The Homeschooler’s Guide To Writing A Research Paper

The “three R’s” is not just a clever educational slogan.  The three R’s should be the foundation of your homeschool program.  The reality is that if you give your child a solid grounding in mathematics (including algebra, trigonometry, etc.) and a proficiency in reading and composition, whatever else you do is not particularly all that important.  I’m not saying that I don’t teach history and science and geography, I’m just saying that it’s a good idea as a homeschooler to give your primary energies to the foundational subjects – in reality one of your main jobs as a homeschooling parent is to equip your child with the tools they will need to be able to educate themselves throughout life.

As part of your composition program (i.e., the third “R” – writing) writing a research paper should be a requirement for your high school student.  Because my kids dual-enroll at the community college for their junior and senior years, I have them write a research paper in tenth grade.  This prepares them well for any writing they will need to do at the community college and beyond.

Over the years I have accessed a variety of resources to teach my children how to write a research paper but was never really satisfied with any particular program.  For my third child (my middle son who is now 17) I decided to design a guide for him myself.  That is what I am sharing with you today.  I believe this guide is comprehensive and yet easy to follow.  I suggest you print a copy for yourself (just hit the print button at the bottom of the post) so that you have it handy for when you need it.  You can call this “Anne’s Guide to Writing a Knock-It-Out-Of-The-Park Research Paper.”

Step One:  Assign a Topic

It may not seem like it but choosing the right topic is crucial.  Choose too broad a topic and your child will get lost in the weeds.  Choose too narrow a topic and they won’t be able to find enough information.  There are several different ways you could go about assigning a topic.  You could have your child come up with a topic which meets with your approval.  You could simply assign a topic of your choosing (maybe something to do with the history curriculum you’re using, for example).

Or you can do what I did with my kids which was: I came up with a general subject myself and then I had them brainstorm with me ideas for a specific topic they could write about.  This process of brainstorming ideas is a valuable tool to teach your child, in and of itself.  Furthermore, together you and your child can find a topic that can serve a dual purpose.

For instance, with my 17-year old I had selected the general topic of engineering and then, because we already knew he was going to be pursuing an engineering degree in college, we narrowed down the topic to “career choices in engineering.”  The research he did in writing his paper led him to the decision to pursue a Computer Engineering degree.  So not only did my son learn how to write a quality research paper, but the process helped him to narrow down his college major – and therefore helped us to plan his next few academic years accordingly.

In short, keep in mind that spending an adequate amount of time choosing a topic will make the next steps that much easier for your child.

Step Two: Research

Your child may have done research for essays you’ve assigned previously or they make think they know how to do research because they know how to use Google, but the kind of research required to write a research paper is an entirely different thing.  It is important that your child find and utilize quality, reliable sources of information.  If they think they can just re-write a few pages of Wikipedia you’ll need to quickly divest them of this idea!

I have to admit here that I am kind of “old-school.”  I like to have my kids use 5×7 index cards to record their research.  I believe that actually writing out the information tends to cement thoughts in their mind that will help them when they begin writing.  On the back of each card your child should notate where they found the information – all they really need is the title of the book or article and the page numbers.  If they happen to be using resources that have the same name (which can happen) then they should also include the author’s name.

Naturally your child is not going to write down whole chapters out of books or even very long passages.  This is part of the teaching and learning process – you need to instruct your child that they will be writing out brief ideas and quotations on their index cards.  This is actually where the nuts and bolts of learning to write a research paper takes place.  Throughout the research process they should be thinking about what is key to their subject matter, what information do they need to use to substantiate their thesis, and what quotations would be useful to make their paper not only accurate but engaging.

You need to also instruct them to make a Word document that will comprise their bibliography.  This information should include the source, the author (or editors), the publishing company, where it was published and the year it was copyrighted.  I strongly encourage you to tell them to list every resource they use in any way, even if it is just a chapter they read or an online article – they may later cull the list a little if they find they didn’t actually use the information they first read, but this way they won’t waste time trying to go back to locate a resource.

Your child should start their research with books from the library.  And I don’t mean two or three.  If your child doesn’t come home with a stack of books something’s wrong.  Keep in mind – and inform your child if they don’t know it already – that through inter-library loan they can get just about any book in print.  They may want to utilize this resource.  They can certainly do research online, but any articles they use from there not only need to be noted in the bibliography, they also need to be reliable articles such as those from professional journals.  Depending on the subject matter and what you require of them they may need to use The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature  (which should be available at your local library) or even microfiche.  When I wrote a Civil War research paper a few years ago (for a college class) I was required to use original sources which meant going to the college’s library and peering through microfiche at newspaper articles that were over 100 years old!

