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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Why Students Copy Their Research Sources,
and How to Break the Habit

ResearchBy 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.

QuestionsStart 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.

Dual Note­tak­ing

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.

Jour­nal­ing

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.

Thought PromptsUse 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 … 

Can’t Copy

Encour­age stu­dents to use source mate­ri­als that they can’t copy, such as a doc­u­men­tary film or per­son­al obser­va­tions out­doors or via a web­cam.

WowFocus 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.

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