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!
- 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.