Friday, February 3, 2017

In the Classroom: Why Kids Copy their Research Sources, and How to Break the Habit

Recently, author Sarah Albee and I facilitated a conversation with educators about ways to help students with their biggest nonfiction writing roadblocks. One topic that came up really surprised me—copying sources.

Why do students copy rather than expressing ideas and information in their own words? Because they haven’t taken the time to analyze and synthesize the material they’ve collected so that they can make their own meaning. In other words, they haven’t found a personal connection to the content, and that’s a critical step in nonfiction writing.

Here are some ideas to help students break the habit:

Avoid All-about Assignments
Many students are asked to write All About books. Because this kind of writing presents a broad overview, it’s setting young writers up for failure. The best nonfiction writing assignments require students to dig deep and think critically. When students choose a narrow topic that they find fascinating, they will have to mine sources for research, collecting tiny nuggets of gold here and there. This fun quest will fuel their passion for the topic and result in engaging writing that presents ideas and information in fresh ways.

Start with a Question
Suggest that students develop wonder questions and use them to guide their research. Not only does this guarantee that students will have some “skin in the game,” a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking and require students to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.

Dual Notetaking
Julie Harmatz (@jarhartz), a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, CA, has had great success with collaborative notetaking in a google document. Not only do students enjoy the technological novelty of this activity, they gain access to the thought processes of their partner(s). Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who’s struggling with this skill can be a powerful experience. After all, students often learn better from peer modeling than adult instruction.

Can't Copy
Encourage students to use a wide variety of source materials, including some that it's impossible to copy. Possibilities include documentary films and personal observations outdoors or via a webcam.

Encourage students to review the information they’ve gathered and journal about it. This will help many children take ownership of the material and identify what fascinates them most about what they’ve discovered. When students approach writing with a clear mission in mind, they are more likely to present ideas through their own personal lens.

Use Thought Prompts
Ryan Scala (@rscalateach), a fifth grade teacher in East Hampton, NY, recommends inviting students to synthesize their research and make personal connections by using some of the following thought prompts:
—The idea this gives me . . .
—I was surprised to learn . . .
—This makes me think . . .
—This is important because . . . 
Focus on the “Oh, wow!”
Award-winning children’s book author Deborah Heligman (@DHeiligman) advises young writers to only write down information that makes them say, “Oh wow!” Then she suggests that they write their first draft without looking at their notes, using just what they remember. Of course, they can always go back and add details, dates, etc. later, but when kids are forced to write from their memories, they write in their own voices, and they focus on the ideas and information that interest them most.


  1. Hi Melissa,
    Lots of great information here. I have to take a second to speak up for the students who are good at research but would like to be even better. When you write, "Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who’s struggling with this skill can be a powerful experience" the truth is this not a powerful experience for the adept student. Talented students don't want to be(or really benefit very much by substituting as) the teachers. They thrive on having good teachers working with them and teaching them how to expand their own ideas even further.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience working with "adept students," Linda. To be sure, every class and every school is different. My experience with this activity and with activities like Reading Buddies, is that many students enjoy mentoring. They take pride in sharing their knowledge and abilities with younger or struggling students and it can boost their self esteem.

  3. Oh, absolutely, big yes to Reading Buddies--such fun for everyone! Research projects, as you are focusing on here, is a very different thing. Again, thanks for all the good information you put out there. Keep going, please!

  4. Thanks for sharing these ideas, Melissa. It makes the experience of doing research more fun when you approach it from these various angles, asking questions. :)