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Teaching ELLs How to Complete a Research Project: Gathering Sources and Note Taking

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ELLs and Research Projects

Teaching ELLs how to conduct a research project is hard. One of the most difficult and also most important things for any student to learn is how to conduct a research project and produce a paper that isn’t copied and pasted from other websites– especially in the age of Google and now ChatGPT. This skill is particularly difficult for ELL students whose lack of confidence in their own language abilities. Being an English learner makes them want to use other people’s words instead of their own because they want their writing to be correct and sound professional. While I appreciate the sentiment, most of the time they don’t really understand what they have copied and pasted, so it doesn’t help them improve their English writing skills or their research skills.

Scaffolding and Plagiarism

For ELLs you need to scaffold the process. Scaffold it more than you ever imagined. Especially if you have kids who are newly arrived or have had an interrupted school background in their home country.

The plagiarism struggle is real.

I don’t know what the expectations are in many other countries, or if there is an emphasis in other places on merely copying whatever an expert said instead of critically thinking and creating your own thoughts, but most ELL students STRUGGLE with the idea of writing their own thoughts. They will turn in things that are completely copied and pasted. The fact is, usually they have no idea they have done anything wrong. At this point in my teaching career, I just calmly tell them that that isn’t allowed in the US education system and if they continue to do it they will get into trouble. But, it can be a tough lesson.

Therefore, when you are teaching research, regardless of the grade level, you must be extremely intentional about teaching the skill of gathering information and taking notes in your own words and CITING the sources. Sometimes multiple times!

I’ve taught research in many, many, many ways, but the way I now teacher research to my high school ELL class is my favorite by far. I am going to share it with you here because I think the kids actually got it. They understood what I meant by doing research and writing THEIR ideas and not someone else’s words.

Researching and Finding Sources

For ELL students the hardest part can be getting research that they can actually read and understand. So, for this project, I used readworks.org and newsela.com both of which provide a variety of reading levels for their materials and have a good selection of informational texts on different topics. There are many, many different sites now with non-fiction information for research, these are just two that I like. If you want to use these sources, they are free, you just need to sign up.

The project the focus can be anything. My students did research in order write argumentative essays. First, each student picked a topic and questions about this topic they would like to answer when doing research.You will need to sign up for a free account with both newsela and readworks.

Lower Level ELLs

Here’s where more scaffolding comes in. I pulled the articles from the two websites listed above and printed them out for each student. That means I checked the reading levels of the articles I decided to use before I printed them and matched them with the levels of the students in my class. You could also do this in groups so that different ability-level groups get different level articles.

Gathering information that the students can understand, especially for lower level ELLs, is critical. You are probably thinking, but then they don’t learn how to research on their own, at this particular moment that isn’t my goal. This is more scaffolding. I first have to show them what research looks like without them having to wade through the web, getting confused and distracted. In fact, I usually spend a whole two-week unit teaching wading through the web to find relevant and reliable sources.

Higher Level ELLs

For higher-level ELL kids, you can also suggest using a couple of specific websites where they might find articles, but don’t give them free license to pick sources at this point. Even the higher students don’t usually choose good, high-quality, reliable sources.

My high school ELLs were all pretty good readers, so I pre-selected three high-quality sources for each of them.

In order to save on paper, I decided to save each of the links in a google doc and share it with each student. To do this, I created a shared folder for each of them in my Google Drive like this:

You can see each kid has a folder. Inside the folder is a doc that looks like this that I created:

research article sources

Each student’s research question is at the top of the page, the hyperlinks are to articles I personally curated for my students to use for research.

Note taking Using Modeling

After selecting the sources, my first lesson was teaching the students how to take notes on the important information by determining importance. I did this by asking them to continually reference the central research question.

I like the strategy of creating a T chart note organizer. Kids can either do this using google docs or drawings, or they can do it on a piece of paper. You can choose or let the kids choose. This is the sample notes document using google drawing.

example of student note taking in google drawing

For each article they are using for research, before doing anything else, the students wrote the information they would need to create the citation on the top. (Including the title of article, source and date of publication- they could also use a google extension for creating a works cited list like easybib or citationmachine). Lot’s of sites now provide the citation on the cite. Whatever tool you plan on having them use, make sure that they have the full website or source to use to make the citation. (I usually wait and do a citation mini-lesson later in the project to show them exactly how to use these tools.)

Then I modeled how to read through one whole article, one paragraph at a time, and discussed which information was important, getting feedback from the class and taking bulleted notes on my computer and projected it.

Students suggested parts of the article they thought were important, but sometimes the information they picked wasn’t relevant to the research question. In these instances, I simply referred back to the central question and asked them if the part they highlighted addressed the question. I also modeled how not to directly copy the words written in the article word-for-word, but to instead think about the facts they read, digest them, and then write what they understood using their own words. This was probably the hardest part, but it is also the only way to make sure that they are truly understanding what they are reading.

The note-taking document was divided into “big ideas” and “supporting ideas” sections in a T chart format. Students created a new document or piece of paper for each of their sources and saved them all into the google drive folder with their research sources.

This is definitely a difficult skill for most students and a really difficult skill for ELLs. The modeling is essential to getting them to work on this independently afterward. It might take multiple days, or multiple guided practice sessions for students to understand how to do this independently.

After the modeling, the students were required to do the same process with each of the research articles I had chosen for them. One page per article with the citation information at the top. In the end, they had three pieces of paper with a good amount of notes, in their own words, ready to put into a research paper.

This is the best way I’ve found for students to learn to do research on a topic in a way that they understand and that doesn’t allow them to simply copy and paste. I like to do this in class so that I can monitor and assist where needed.

I also have a post on Teaching ELLs How to Do a Research Project- Part 2, Organizing and Outlining

Happy teaching,


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  1. Thank you! Very generous of you to share! I agree with everything you say about high school ELs and what they struggle with. My students struggle mightily with just choosing a topic and thinking of a research question that is manageable for themselves. Any advice on how you did this or supported kids with their choice of research topic? thanks again!

    1. I like giving kids a small list of research questions or topics that they can choose from. I think they struggle with how enormous the idea of research is if you are choosing something out of thin air. I have also had success with teaching a research project with a directed topic, that I choose, where I have an edited list of sources for them to use. We walk through that project together and then AFTER THAT I set them free to do another project, this time choosing a topic of their choice. Then they have seen the whole process once and have a better idea of what I am asking.

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