5 Tips and Tricks for Teaching Research in Elementary

Research in early elementary? Yep! You bet!  Teaching research skills to students at any age can be a large task, but with elementary students, it takes a unique approach.  Here are five tips and tricks I have learned for teaching research skills to young children. 

Have a Process

Having a defined process that is appropriate for the age of your learners helps to organize your lessons.  With my students, we use a modified version of the Super3 model, called the Super3+1. This includes the steps of plan, do, review, and share.  This process is taught in a linear fashion with each step being explained and completed on its own.  As adults, we know that research is not linear and that you jump back and forth between the steps.  However, for young children teaching research in a step-by-step way helps them understand what each step looks like and how it relates to the next. 

Assume You Have to Teach It

Students in kindergarten, first, and second grade have limited experience using the research process.  What comes naturally to adults has to be explicitly taught.  For example, if learners are going to have to open a resource and scroll to the bottom to find what they are looking for you are going to have to teach that.  If learners are going to have to develop a guiding question as part of their project then you are going to have to teach that.  If they are going to find the title and author’s name then, you guessed it, you are going to have to teach that!

When organizing a research project the homeroom teacher and I will develop our plan and then take a minute to think about each step.  We look at how it is organized, how much reading and writing is involved, and what is the purpose of the project.  Usually, we have to go back and change something because we know that students are going to need extra support to find what they are looking for. 

Keeping it simple is important so you can focus on the skills you want to teach.  We make sure to build in time to explain why we need to do things in a certain way.  For example, we have students beginning in first grade write the title and author of the resource they are using to make sure they begin to understand the need for citations. 

Make It Visual

Images can help immensely when explaining how to conduct research.  We use images to represent the process so learners can track their progress.  We also use images to help learners understand what they are looking for.  How they are used is different based on the reading ability of the learner.  With kindergarteners, we use almost all pictures, and with third graders, we use significantly less. 

This is an organizer that we use with kindergarten for an animal research project. Students were asked to find out what the animal looks like, what they eat, and where they live. They used sticky notes inside a nonfiction book to help them collect their facts.


This is another kindergarten resource. They color each image once they have completed that step of the process.

Graphic organizers are your friend! Whenever we are doing a project we always use a graphic organizer to help students collect their information.  We tailor these organizers to meet the needs of the project and the timeline we have for completing the work.

This is a graphic organizer used with first grade. Each step is numbered to help them organize their work. They can track their progress using the images at the bottom of the page.

Numbers help too!  When an image is not helpful, then a number often is.  We use Canvas as our learning management system.  When creating modules with links to resources that students can use for each project we always number them.  This makes it easy for us to help students find a specific resource.  We can say use #7.  This helps students end up in the right place. 

This module was created for 2nd grade for their career project. Each resource is numbered to help students find their information easily.

We also use numbers are part of our graphic organizers to show students how to move through the steps of the process.  We can tell them we are on numbers 2 and 3 today.  Again, it keeps things simple! 

Read-Aloud Resources

Of course, we want students to use print books when they are researching, but using resources that have a read-aloud option can be critical to helping learners be independent.  Databases like PebbleGo, World Book Kids, Britannica Elementary, Epic! Books, and many others all have read-aloud options.  When working with students on individual projects we provide them a credible resource, but then they can listen to find the answer.  This allows them to feel success and ownership throughout the process.  

Basket of Tools

There are a few tools that I use whenever I complete a research project with students.  All these tools are inside a small basket that can be taken with me to classrooms or nearby when working with students in the library.  In this basket, you will find sticky notes of different sizes, sharpened pencils, highlighters, highlighter tape, and guided reading strips.  These tools help me to make research more accessible.

Basket of tools used when working with students on a research project.


Highlighter tape is used inside a book.

One of my very favorite things is when a student finds the answer they were looking for.  The look on their face, when they discover just the thing they wanted to know, is pretty awesome.  It is the moment when they realize they have the power to ask a question and find the answer.  That is what research is truly about!

Do you have any research tips or tricks for elementary learners? I would love to hear about them!


Author: Kelly Hincks

I am the librarian at Detroit Country Day Lower School in Bloomfield Hills, MI. I have worked as a school librarian for the past eleven years. I was a classroom teacher for four years prior to that. I have worked in charter, public, and private schools. My favorite thing about being a school librarian is the opportunities I have to work both with students and teachers. I love the co-teaching opportunities and connections I have been able to make! I have served on AASL committees as a member and chair. I currently serve as secretary of my state association, Michigan Association of School Librarians (MASL).

Categories: Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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3 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this article it has really helped me consolidate some idea.

  2. This is so helpful! I am excited to you use these ideas next year with my elementary kiddos.

  3. Excellent article! My experience aligns with Kelly’s. I would just add that over the years, I have learned to treat “research” as a subset of “inquiry.” Sometimes students are inquiring but not researching, but the same tips and tricks apply. Graphics, graphic organizers, and consistency in modeling the school’s designed research/inquiry model are essential.

    Depending on the unit, I’ve done entire lessons on asking questions (forming your own using the IB’s Key Concepts) or distilling an author’s key question from just a few lines of text. In exploring nonfiction, a popular lesson is “Five Facts and a Story” in which students find five facts then write a short story that embeds their learning into a graphic tale. Example: The Panda Who Wanted Colors!

    I would also emphasize that using audio materials is so important, especially for EAL students. In my last school, an Early Years teacher and I developed a parent guide to using audio materials to support learning English. Tools designed for research can serve multiple purposes, and language learning is supported with “read aloud” features in some of the better database subscription tools.

    Research with elementary students can be so much fun for the kids! It was a delight to see an article that captures the essence of this important work. Well done!

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