Your best resource to help your child (and you) if you are unfamiliar with this type of research is your local librarian.  You might also want to inquire if you can use a local college’s library (check out community colleges especially).

One useful resource I found on using microfilm and microfiche is: Conducting Research Using Microfiche, Microfilm and Microcard.

Finally, keep in mind that the amount of time your child spends on research will have a great impact on the quality of their paper.  I suggest you assign the paper several weeks before it is due.

Step Three: Writing the Paper

For important papers and essays I always have my children turn in a rough draft.  This rough draft does not include formal footnoting.  It is sufficient, at this point, to simply have your child put the name of the work in parenthesis after any quotes or footnoted information.

Outline: I believe it is generally a good practice that before your child even begins their rough draft they should hand in an outline.  This outline should include their thesis statement and supporting arguments or ideas.  If this is the first time they’ve written an outline for a paper, you’re going to need to walk them through it – but it’s a great exercise with many applications.  Keep in mind that the outline doesn’t need to be overly specific, and the construction of their paper may even change once they start writing, but at least they have a starting point.

Rough Draft: From the outline they should write their rough draft and hand it in to you to look over.  When I review my child’s rough draft I’m looking for cohesion in their thought process and glaring grammar errors.  I will walk them through where I think they are having difficulty and then assign them to write a second draft.  This second draft should be of such a quality that it only needs some polishing before writing the final draft.  I have to add here that our kids are so lucky to have computers where they can just go right into a document and make changes!  I remember having to re-type whole papers for high school and college classes.  Ugh!

Footnotes:  In regards to footnoting, which I will discuss in more detail in a moment, you need to explain to your child its usage.  Footnoting (and quotation marks) should be used any time your child is quoting directly from a source.  That is obvious.  But they should also footnote anywhere that they are giving specific information that would not be commonly known or that they would be expected to substantiate.  For instance, when I wrote my Civil War paper (on the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe) I included, and footnoted, the statement that, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin would eventually be translated into at least 23 tongues.”  I needed to footnote that sentence because someone reading my paper would want to know where I got that information.  Did I just pull it out of a hat?

There is a balance when it comes to footnoting.  If your child’s paper contains 20 footnotes per page then they either don’t understand how to footnote or they didn’t actually write the paper – they just combined the thoughts of other writers into a conglomeration of ideas that are not their own.  That’s called plagiarism and it’s a huge no-no.  On the other hand, if they have only one footnote per page they probably “didn’t do their homework” or again, they don’t understand the purpose of footnoting.  In the case of my Civil War paper, I had 22 footnotes for an eight-and-a-half page paper.   You do the math!

How your child’s paper is constructed will depend somewhat on the nature of the paper.  Is it a position paper where your child is expressing an opinion and defending it?  Is it a comparison paper?  Whatever the case, your child should be able to formulate some kind of thesis concerning their subject matter (they may need some help with this initially).  In the case of my son’s research paper on engineering, his thesis dealt with demonstrating the importance of engineering in history and in our day-to-day lives.

Step Four: Footnotes and Bibliography

I believe that it is in your child’s interest to have them follow a traditional footnoting model.  I actually have the “Chicago Manual of Style Citation Quick Guide” bookmarked on my laptop so I can reference it when writing papers.  It’s a great resource.

In rare instances your child may have a college professor who prefers another style.  If that is the case they can learn to use that style when they need it.  I still feel it is best for your child to learn the traditional “footnote and bibliography” method.  In all my years (many, many years!) of attending college I only had one class in which I was required to use a different method.

In order for your child to have a proper understanding of footnotes and bibliographies you need to require that they spend some time on the Chicago Manual of Style site.  They will find everything they need there to learn how to properly cite their sources in their footnotes and bibliography.

When it comes to my children, I do not allow them to hand in sub-standard work as their final paper.  Therefore, I recommend that after your child has handed in their rough draft and you have reviewed it with them, they should hand in one more draft before their final draft.  Remember, this is a learning process.  It’s as much about the process as it is about the end product.  So have them type up a second draft with their footnotes and bibliography and review that as well.  I guarantee you that they will still need to make corrections and it may be that you need to go over with them again the purpose and use of footnotes.  Look it over for spelling and grammar errors.  Then have them go back and polish.  What they turn in should be a thing of beauty!

