The Research Process and How to Teach it in Order

I once had a cat use her litter box and then come sit on a student’s research paper. I drew a little purple arrow to the spot and wrote “Sorry about that.” Part of me thought, Well, that’s what it is anyway, so branding it seems fitting.

Adolescents’ research papers are usually more than terrible. They are plagiarized in fourteen different ways, and we spend a lot of time talking out loud to the students while we grade. (You know you talk to them. Don’t act like you don’t.)

So, what can we do about that? I have a theory, one that I’ve fleshed out for 21 years in the classroom.


A student does not get to move on to any step of the research process until he or she has demonstrated proficiency.

I’m not gonna lie: This skill set is hard to teach and hard to master. I survive the grading of the end product because I lived by this philosophy all during the creation of it: A student does not get to move on to any step of the research process until he or she has demonstrated proficiency. For example, Javon doesn’t get to start taking notes until he has demonstrated proficiency at both paraphrasing and summarizing. Sierra can’t turn in source cards until she has an approved preliminary outline. If I can stop the bleeding where it starts, then the research paper I receive as a demonstration of their learning might not be so bad.


I teach the research process in at least seventeen discreet lessons. Some take several days to facilitate, and some are mini lessons on media center research days. Here’s the order I use and the handouts I distribute as hard copies or Google Slides:

Lesson 1: Overview of the Research Process 

  Student Handout A: Research Question Worksheet

  Student Handout B: Researched Persuasive Speech 

  Student Handout C: Research Due Dates 

Lesson 2: Source Cards    

  Student Handout D: Anatomy of a Source Card

  Student Handout E: MLA 8 Format Scavenger Hunt

  Student Handout F: Source Card Practice

Lesson 3: Source Evaluation—Credibility and Bias

  Student Handout G: Source Reliability Terms to Know

  Student Handout H: Headline Scavenger Hunt

Lesson 4: Source Evaluation—Loaded Language and Faulty Reasoning

  Student Handout I: Heart, Mind, and Soul—The Persuasive Appeals

  Student Handout J: Logical Fallacies Discovery Organizer

  Student Handout K: Source Evaluation Checklist

Lesson 5: The Preliminary Outline

  Student Handout L: The Preliminary Outline

Lesson 6: Paraphrasing 

  Student Handout M: Two Doomed-to-Fail Approaches

  Student Handout N: Cow Cud Paraphrasing

  Student Handout O: Paraphrasing Practice #1

  Student Handout P: Tricky Passages—Technical Language (Practice #2)

  Student Handout Q: Tricky Passages—Metaphorical Language (Practice #3)

  Student Handout R: Paraphrasing Independent Practice (Proficiency Required)

Lesson 7: Summarizing

  Student Handout S: The Ramen Noodle Summary

  Student Handout T: Your Turn! Practice #1

  Student Handout U: Your Turn! Practice #2 (Proficiency Required)

Lesson 8: Note Cards

  Student Handout V: Anatomy of a Note Card

  Student Handout W: Note Card Practice

Lesson 9: Skill Application

Lesson 10: The Thesis Statement (Mini Lesson)

Lesson 11: The Final Outline (Mini Lesson)

  Student Handout X: Final Outline Model

Lesson 12: Parenthetical Citation

  Student Handout Y: Parenthetical Citation and the Works Cited Page

  Student Handout Z: Parenthetical Citation Examples

  Student Handout AA: The Commandments of MLA Citation

Lesson 13: Embedding Text

  Student Handout BB: Five Ways to Embed Text

  Student Handout CC: Source Use Scavenger Hunt

Lesson 14: Drafting the Research Paper/Speech  

  Student Handout DD: MLA Format

Lesson 15: Peer Editing

  Student Handout EE: Student Model

  Student Handouts FF-JJ: Team Jobs Descriptions

Lesson 16: Persuasive Public Speaking

  Student Handout KK: Active Viewing Guide for “How to Speak so that People Want to Listen

  Student Handout LL: Presentation Requirements and Tips

Lesson 17: Presentations

Teacher Presentation Rubric (MM)

Student Handout NN: Student Presentation Rubric 

Student Handout OO: Research Paper Rubric


I recently got all these lesson ideas and handouts packaged together as a tidy 97-page unit in both PDF and Google Slides. Although I’m a firm believer that physical note cards are still the way to go (especially for tactile learners), some students can manage digital note taking, so I have source and note card templates for them on Google Slides.

You can learn more about the unit here.

This two-minute video walks through the resource.


It’s helpful to keep some sort of spreadsheet of all the skill sets students need to to master. For example, the vertical set might have all the student names, and the horizontal set might list something like research question, preliminary outline, source card practice, source card set 1, paraphrasing practice, summarizing practice, note card set 1, etc. As students demonstrate proficiency, the teacher indicates gives credit on the chart. Blanks are obvious, and the trick is to keep students from hopping ahead and putting to use skills they don’t actually have. Practice makes permanent, after all.

Lesson 6 is the real kicker. We all know that students are really bad at paraphrasing, and their teachers are too (as demonstrated by almost every one who comes to my workshops). We don’t come out of the womb knowing how to paraphrase. We can’t do it unless someone teaches us the skills, so I hover over Lesson 6 until each student has demonstrated proficiency. Once a student earns a grade of 80 on Student Handout U, she gets to move on and start taking notes. I have some students who prefer to take all their notes as direct quotations, but that just puts off the inevitable. The painful part is that some students have to do Student Handout U over and over and over.

Here’s the gist of it all: Teachers must be deliberate about the order of the research process, both for instruction and application. Since it is a stacked set of skills, we want to build that stack on a solid foundation, not set our students up for failure, which will inevitably end in a Jenga-like research paper.


I’m a recovering high school English teacher and curriculum specialist with a passion for helping teachers leave school at school. I create engaging, rigorous curriculum resources for secondary ELA professionals, and I facilitate workshops to help those teachers implement the materials effectively.