Now Should Research Writing Be Handled?
by Grace Hargis
Should a fifth-grader be expected to do a research paper? Or (at the other extreme) can we just wait for the college or university to handle this area? Research writing is widely recognized as an important part of education, but it is not always clear just why it is important. Furthermore, there is often confusion about what aspects of the research process are appropriate at various grade levels.
Writing from research
With help, I have recently been working on getting the 486 personal computer at our house ready for the year 2000. One way to use this experience in writing would be just to tell the story-using a software patch for the BIOS, installing a CD-ROM drive in order to upgrade Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 (which is Y2K compliant), buying a larger hard drive (used) to make room for Windows 95, and looking for the now needed additional memory in a form compatible with our aging motherboard. It could be an interesting story. However, if I would do some serious research in this area, I could write about the options and pitfalls facing other owners of older PCs. Whether I produced an academic paper or a magazine article, I would be writing from research.
Importance of research writing
Academic education is much more than simply learning facts and principles; in a very real sense, education is learning how to learn. Not only in school but throughout life, we need to be able to find the information we need, evaluate it, and then make effective use of it for the purpose at hand. These three aspects-finding information, evaluating it, and using it effectively-are all part of the research writing process. Wise teaching about writing from research, coupled with appropriate guided practice, helps students grow in a number of areas. They learn how to find reliable information in various academic disciplines, and they learn how to acknowledge different types of sources using one of the standard systems of notation.
In upper high school, when a student does a full research paper, he learns how to manage a large project. He learns how to plan the direction of his paper in order to guide his research and then how to adjust his plan in accord with the facts he finds. Similarly, he learns how to do his own thinking about the topic and then how to use information from sources to support his points effectively.
At all levels, well-taught students learn how to maintain standards of honesty when using information from sources, thus avoiding plagiarism. They learn how to avoid plagiarism of content by being careful to acknowledge all their sources. In addition, they learn how to avoid plagiarism of wording, sometimes by paraphrasing source material completely and some- times by enclosing in quotation marks a phrase or sentence from the original.
Overview of the process
A full research writing project includes several stages. First the student chooses a subject. After some preliminary gathering of information and ideas, he focuses on a specific topic and makes a rough plan. Then he looks for good sources and gathers information from them, keeping careful records of the information and the sources. These records may be on literal cards (note cards and bibliography cards), or they may be maintained on a computer.
Having gathered his information, the student thinks through his paper again. He writes out his thesis sentence (the paper's main idea) and makes a full outline to guide him as he writes. He integrates the information from sources, into the paper, using it to support his points appropriately. He writes in his own words whenever possible, and he is careful to use quotation marks and to acknowledge his sources as needed.
After completing his first draft, a wise student lets it sit untouched for a day or two. Then, looking at it afresh, he reads and rethinks the paper, revising as needed. At this stage he works from large to small, making major changes first, then editing for effectiveness, and finally correcting errors of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
When the writing is effective and correct, the student is teddy to complete the project. He prepares the title page, finalizes the source references in the text, and pre- pares the source list. He prepares the final copy (usually typing it or printing it from the computer) and proofreads it carefully, making corrections as needed.
A major concern for parents as teachers is student readiness for the various aspects of the research process. For example, a fifth grader has the ability to look up specified information about his state and include it in a written illustrated report. However, at this age it is very difficult for a typical child to take a source paragraph and express the content in an acceptable complete paraphrase. If we require this child to write a research paper-rather-than a simple report, there is a real danger that he will form bad habits of plagiarism (intellectual theft). The student's readiness is crucial.
"A major concern for parents as teachers is student readiness for the various aspects of the research process.”
When we look at the various aspects of writing from research-such as choosing and focusing on a topic, finding sources of various types, evaluating sources, summarizing and paraphrasing, incorporating others' ideas into one's own writing, and so on-we can see that students are ready to team certain aspects before others. A good writing program helps students learn the component skills in simple projects over several years before taking them through a full research paper. (Research projects appropriate for grades 7-12 appear in the appendix of the Teacher's Edition of the newly released Writing from Research.)
Besides avoiding student frustration and bad habits, grade-level appropriateness also allows us to foster good attitudes toward research and research writing. Children begin life with a natural curiosity, which should not be quenched by a process that turns discovery into drudgery. We want our students to know that discovery can be interesting. As we involve our students in appropriate research activities, there will be a natural growth process, a good chance for enjoyment, and a sense of accomplishment year after year.
1. Should high school students do a research paper every year? Generally not. For most students, that amount of research writing would take too much time away from other types of writing and from the study of language and literature.
2. At what grade level should the student receive full instruction and practice in the academic research paper? Although thorough teaching of the full research process could take place a year earlier or later, it is often done in grade 11. Eleventh-graders should have had opportunity to learn the component skills, and they are usually sufficiently mature to handle a large project. They can then use this skill in their senior year in another subject area, if desired.
3. How can I decide which documentation form to teach? Choose a standard form such as MLA (Modem Language Association) for English and allied fields or CBE (Council of Biology Editors) for science, and do not worry about the possibility that a somewhat different form might be needed at some point in the future. A student who has learned to follow one of the standard forms for citing sources can easily adapt to another form.
Learning any form will teach the student the kind of information to be recorded (author, title, publisher, and so on), the need for keeping careful records, and the importance of stating the information in a consistent manner.