To summarize:

  • Choose a topic.  Make sure it is not too broad or too narrow.  Another hint: if you choose a topic your child has an interest in, it may make the process more interesting and, possibly, easier for them as well.
  • Research.  The research portion of the paper should actually form the bulk of this process.  It will take time so assign the paper several weeks ahead and check in on your child’s progress from time to time.
  • Write.  Your child should make an outline (that they turn in to you) that contains their thesis statement and major points.  Once you have gone over the outline with them, have them write a rough draft that does not include the footnotes and bibliography.  After reviewing the rough draft with them, have them write their second draft with footnotes and bibliography.  Review again, then have them polish it and turn in their final draft.
  • Cite.  Make sure they know the use and purpose of footnotes.  Review the “Chicago Manual of Style Citation Guide” to ensure they are properly citing their sources.


  • Nice Post – I m always looking for these types of post –

  • You can try Zotero to collect citations
    electronically. It is a FREE citation manager that works in the FireFox browser. You can create folders and sub-folders, add tags and search the citations. You can add attachments; notes (index cards) and files (articles, images and graphs) to the items. You can also attach a snapshot of a web page. Works with word processing programs with a plug in to help create and add references and bibliography in various styles. Did I mention it was FREE.

    • Anonymous


      Thanks for letting my readers know about this resource.  I appreciate  you taking the time to share this!

  • Anonymous

    Hello Anne,
    First let me say that this is the first time I’ve been to your blog, and so far I’m really impressed.  What a wealth of information!   I read a comment that you made on another blog and just wanted to come over to comment.  You said that you were “old” at age 50 and that it was exhausting teaching a 9 year old and guiding your older ones through the SAT’s and college years.  That worries me a bit because I am going to be that mom one day, too.  Well, in fact I guess I already am – but I’m 42, not 50.  My oldest is 20 and still living at home while going to college.  My next oldest is 18 and will be graduating next spring (we hope, as she has learning disabilities and if she doesn’t pass her exit exam she will not earn a diploma but will just participate in the graduation ceremony)  and my next child is 16 and in her junior year, is taking the SAT’s in the fall and I’m guiding her through that process as well.  My next child is entering the 6th grade this year, the next one is entering the 5th grade this year, and the younger four are at home with me, homeschooling grades 3, 1 and Kindergarten. And I have a 3 year old, who will be doing a little bit of preschool with me.  Sometimes I get a bit freaked out to think that I’ll be teaching and guiding children and young adults until I’m way into my 60’s.  My mom is 64 and retiring this year. No kids at home.  A total carefree life.  I really don’t think I’m ever going to have it like that.Regrets?  No.But I swear, some days all I pray for is my health.  Please let me keep my health so that I can DO all that I need to DO when I’m in my 50’s and 60’s.  Because I’m going to be doing a lot.Anyway, just wanted to come by to say hello 🙂  I’m so glad I stumbled across your comment and was guided to your blog.  There is so much that I can learn from all these great resources you have here. Thank you, Katrina in CACrayon On My WallsThey All Call Me Mom

    • Anonymous

      Wow!  You certainly have your hands full!

      Okay, I counted 9 kids?  I wish I could reassure you that you will get a sudden burst of energy when you hit 45 but that would not be honest.  What I do recommend is that you make sure you take the time to care for YOU!  It’s hard to do in the throes of homeschooling and raising kids – especially that many kids – but it’s crucial.  Make sure you get away at least one night every couple of weeks even if it’s just to sit a coffee shop and stare into space.  If possible try to get away once a year all by your lonesome to just have some space to wind down and regroup.  That’s something I’ve been doing the last few years and while it’s really hard to go away and quit worrying about leaving the family for a few days, I think it’s worthwhile for your mental health!

      I actually have had chronic health problems for over 10 years – and was virtually bed-ridden for almost 2 years – but managed to homeschool with the help of my older kids and the grace of God.

      It is (more than bit) daunting to realize you will spend your entire adult life homeschooling your children but as a Christian, I take an eternal perspective which means that there is NOTHING I could be doing that is more important than pouring my life into my kids.  Nothing.  That’s what drives me.  And lifts me up.  And keeps me going.

