By third grade, nearly all students know what plagiarism is and understand that it’s both immoral and illegal, and yet, again and again, we catch them copying their sources.
Why don’t students express ideas and information in their own words? Because they haven’t taken the time or don’t have the skills to analyze and synthesize the material they’ve collected so that they can make their own meaning. In other words, they haven’t found a personal connection to the content, and that’s a critical step in the nonfiction pre-writing process.
Here are some ideas to help students break the habit:
Nix the All-About Books
The best nonfiction writing happens when students have to dig deep and think critically, so asking them to write All-About books, which present a broad overview of a topic, is just setting them up for failure. When students choose a narrow topic that they find fascinating, they’ll have to mine their sources, collecting tiny nuggets of gold here and there. This fun quest will fuel their passion for the topic and result in engaging writing that presents ideas and information in fresh ways.
Start with a Question
Suggest that students develop wonder questions and use them to guide their research. Not only does this guarantee that students will have some “skin in the game,” a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking and require students to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.
Julie Harmatz, a fifth grade teacher in San Pedro, California, has had great success with collaborative notetaking in a Google doc. Not only do students enjoy the technological novelty of this activity, they gain access to the thought processes of their partner(s). Pairing an adept notetaker with a student who’s struggling with this skill can be a powerful experience. After all, students often learn better from peer modeling than adult instruction.
Encourage students to review the information they’ve gathered and journal about it. This will help many children take ownership of the material and identify what fascinates them most about what they’ve discovered. When students approach writing with a clear mission in mind, they’re more likely to present ideas through their own personal lens.
Use Thought Prompts
Ryan Scala, a fifth grade teacher in East Hampton, New York, recommends inviting students to synthesize their research and make personal connections by using one of the following thought prompts:
- The idea this gives me …
- I was surprised to learn …
- This makes me think …
- This is important because …
Encourage students to use source materials that they can’t copy, such as a documentary film or personal observations outdoors or via a webcam.
Focus on the “Oh, wow!”
Award-winning children’s book author Deborah Heiligman advises young writers to only write down information that makes them say, “Oh wow!” Then she suggests that they write their first draft without looking at their notes, using just what they remember. Of course, they can always go back and add details, dates, etc., later, but when kids are forced to write from their memories, they write in their own voices, and they focus on the ideas and information that interest them most.