Making Research Relevant: Writing To Understand

There are lots of  ways to “do” research in a secondary classroom–everything from small writing pieces with just a little research to full-blown research projects that span several weeks.

However you do it, though, it can get messy quickly. How do we show them all the  rules of citation without overwhelming them? How do we help them fill in knowledge gaps for complicated topics?  How do we move beyond formula and help them use their research to move their readers to believe or act differently? 

This semester my beat will be focused on my attempts to make research relevant for my students. If you dread research writing or find yourself overwhelmed by all the stuff kids need to know to write about research effectively, follow along! I’m hoping to tackle those problems and more this semester.


what to do when you feel stuck

My AP Seminar students are up to their eyeballs in their first big research project. We’re doing lots of heavy lifting: sifting through databases, reading journal articles, searching for multiple perspectives.  They’re doing a great job, but in these first few weeks of such a large project, I am finding that they need lots of explicit instruction in what to do with their research.

They know the basics of research: bust out the ol’ Googler and get to work, right? Skim for key words, find some “good quotes” to copy & paste (cite, of course) and plug them into an outline.

If that’s all we’re doing, no wonder kids hate research!

Slow Your Roll, Kids

The first thing I did when we started this project was to refuse to talk about the end product. They know they’re writing an essay, but I am not currently entertaining questions like “What goes in the first paragraph?”  Unfortunately, I’ve found that many kids expect research to be dry and boring and formulaic. They want to jump immediately to churning out the essay.  In their rush to gather material, they forget they’re  supposed to be learning something that eventually they’ll  communicate to others. 

A few years ago I realized my students needed help focusing on the research part of things and slowing themselves down a little. They  were doing almost all of their reading online in databases, but struggling to process what they were reading. Instead, they were opening Google Docs as they wrote and copying quote after quote of “good stuff” that they hoped to use later in their writing. In the best cases, they were including citations. In the worst cases, the documents ended up massive walls of quoted text with no sources. In other words, they were mostly useless. Even students who included citations weren’t finding the documents to be particularly helpful when it came time to write. I tried many different versions of annotated bibliographies, but those, too, were treated like hoops to jump through by my students.

Using the Google Doc

I realized that I needed to use what they were already doing to help them make sense of their research. I just needed to add a little writing to the mix. What if I helped them turn that wall of quoted material into some useful commentary and thinking about their topics? Color-Coded Commentary was born.

It’s very simple.

  1. Read, copy/paste quotes that you find particularly interesting or useful.
  2. Highlight them in green and write brief commentary underneath explaining why.
  3. Copy/paste sections that are confusing or troubling.
  4. Highlight them in red and write brief commentary underneath explaining why.

I told you it was simple–so simple that I’m a little embarrassed to be writing a whole blog post about it, but the results made me realize that there is something in this simplicity that works for kids. 

Student Example #1:


Look at that first piece of commentary! Clearly, this student has opinions–now she’s connecting them to her research. And the second chunk? Now she’s drawing conclusions.



Student Example #2:


This student is using her research to spark questions. Instead of reading passively, there’s a conversation happening here.



Wait. Isn’t that just annotating? Pretty much, yes. But for some reason, “Read and annotate” as a direction blows my kids away.  Giving them explicit, simple instructions (and a way to do it without having to print and write on the document) was what most of my students needed.

It is very easy to over-complicate teaching research. Trust me, I have files and files of graphic organizers and outlines and annotated bibliographies to prove it. When we slow down, though, and give students a chance to write through their thinking, research starts to click.  When I cruise around the room during work time, I see those blocks of red and know that I may need to have a quick conversation. When I have a little more time, I zero in on the green and look to see how a student’s thinking is developing. My students are grappling with some really dense material, but they’re finding ways to make it make sense to them. That has to be our focus if we want them to truly engage in research and see its relevance.



What do you do to help your students engage in research? How do you use writing throughout the research process to support their thinking? Connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or share what you do in the comments below.


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