      I hope you’ll keep stopping by!  I am so thrilled to read your comment and know that I have possibly encouraged someone on their own homeschool journey!

  • Happy SITS Day! We use K12’s virtual academy CAVA to homeschool as I was not very confident in my ability to make sure I covered everything my child needed to know and we jumped in at the 3rd and 6th grades. I’m homeschooling 3 of the 4 and next year I’ll add the 4th for kindergarten. There are pros and cons to all methods. I’ve run across your site before and found it helpful. Thanks!
    On the topic above… I like graphical organizers. They seem to be helpful for my son who has a really difficult time organizing his thoughts.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Caren with a C!

      I haven’t heard of CAVA before and will have to check it out – might be a good thing to let my readers know about.

      Thanks for stopping by and keep up the good work.  Generally speaking, the older they get the easier it is.  And it sounds like you have a handle on what your kids need.

      What is a graphical organizer?  I’m curious.  I don’t recall hearing that specific term before.

    • Jennifer

      You should look into Thinking Maps for graphic organizers!

      • Anonymous

        I will do that!  Thanks for getting me this information.

  • Pam

    Stopped by fropm SITS. We are a homeschool family. My son graduated in ’09 and is now a college junior. Daughter will be graduating next year. Phew! Difficult, but totally worth it. I wish I would have known about your site sooner! Great information.

    • Anonymous

      Congratulations Pam!  I have a good friend who finished her homeschool “career” this year (i.e. she graduated her youngest) and I told her I felt like we should throw HER a party!  I hope when you graduate your daughter next year you do something special for YOU!

      Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the encouragement!

  • Semper Wifey
    • Anonymous


  • I didn’t notice a SITS post, so I’m just commenting here.  Congratulations on your SITS day, Anne!  I hope that you get lots of new readers.  Too bad the “geese” seem to be out of touch now, hopefully they’ll all stop by to support you!
    Enjoy your day 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Hey Jenn!

      Yes I miss reading your humorous posts.  Hope all is well with your family.  Thanks for stopping by!

  • Thanks for the wealth of information. I will definitely be following your blog. I have 3 kids 11th, 9th and 1st grades. My kids do attend school but I have to spend more time with my youngest. When he started school a couple of weeks ago he was not able to read a single word which concerned the teacher and me too. I obviously blame myself so now I have to make up for lost time. Since school has started I have limited the amount of tv we watch and we spend countless hours reading and doing math. It can be frustrating but it seems that he actually look forward to us spending that time together. Instead of me telling him that its time to do homework, he comes to me!

    I just found your blog through SITS and I will be visiting on a regular basis. Happy Day!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks you so much for the kind words.  I would encourage you to check out my post on “How to Teach Your Child to Read” because I think it would give you some good ideas of resources to use with your son.  You can find it under my topics to the right – just click on “How To Teach” and you’ll see all the topics I wrote on – this was actually a series I wrote fairly recently and I believe it is full of worthwhile information and resources that can help any parent at one time or another.  

      Thanks again for stopping by.  Hope to see you here again!

  • Anonymous

    Happy SITS day! I hope you have a great one! I love the idea of homeschooling. I was a teacher for 6 years and worry that I just don’t have what it takes to do it for my kiddo.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for stopping by.  In a few weeks I will be writing a post on the exact concern you have – I hope you’ll keep reading and maybe you will get the encouragement you need to start homeschooling.  I truly believe the #1 thing any parent needs to homeschool is commitment.  The rest is just a matter of research and learning and then applying what you learn.  And believe me, plenty of homeschooling parents, including myself, try resources and teaching methods only to find that those methods or resources don’t work for them and/or their kids.  So…you make adjustments, try something else, and over time you find what does work.

      Thanks again for taking the time to stop by and comment!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you!

  • She-Ra

    Hello Anne!
    I couldn’t even begin to start homeschooling as you have! Unfortunately, I have a bitter taste in my mouth from my experience with homeschooling as a teenager, and every time I try to talk myself into it, I remember the horrible cult that took over my mother and I as we tried to get out of their associations. I learned nothing academic in that system, but I learned to lie, lie under oath, steal, and to just shut up and be molested and then lied about. It really scarred me deeply, and I don’t believe that I am ready to try the systems again. There are no good homeschooling systems here. None of the colleges accept any of the programs here, except the vo-tech schools, and even they require that home-schooled graduates get a GED before applying to attend their schools. I don’t want to give up, but I feel kind of exhausted in my search.

