Approaching research skills in a digitally literate classroom

An area I’m currently exploring is how to promote digital literacy across the curriculum. One of the ways that this can be done is through explicitly teaching research skills and guiding students through the process. The result is that students gain transferable skills and a set of useful notes at the end of the process (and we don’t have to wade through copy and pasted information that (most likely) is either less than relevant or beyond the students’ understanding of a topic).

In a nutshell – if we don’t teach students how to research well, then the success of any research task is left (at least in part) to chance.

The process here is taken from an eBook for a Year 9 group. Students will be researching the social and historical context of WW1 poetry and they’ll record their findings in a pdf version of this workbook in Showbie or Notability.

Step 1: Give the students a reason to buy into the research process

Step 1: Give the students a reason to buy into the research process.

Start by giving students a reason to buy into the research process so they can see the value in high-quality research. This idea is taken loosely from the  ‘so that…’ form of lesson objective as it highlights a sense of purpose. The aim with this starter is to get students thinking about the role of context when they interpret literature so that they can appreciate that literature isn’t just created in a vacuum. Once they understand the reason for exploring social and historical context, they’re more likely to engage with the research process.

Step 2: Address misconceptions and outline success criteria

Step 2: Highlight and challenge misconceptions
Step 2: Highlight and challenge misconceptions

Most teachers are aware of the common mistakes that occur during research tasks (copy and paste, lack of relevance, potentially unreliable information) but unless students can see why these mistakes are a problem, they’re unlikely to fix it. Whilst copy and paste is usually a simple issue of laziness, if students know that their own lack of clarity and understanding will stop them achieving as well as they could, they are likely to make changes to their study habits.

Another key focus is vocabulary. In a very genuine attempt to sound academic, students may keep in advanced vocabulary they’ve found online, but don’t always understand. Their notes may sound clever, but will be functionally useless to them in 3 weeks time as the language is inaccessible to them. They’re much better making simple notes and compiling a word bank for reference.

Step 3: Clarify what good research looks like
Step 2 (cont): Clarify what good research looks like

With any other task we outline success criteria and research tasks should be no different. Just because many of our students are functionally very capable with their technological use, it doesn’t mean they always understand how to critically approach texts.

Step 3: Outline the research process

Step 4: Provide a guide for students who might need some extra clarity
Step 3: Provide a guide for students who might need some extra clarity

At this point some students will know exactly what they need to do but others might like the security of step-by-step instructions. I usually reinforce the idea that vague/generic search terms will yield vague/generic results so in order to avoid wading through loads of irrelevant information, it’s essential to get them right. For weaker students, there are prompts to help them select the most appropriate reading strategy.

Step 4: Exploring and researching

Step 5: Have a range of graphic organisers to help students make notes
Step 4: Have a range of graphic organisers to help students make notes
Step 4 (cont): Have an option for more able students to challenge their thinking.

At this point students are conducting independent research. To help them structure their notes a range of graphic organisers might be useful. As a rough rule, I try to offer 2-3 with the option of an extension for the more able (in this case a ‘think it forward’ exercise to generate questions for later study). Students can select the graphic organiser that works for them.  Usually if a student has a particular preference that I’ve not suggested, they can do it their way as long as they can verbally justify to me why it’s a good approach. If we’re looking at personalised learning, then allowing students flexibility in their note-taking approach can give great results as they’re working in a way that suits them – but within a scaffold that allows them to achieve the objectives.

Step 6: Literacy focus. Give students chance to record any new, ambitious vocabulary they've encountered.
Step 4 (cont): Literacy focus. Give students chance to record any new, ambitious vocabulary they’ve encountered.

When students are doing research, they’re likely to meet unfamiliar vocabulary. It may be specialist terms or simply more advanced vocabulary than they are used to. A simple vocabulary mat allows them to use the words that they may have previously copied and pasted without understanding whilst ensuring that they understand their new words. It acts as a great point of reference for future pieces of work so they can apply their new vocabulary throughout the topic.

Step 6: Consolidate knowledge and push thinking forward

Step 6: Consolidate knowledge and push thinking forward

Giving students a short amount of time to share ideas with people beyond their table allows for them to take pride in their new knowledge – especially if you say you’re listening out for confident, academic expression. It also gives them an opportunity to try out voicing ideas so that they can feel more confident during whole class feedback. For students who think they’re finished, a ‘push your thinking’ box allows them to explore a range of open ended thinking prompts related to the topic – in this case the events surrounding WW1 and the literature of WW1. They can select any of the information they’ve researched in the lesson as the springboard for big-picture thinking. E.g. By exploring what would happen if WW1 happened today, they would be able to appreciate how contextual factors shape events and interpretations, leading them back to the idea that literature is always rooted in social and historical events.

Step 7: Review learning in your plenary of choice.

I quite like using an open ended question for this, so might use the Socrative app to answer the question “How might today’s learning help me approach a war poem?”


This is only one walk-through that I use with students and is easily customisable for different groups, abilities, ages, subjects etc. The idea could easily be applied to an A3 research sheet as well as a flowchart displayed in a classroom. The main aim is to clearly articulate the need for high-quality research so that students get the same diet of research skills and digital literacy in all classrooms.


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