
When students have a choice in what they write about, I find they tend to be more engaged in the effort. Therefore, after we have been introduced to the last disaster, students write down the names of three disasters, in ranked order, that they would like to learn more about on a slip of paper and turn it in to me.
Step 4: Make it a Team Effort
Putting students into groups by topics allows them to help and support each other through researching, writing, editing, and publishing.
I use the student ranking slips from Step 3 to place students on their disaster teams. If possible, I make sure all students get their first choice for a topic, however, having a second choice is helpful if I need to separate students who have shown they don’t work well together. (Teacher confession: the third choice I have them write down is just to make them feel good that they got their first or second choice!)
Each disaster team is assigned a headquarters. That’s their special area of the room to meet with their teammates to work during this two-week research project.
Step 5: Gather Resources and Take Notes
Once teams have been established, I pass out a note-taking graphic organizer for students to use. It is divided into sections that align with the main idea of each paragraph. This will help them easily translate their notes into topic and detail sentences for their report. Feel free to download and print the note organizer below. You can customize it to fit any topic you choose by changing the headings on each page.
Click on the image above to download and print these graphic organizers.
Students use books from the classroom and school library as well as online resources to begin taking notes. The key teaching point here is to stress the importance of putting information they find in their own words. Students who write down the exact words from their sources tend to include those “great-sounding” sentences in their research papers which leads to a whole new lesson on plagiarism.
During the two to three days students are taking notes, I sit down with each team to look over what they have completed and steer them onto the right track if necessary. Visiting each group and providing guidance is important to setting them up for success when it comes time to write.
Step 6: Write and Revise the Report
Once students have taken sufficient notes for each section of the report, they are ready to start writing! Each student receives a new graphic organizer which we first discuss, page-by-page, as a whole class. Students use the organizer to follow a simple, five-sentence paragraph pattern that includes a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a closing sentence. Using this formula approach helps students understand the basic format of a paragraph and how the paragraphs blend together to form a report.
The organizer students use for their writing is shown below. Remember, when you download and print the note organizer below, you can customize it to fit any topic by changing the headings on each page.
The very first paragraph, which introduces the reader to the topic, is completed while the students are still sitting on the carpet. Sentence by sentence (there are only five!) students volunteer to share what they have written. Hearing their peers’ topics and detail sentences often inspires other students, giving them the confidence to write their own. After the first paragraph is completed, students are sent to their team headquarters to continue writing.
At the start of the next class period, we gather to review what was written the day before and set a writing goal for that day. It normally takes the majority of my third graders three to four class sessions to complete their report.
Just as I did with note-taking, I visit each team at their headquarters at least once a day while they are writing independently. This allows me to provide any necessary support and guidance. It’s during these visits I also remind the students that as a team, they are there to help each other as well with revising and peer editing.
If you would like to teach students to write a well-constructed single paragraph, I love using this printable with my class.
Step 7: Publish!
Getting to type their reports is the favorite part for most students. As part of publishing, students are asked to incorporate text features that are frequently found in nonfiction text. See the sheet below for the checklist my students use as they publish their reports.
Step 8: Proudly Display and Share the Finished Product!
After approximately three weeks from start to finish, the students have a finished report they can proudly share with classmates and parents!
Writing research reports can be a daunting task at any grade level, but using a step-by-step approach with young writers breaks it down into an easy-to-manage process that will make all writers feel successful. Whether you choose natural disasters or any other topic to delve into with your students, I'm sure you will feel as excited to see your students rise to this writing challenge as I do every year!
- As you do your research, follow your background research plan and take notes from your sources of information. These notes will help you write a better summary.
- The purpose of your research paper is to give you the information to understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. The research paper should include:
- The history of similar experiments or inventions
- Definitions of all important words and concepts that describe your experiment
- Answers to all your background research plan questions
- Mathematical formulas, if any, that you will need to describe the results of your experiment
- For every fact or picture in your research paper you should follow it with a citation telling the reader where you found the information. A citation is just the name of the author and the date of the publication placed in parentheses like this: (Author, date). This is called a reference citation when using APA format and parenthetical reference when using the MLA format. Its purpose is to document a source briefly, clearly, and accurately.
- If you copy text from one of your sources, then place it in quotation marks in addition to following it with a citation. Be sure you understand and avoid plagiarism! Do not copy another person's work and call it your own. Always give credit where credit is due!
- Most teachers want a research paper to have these sections, in order:
- Title page (with the title of your project, your name, and the date)
- Your report
- Check with your teacher for additional requirements such as page numbers and a table of contents
Year after year, students find that the report called the research paper is the part of the science fair project where they learn the most. So, take it from those who preceded you, the research paper you are preparing to write is super valuable.
What Is a Research Paper?
The short answer is that the research paper is a report summarizing the answers to the research questions you generated in your background research plan. It's a review of the relevant publications (books, magazines, websites) discussing the topic you want to investigate.
The long answer is that the research paper summarizes the theory behind your experiment. Science fair judges like to see that you understand why your experiment turns out the way it does. You do library and Internet research so that you can make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment, and then whether that prediction is right or wrong, you will have the knowledge to understand what caused the behavior you observed.
From a practical perspective, the research paper also discusses the techniques and equipment that are appropriate for investigating your topic. Some methods and techniques are more reliable because they have been used many times. Can you use a procedure for your science fair project that is similar to an experiment that has been done before? If you can obtain this information, your project will be more successful. As they say, you don't want to reinvent the wheel!
