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How to Get Research Started in the Elementary Grades

By Lynne R. Dorfman

           I have always known that research begins with a burning question – one that needs to be answered to satisfy that “Curious George” persona in all of us.  As my students have engaged in content area learning in the past, I now realize that I was perhaps too quick to send them off on a journey (not always a journey of student choice either).  We all know how important the three Cs are to student learning – choice, challenge, and collaboration.  But what if your students don’t have a burning question to ignite their quest?

           That’s where K-W-L-S comes in.  The strategy is a great process to get at good research. First, we ask our students to tell us what they know. I like to do this by having them write down their thinking and share with a partner or small group before sharing in whole group. I also like them to reach consensus on their thinking to eliminate possible misinformation and wild guesses. While students share, I walk around and listen in with a clipboard in hand. That way I can use the student talk as formative assessment – by learning what they know and what important anchoring concepts are missing, I can decide how to pace a unit of study.  I usually like to post their common knowledge on an anchor chart and place it somewhere visible while we are exploring a theme/topic as a class.

          Now comes the wondering part. If we ask our students what they are wondering about too early in the unit, many of them will not be able to come up with interesting, provocative questions. They just don’t have the schema yet. After we have been reading, talking, writing, and sharing for a week or so, we can return to the “W” and start to write our wonderings.  They can continue to add to their wonderings in their notebooks or on an anchor chart of wonderings until the unit of study has come to an end.  When students talk about what they have learned and demonstrate that learning in some way – creating a poem, an essay, a project, an ABC book, etc. – now they are ready to look back at their wonderings. Have any of their questions been answered by the textbook, a magazine article, a film we viewed in class, a YouTube clip, or a guest speaker?  What hasn’t been answered?

          Now students can choose one of those questions and begin to research. You could let your students write their questions (and sign their name under it) on a graffiti board so that students can have the chance to collaborate with someone who has the same question or a more interesting question.  Here, students can choose to work independently or with one or two other researchers. Some students will choose to abandon their question in order to work with another student, and that’s okay. It’s all about a spirit of inquiry that promotes choice, challenge, and opportunities to collaborate.

          Research collaboration can be enhanced by posting your students’ areas of expertise. We all have a dinosaur expert in our classroom or an expert on soccer or baseball.  Students will eagerly conduct extensive research in areas they feel at home with and yet thirst for more.  They can build authority lists (see Nonfiction Mentor Texts by Dorfman & Cappelli) in their writer’s notebook and add to their list throughout the school year. This list can help them come up with a question to research.

          Kids need adults to build their questioning capacity so that when they grow up to fill jobs that have not yet been created, they will be capable like they’ve never been before to take on challenges that we’ve never faced before.  Four year olds are full of questions. Our older kids should be full of questions, too.  What would you like to research?  Share your burning questions with your students, too, so that they clearly understand we are all lifelong learners looking for answers to wonderful questions.  After all, it’s never about the right answer. It’s about asking the right question.


Lynne R. Dorfman profileLynne Dorfman is a PAWLP Co-director and adjunct professor at Arcadia University. She enjoys writing stories and poems, planting flowers in spring, and celebrating birthdays and holidays with friends and family members. Lynne has three Welsh Corgis that keep her entertained.  She misses the days when she taught horseback riding to riders of ages four through sixty-four!

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