Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Research Writing: Forget the "Expert" List

As I was writing my plans for our new research writing unit, I was concerned that my students would write about something they already knew a lot about, thereby foregoing the need to really dig deep into their research. By 5th grade, most kids have figured out on their own that if they choose a topic to research that they already know a lot about, their job will be easier.

But this unit was to be more than just about writing. I wanted them to learn something about their topic and really get into the research process too.

Knowing this, I thought of a way to help my students choose a fresh topic to research....and here's how:

We began by creating a list of everything we were an expert at or knew a ton about. I set the timer for three minutes as my kids wrote away. Creating this list was easy.

When the three minutes was up, we created another list -- a non-expert list. These would be the things we've always wondered about, wanted to learn more about, or held our curiosity. Another three minutes on the timer, but creating this list was a bit tougher for many.

After both lists were created, I asked the students to look at their expert list and circle the thing they knew the most about. We then did a whip around the room and as each student read his or her most expert topic, everyone either added it to their own expert or non-expert list. This helped the lists grow.

When we were finish sharing, I told my class to put a giant X through their expert list. They could not choose a topic for this project from their expert list.




After I explained that this writing project would not just be about writing, but should also teach us something, they understood the method to my madness. Everyone relaxed and got busy picking a new topic to research that would take them from having non-expert to expert status in no time!

Mission accomplished.


  1. Why didn't you write this before I did my research project--the one where one of my sixth graders didn't do research but instead wrote about what he remembered (inaccurately) about the Revolutionary War? I needed you then. I have you now and I'm so glad. Great idea.

  2. Perfect! I think this is a fantastic idea. I like the way you gave your learners the opportunity to showcase their expertise and then the way you turned the tides. Perhaps you'll share some of their highlights throughout the research process.

  3. Sounds as if this worked well, and those who may have chosen a topic of another's expertise can use them for some research, too. On your way. . .

  4. I love this idea!

    My 9th graders are just wrapping up a mini-research "Empathy" project. The goal was for them to research and present on a marginalized group in our society (we just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird). While most students did choose topics with which they were largely unfamiliar, I did have a few who shared their own personal experiences within a marginalized group. I found that for this project (empathy-building) the students who shared personally had the greatest impact on their classmates (I did a post-presentation survey of students to assess whose presentations had the biggest impact on them in terms of empathy-building).
    Students who did research on a group they were unfamiliar with personally, said that it did help them have a deeper understanding of this group than they did before their research.

  5. This was the perfect way to teach a valuable lesson about topic choice - now they are off and running, no doubt, researching and learning new things, which is the point of it all, after all.

  6. This is a great idea. My 8th graders are starting a research unit also. We're going to do some multi-genre writing. It makes them a little nervous. I like the non-expert list--wish I had thought of it

  7. Great way to get students to look at something they want to know about and something they are totally familiar with.

  8. This is a great idea - I can just see their motivation to learn!

  9. Love the way you got them thinking with the expert and non-expert list, the sharing (which gave them opportunities to expand their list), and then the giant X through their expert list. Such a fun way to arrive at the topic for this project.