Teaching the Research Paper Part 1: Introducing the Research Paper and Preparing Students for the Assignment

Important concepts and skills to teach middle school and high school students before assigning a research paper.
There are three things every teacher should do before taking their students to the computer lab to research information for their research papers: teach the difference between reliable and unreliable sources, check to make sure every student has a self-generated research question, and help prepare students with key phrases and words to search.

Whenever I begin teaching the research paper, I always share with my students the story of how I wrote my Master's thesis paper. It was a 50 page paper with 50 different sources.

I don't do this to toot my own horn. I don't do this to scare my students away from post-secondary education. I don't do this to make the students feel like their research assignment is petty and small. I do this so that I can explain the process of research to them and so that they know I was once in their shoes.

So how exactly do you write a 50-page research paper that has 50 unique, credible sources? One source at a time.

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Find Credible Sources
When teaching the research paper to my secondary ELA students, I first show them about research and credible sources. Before students can even begin looking for their sources, they have to know how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. Being able to do so is the first step in finding a reliable source.

Important concepts and skills to teach middle school and high school students before assigning a research paper.
As a rule of thumb, I prefer that my students only use .org, .gov, and .edu sources. I tell them they can use .com sources, but that they have to get my approval first. I also tell my students about Google Scholar and ERIC. Those are both free databases that students can use to find reliable resources.

Once I feel my students have a firm understanding of the sources they will be looking at, we then dive into the research topic, and the students select their issues related to the main topic.

Create Questions
One of the critical parts of teaching the research paper to students is having them come up with their self-generated research question. To do this, I encourage students to work collaboratively and talk about their research topics.  They can work in small groups to see what their peers would like to know about that matter. Working in small groups first provides extra support for EL and struggling students. From there, students come up with their question to answer. There is also a graphic organizer in my Research Paper Writing resource that is especially helpful during this process.

Brainstorm Key Words
Once students have a self-generated question, it is time to get students to think about keywords and phrases they will use in their search for sources. All too often I see students typing precise, wordy questions into a search engine. This only creates frustration for the students as well as the teacher. Taking half a class to discuss keywords and phrases helps students tremendously, and it even speeds up the research process because students can find credible sources a lot easier. When teaching keywords and phrases to my students, I encourage them to type no more than four words into the search engine. I tell them that they must think of the most important words directly related to their topic.

To help students think about keywords and phrases they can use in the search engine, have them think about hashtags for their research topic. This fun, easy, and engaging strategy will get students thinking about what to research and what is explicitly related to their subject.
This blog post is the first post in a series about teaching students about research writing.
If you are interested in teaching the research paper to your students, check out my Research Paper Writing lesson. This lesson includes an editable PowerPoint presentation, a research paper assignment, and everything you will need to work on the entire research paper writing process with your secondary students.
Important concepts and skills to teach middle school and high school students before assigning a research paper.
Read more about research in the classroom with Part 2 which covers research paper topics and Part 3 which includes using Google Apps for research.


  1. THANK YOU! I've had to sit through some painfully tedious COLLEGE classes because so many students aren't learning this in K12 that we're required to take classes on things like how to do a search. I greatly appreciate those of you who are teaching these important skills!

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Deena,
      Thank you for reaching out. Yes. There is a part 2 and a part 3. I will link them to this post!