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10 Ways To Develop Research Skills in Middle School Students

Helping students develop research skills in middle school is useful and necessary for students to thrive later in life. In this blog post, Marypat Mahoney from Just Add Students and I explore practical ways to guide students in their journey to develop research skills through various methods. 

From determining citation methods and scaffolding each skill to embracing information literacy and integrating hands-on experiences, the post offers a comprehensive roadmap for educators to encourage and educate students on their research journey. 

Whether through prewriting activities, interview practice, small-scale exercises, or the analysis of primary sources, these strategies aim to equip students with the tools they need to navigate the research world confidently.

10 Ways To Develop Research Skills in Middle School Students


Get The Librarian Involved (Kristy)

If your school is fortunate enough to have a school librarian or media specialist, get them involved in helping your students develop research skills. School librarians can show the students what resources the school and/or the school board or district have and use hands-on activities to engage them in the research process. 

In this blog post, 12 Ways a School Librarian Can Help Teachers, Barbara Paciotti, retired School Librarian and Science teacher, shares how school librarians can be an asset to classroom teachers.

Determine How You Want Students To Cite Sources (Marypat)

Before even jumping into research skills, decide how you want students to cite their sources.  This can be as simple as students creating a list with clickable links or as complex as a works cited list that is in compliance with the MLA’s 9th edition.  

If you want a combo of the two, teach your students how to create an annotated works cited list.  This is a great way to get students thinking about why they are choosing sources and what the sources have to offer. 

Scaffold Each Skill (Kristy)

When seeking to develop research skills in middle school students, it is important to start with a small research project and work towards bigger, more independent projects. These mini-research projects help students develop the key skills needed for more intricate and self-directed assignments. 

Once students are ready for more independence, it is still important to break down larger assignments into smaller, manageable tasks. Guide students through the process of selecting topics, conducting research, and presenting findings. I love to work on each step as a class and then give students more independence once they have demonstrated they are on the right track. 

For an example of how I scaffold for my students, check out this Article of the Week framework

Student Driven – Use The Scientific Method – Start With A Question (Marypat)

Students will be more engaged and excited about starting a research project when they are curious and invested in the topic. And, even more importantly, when they can choose their own topic. 

But helping students choose that topic can be a challenge. One thing that helps is using the scientific method. This starts with asking a question. The more questions students ask, the easier the research topic will be to choose. Students will end up with a list of questions they want to know more about. 

Teach Information Literacy (Kristy)

In today’s digital world, not everything is as it seems online. Focus on teaching students how to evaluate sources, spot bias, and differentiate between reliable and unreliable information/sources – this can be a key element when striving to help students develop research skills. 

Emphasize to students that going beyond surface-level acceptance of digital content is key. Teach them how to analyze information and think critically about the content they consume. The goal is to nurture students to be capable of confidently navigating the digital world.

If you want help with lesson ideas on these topics, read my posts, Why Teach Fake News in the Middle School ELA Classroom? – 2 Peas and a Dog and Engaging Middle School Digital Citizenship Lessons – 2 Peas and a Dog

Generate Prewriting Ideas (Marypat)

Prewriting is often a quickly completed activity, but with research, prewriting can help students flesh out ideas, generate more questions, and dig into deeper research.

Encourage students to “follow the questions” they have about their topic by generating more questions that they want answered. A simple graphic organizer like a KWL chart is a good place to start. But don’t stop there. Offering multiple prewriting activities helps students not only get excited to get started but they’ll develop a plan forward.     

Interview Practice (Kristy)

Conducting primary research is a key skill that some people require in their careers. It does not have to be formal research conducted by a university or a think tank. People need to acquire information by talking to other people and then making informed decisions. 

Teach students basic interview techniques and have them conduct interviews with school staff, local experts, or community members, then present their findings to their peers. When I taught Grade 6 Social Studies, students had to interview someone who had immigrated to Canada from another country. 

They could interview a family member or a friend of the family. They were also permitted to get the story from their parents if no direct contact could be made with the relative who immigrated to Canada. This helped students learn how to talk to adults and gather information that they made into a presentation to share with the class. 

A project that will help students learn the interview process and further develop research skills is my Biography Symbolism Assignment. Student can create a life map outlining the important events in their chosen interviewee’s life. It doesn’t have to be huge, but something to get students heading in the right direction when it comes to the interview process. 

How can you incorporate interviews into your lessons? Check out this list of 32 Fun Project Ideas That Aren’t Overused For Middle School Students to think of different ways to change up your lessons.  

Small Scale Practice With Note Taking, Summarizing, And Quoting (Marypat)

Once students have their idea and their research sources – the next big step is recording information. Summarizing material is often challenging for students.  Make this easier by using texts that students are already familiar with: fairy tales, fables, popular movies, or even songs. 

Take out the writing aspect and allow them to share a short summary with a partner. Can they do this in less than 30 words? You’ll be able to add new texts as students build confidence. Use this summarizing skills freebie to help you get started.

Analyze Primary Sources (Kristy)

Another way to develop research skills is to introduce historical primary sources (letters, diaries, speeches) and guide students in interpreting and analyzing these documents.

This is something I try to do with my students in my Canadian history lessons as well as when I am teaching a novel if I can find sources that align with the concepts or events. Students need to understand that not all content comes from secondary sources. Sometimes, they can use primary sources as a way to gather information. 

Create a sharing wall (Marypat)

Provide a “Did You Know?” wall for students to share information about their topic that they think is interesting. Sometimes, students find information that doesn’t quite fit into their research topic, but it is still interesting to them.  A sharing wall is the perfect spot for that random information.  As a side benefit, students are sharing their research!

The journey to help students develop research skills can be a collaborative effort that involves educators, librarians, and the entire school community. Developing these skills is not a one-size-fits-all process but rather a multifaceted approach that encompasses citation methods, scaffolding, information literacy, and hands-on experiences. 

By incorporating strategies like prewriting, interview practice, small-scale exercises, and the analysis of primary sources, educators can empower students to confidently navigate their research. I hope you can use some of these ideas to develop research skills in middle school students.

Marypat has been a classroom teacher for over fifteen years and a  mentor teacher for over ten.  Her experience ranges from fourth grade to college, but the majority of her time has been in middle school teaching ELA. She created Just Add Students to support busy teachers who may be struggling with teaching reading and writing to upper elementary and middle school students. She also sells teaching resources on Teachers Pay Teachers and on her website.

Kristy has taught ELA and other subjects to middle school students for over 17 years in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada. She is guilty of always having a book in her hand – even at the dinner table! She shares teaching content on her website, 2 Peas and a Dog, and sells middle school education resources on Teachers Pay Teachers or Shopify.

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