If these reasons sound to you like the reasons we gave for doing background research, you're right! The research paper is simply the "write-up" of that research.
Special Information to Include in Your Research Paper
Many science experiments can be explained using mathematics. As you write your research paper, you'll want to make sure that you include as much relevant math as you understand. If a simple equation describes aspects of your science fair project, include it.
Writing the Research Paper
As you read the information in your bibliography, you'll want to take notes. Some teachers recommend taking notes on note cards. Each card contains the source at the top, with key points listed or quoted underneath. Others prefer typing notes directly into a word processor. No matter how you take notes, be sure to keep track of the sources for all your key facts.
How to Organize Your Research Paper
The best way to speed your writing is to do a little planning. Before starting to write, think about the best order to discuss the major sections of your report. Generally, you will want to begin with your science fair project question so that the reader will know the purpose of your paper. What should come next? Ask yourself what information the reader needs to learn first in order to understand the rest of the paper. A typical organization might look like this:
- Your science fair project question or topic
- Definitions of all important words, concepts, and equations that describe your experiment
- The history of similar experiments
- Answers to your background research questions
When and How to Footnote or Reference Sources
When you write your research paper you might want to copy words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas from one of your sources. It is OK to copy such information as long as you reference it with a citation. If the information is a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, then you should also put it in quotation marks. A citation and quotation marks tell the reader who actually wrote the information.
For a science fair project, a reference citation (also known as author-date citation) is an accepted way to reference information you copy. Citation referencing is easy. Simply put the author's last name, the year of publication, and page number (if needed) in parentheses after the information you copy. Place the reference citation at the end of the sentence but before the final period.
Make sure that the source for every citation item copied appears in your bibliography.
Reference Citation Format
|Type of Citation||Parenthetical Reference |
MLA Format (Author - page)
|Reference Citation |
APA Format (Author - date)*
|Work by a single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002)|
|Direct quote of work by single author||(Bloggs 37)||(Bloggs, 2002, p. 37)|
|Work by two authors||(Bloggs and Smith 37)||(Bloggs & Smith, 2002)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, and Harlow 183-185)||(Kernis, Cornell, Sun, Berry, & Harlow, 1993)|
|Work by three to five authors|
|(Kernis et al., 1993)|
|Work by six or more author||(Harris et al. 99)||(Harris et al., 2001)|
|Two or more works by the same author in the same year (use lower-case letters to order the entries in bibliography)||(Berndt, 1981a)|
|Two or more works by the same author||(Berndt, Shortened First Book Title 221) then |
(Berndt, Shortened 2nd Book Title 68)
|Two or more works in the same parentheses||(Berndt 221; Harlow 99)||(Berndt, 2002; Harlow, 1983)|
|Authors with same last name||(E. Johnson 99)||(E. Johnson, 2001; L. Johnson, 1998)|
|Work does not have an author, cite the source by its title||(Book Title 44) or |
(Shortened Book Title 44)
|(Book Title, 2005) or|
("Article Title", 2004)
|Work has unknown author and date||("Article Title", n.d.)|
|* APA Note: If you are directly quoting from a work, you will need to include the author, year of publication, and the page number for the reference (preceded by "p.").|
Examples of Reference Citations using APA Format
Below are examples of how reference citations would look in your paper using the APA format.
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by a single author, the reference will look like this. A comma separates the page number (or numbers) from the year" (Bloggs, 2002, p. 37).
"If you copy a sentence from a book or magazine article by more than one author, the reference will look like this" (Bloggs & Smith, 2002, p. 37).
"Sometimes the author will have two publications in your bibliography for just one year. In that case, the first publication would have an 'a' after the publication year, the second a 'b', and so on. The reference will look like this" (Nguyen, 2000b).
"When the author is unknown, the text reference for such an entry may substitute the title, or a shortened version of the title for the author" (The Chicago Manual, 1993).
"For reference citations, only direct quotes need page numbers" (Han, 1995).
"Some sources will not have dates" (Blecker, n.d.).
Credit Where Credit Is Due!
When you work hard to write something, you don't want your friends to loaf and just copy it. Every author feels the same way.
Plagiarism is when someone copies the words, pictures, diagrams, or ideas of someone else and presents them as his or her own. When you find information in a book, on the Internet, or from some other source, you MUST give the author of that information credit in a citation. If you copy a sentence or paragraph exactly, you should also use quotation marks around the text.
The surprising thing to many students is how easy it is for parents, teachers, and science fair judges to detect and prove plagiarism. So, don't go there, and don't make us try to hunt you down!
Research Paper Checklist
|What Makes a Good Research Paper?||For a Good Research Paper, You Should Answer "Yes" to Every Question|
|Have you defined all important terms?||Yes / No|
|Have you clearly answered all your research questions?||Yes / No|
|Does your background research enable you to make a prediction of what will occur in your experiment? Will you have the knowledge to understand what causes the behavior you observe?||Yes / No|
|Have you included all the relevant math that you understand?||Yes / No|
|Have you referenced all information copied from another source and put any phrases, sentences, or paragraphs you copied in quotation marks?||Yes / No|
|If you are doing an engineering or programming project, have you defined your target user and answered questions about user needs, products that meet similar needs, design criteria, and important design tradeoffs?||Yes / No|