Recently, my third-grade team came to me to ask about student research. Instead of a large research project, the teachers were looking at a writing project where students focused on their own understanding of a topic to guide their writing. The teachers shared that there came a moment when many students wanted to add more information to their writing. These students needed to transition into a small research experience but did not know how.
This was not a moment to break out my large bag of student research tricks. I needed to be more precise. I asked myself the question, "How can elementary students best focus on their own research when research is not the focus of instruction?"
When student research skills are used in service to other content or skills, a school librarian should ask some specific questions of the classroom teacher to better understand the role the librarian will play in teaching research skills.
Are the research skills needed for an activity that is currently being taught or one that will be taught in the future?
Addressing an unintended outcome may require you to move more quickly but it also may provide more specific information that will inform your teaching of research skills. My request was for an immediate problem and I had a little over 24 hours to prepare a learning activity to address their needs.
What problems or possible problems will teaching the research skills address?
This situation doesn't allow you to teach the research process from end to end. Knowing the reason that the classroom teacher invited you into the lesson helps you target your instruction on specific skills. My teachers were seeing students struggle in transitioning into research. The team then also asked for secondary help with reminding students about information resources as well as citing sources.
What is the timeline of the overall unit of instruction and how much time is the classroom teacher giving to address research skills?
When teaching research skills isn't the focus for a larger unit, knowing the teacher's time allowances can help you plan how you revisit or introduce those skills to students. I was asked to fit the instruction into 30 minutes but knew that the unit would be going on for a couple more weeks so I could follow up with the team to see if they needed additional research skills instruction down the line.
What evaluative methods are used to assess the effectiveness of the research skills taught?
While you may want to have your own summative assessment for the lesson you taught, the classroom teacher may want to put what was taught into place immediately and formatively assess the students' ability to put it into practice. This is what my classroom teachers wanted to do, so I simply followed up on the effectiveness of the lesson, allowing them to formatively assess the instruction.
The approach to teaching discrete skills will likely have different elements compared to a large-scale research project. When focusing on one or two research skills as part of a standalone lesson that will accompany other related instruction, the librarian may consider:
Honoring the skills that students have already learned.
Large research projects are typically paired with subject content. When discretely taught, research skills may be paired with other skills, such as writing or historical thinking skills. More specifically, the research skill the librarian is asked to teach may serve the purpose of ultimately improving other skills being taught. Acknowledge that skill and the expertise that the students bring to the lesson.
Proposing a research skill as a way to further the students' demonstration of another skill.
After acknowledging the students' expertise, a research skill can be introduced as a way to improve that skill even more. Essentially, the librarian can be transparent about why the research skill is being taught: to help the growth of another skill. Not only is it honest with the students, but it also provides a purpose for the instruction.
Modeling and practicing that skill within the context of the existing work.
Now that you have been transparent about the reason for teaching the research skill, your modeling should be directly connected to the skill, with content being a secondary factor.
Offering further support as students continue their learning and work outside of the library.
Teaching discrete research skills may take the form of quick or short opportunities. It is important to offer additional support to the teacher. It can be equally helpful to make that offer of continuing support to students. This shows the school librarian as a resource that can be directly accessed by students in an elementary school and may encourage the student to advocate for their own help instead of relying on the classroom teacher to identify that need.
The accompanying lesson, "Identifying Areas of Improvement in Personal Informational Writing," comes directly from work with my third-grade students. It is one example of how to focus on research skills when research is not the primary focus of student learning. Another great resource is Kristy Hill's new book Teaching Elementary Students Real-Life Inquiry Skills. In the foreword to the book, Joyce Armstrong describes Hill's methods as "research reimagined." The lessons included in the book show just that and can be easily adapted to strengthen discrete research skills when research is not the focus of the instruction. For example, Hill's lesson, "Search Engine Scavenger Hunt," gives students an opportunity to practice and reflect upon gathering information from a trusted website. Her lesson titled, "Guiding Questions" helps students practice writing deeper questions that can be used for guiding research.
When teaching research skills is a means to student learning and not a primary focus of instruction, the elementary school librarian's approach may differ from a larger research project, but the results can continue to reinforce the research foundations students build throughout their elementary career.
Hill, Kristy. Teaching Elementary Students Real-Life Inquiry Skills. Libraries Unlimited, 2019.