    Ok, I’ll stop filling your comments up with my depressing sadness and wish you a HAPPY SITS DAY! (Which is what I should have done instead of that long-winded rant up there)

    • Anonymous

      I am sorry to hear of your tragic and traumatic experience.  I don’t know where you live but certainly in the U.S. colleges are very eager to admit homeschooled students as they have found them to be quality, self-directed students.

      I hope you can find healing from all you have been through.

  • Jennifer

    Happy SITS day!  I have recently started reading about homeschooling.  I’m not a parent, but I am really interested in the reasons why you started homeschooling.  I’m actually doing some research on the homeschooling aspect of education.  I think it’s great what you do, and your blog is wonderful!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Jennifer.  I hope if you ever have any specific questions you’ll fill out my contact form…I’d be happy to help!

  • Happy SITS day! I’m excited to learn more ‘real’ experience about homeschooling. I’m pretty nervous about the idea but think it must be so worthwhile.

    • Anonymous

      Glad to see you here Kat!  I try to keep it very real here and I hope you find the information you’re looking for!  Let me know if I can answer any specific questions!

  • Congrats on your SITS Day Anne! Great site – a wealth of info!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you so much for stopping by from my SITS day.  I appreciate all the support!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you very much!  I appreciate your kind words!

  • I am delighted to have signed up for your newsletter and to have found your blog via SITS (and a happy SITS day to you too sweet bella) – I have small children, 3, 1 and baby #3 due in a few weeks, so I know it’s a bit premature, but we are already doing some pre-school homeschooling with our 3 year old and I feel in my heart that I need to be homeschooling them even though it is completely foreign to me. Praying for much guidance, courage, and strength to walk the path set before me in the years to come…

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Mangiabella!  I think I’ve seen you here before?

      First let me say congratulations on your upcoming blessing – I love babies!  They are so special.

      As long as you keep the preschool stuff fun, go for it.  My youngest, who is now 9, learned to read by the age of 4 with pretty much no help from me or anyone else.  I exposed him to the Leapfrog videos and games and he just picked it all up – so I highly recommend the Leapfrog program to any parent of preschoolers.  

      Be assured you can homeschool!  The scripture God gave me a long time ago that has fortified me in my homeschooling journey is Galatians 6:9.  Maybe it will encourage you as well!

  • Classycareergirl

    Lots of great information here!  Happy SITS day!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Classycareergirl!

  • Dara

    I’m a homeschooler myself and I have no idea how to write an effective essay or any research paper. I feel horrible lacking this knowledge since I’m already in my late teens. My mother tries her best to teach me, but writing really isn’t her forte. Is there any free resources on the web or a book that I can purchase that can show step by step from research to the final draft? I want to go to college one day and this would really be a hindrance in my education.

    • annegalivan

      Hi Dara!

      For learning writing essentials I highly recommend “Write With the Best” which you can read about here on my “Reviews” page:

      For learning to write research papers, my post here is a good start, but for something much more detailed try “Writing Research Papers” by James D. Lester.  You can get it at and it’s only $31, a bargain when you consider it will come in handy for high school and college.

      Finally, the most important part of learning to write well is to RE-WRITE your papers and essays until they are as perfect as possible.  The reason my kids are such good writers is because I made them write and re-write.  Like pretty much everything else, you are not going to become a good writer without practice.

      If your mother isn’t confident about her ability to review your papers and give you advice about how to improve them, try to find someone who IS good at this.  It might be an English teacher you know, or another homeschooling parent.  I know that if someone asked me to review their child’s essay or research paper, I’d be happy to, so I imagine you know someone who could help you to improve your writing if you just ask for the help.

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  • TessaEdin

    By following these steps writing a research paper can become a piece of cake. But the biggest problem could be the motivation or just getting creative enough to write something or both. I remember myself not wanting to learn at all just because I wasn’t in the mood to do it. And no matter how much my Mom pleaded I would agree to start doing something.

    Nowadays there are many tips on how make the process of learning not that boring. For example, posts like at not only give you the idea of how to improve your writing skills but provide you with a clear plan on how to do so. This way you see what awaits you ahead. You can add something else to ease the presure from the learning and enjoy the process of obtaining new knowledge.