How to Help Children Become Really Good Researchers

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about the use of KWL grids in primary schools.  This method for organising a research session asks three questions: What  is already known [K], What would like to be known [W] and What has been learnt (L). The general gist of the discussion was that the ‘W’ can create problems when a new topic is being introduced. If a young child knows nothing about a subject at all how can they identify what they want or indeed need to know? It is possible that after a couple of introductory lessons and prompting by an enthusiastic teacher they will think of something but for many children this would still be too broad a question. However there are alternatives to this system.

As a primary school librarian I have frequently seen children struggle with the need to carry out independent research without a framework suitable for their age group. When the senior management at my school made the decision to alter the teaching of the curriculum to encourage children to carry out independent research rather than being ‘spoon fed’ facts I grabbed the opportunity to become involved and collaborate with teachers to come up with an information literacy (research)  model that would enable the children to investigate independently but also ensure that they covered the elements of the subject that the teachers needed the children to learn.

It is important to note that as a staff we were clear that the teacher would introduce the subject first, provide a general overview and key information. Then the independent research sessions would provide the opportunity for the children to carry out a more in depth study of the subject. Sometimes this would be individually but frequently in pairs or small groups. Their findings would be shared as a class and the information found used in a way previously described by the teacher.

I needed to provide a system to structure research lessons in a way that could be used throughout the whole school and which would work successfully for both teachers and pupils. There are number of information literacy models available for use in education. One that is used frequently is The Big 6 method. This is very popular and there are many resources available online to support the use of this model. However after a great deal of thought and discussion I settled on the PLUS method devised by James Herring. There were a number of reasons for this choice. I believed the acronym would be easy for primary pupils to remember as it was a word with which they were already familiar. The division of the different aspects of the research process were logical and readily understood by children: Purpose, Location, Use and Self-evaluation. Lastly PLUS was easy to adapt to a visual aid that I believed would make it more effective and easy to use in the classroom.

I created a poster outlining the PLUS information literacy model that could be used by both teachers and children. This is shown below in a PDF format which you are welcome to download if you would find it helpful, by clicking on the image


At the start of the new academic year I introduced this research model to all the teachers and they were provided with posters to display in the classroom and smaller versions to place inside exercise books. The PLUS visual aid was placed in the library and next to computers as a constant visual reminder to the children. Gradually using the system began to feel more natural to them and one major benefit was that it prompted the children to slow down, pause, think and plan before they searched which generally resulted in a much more successful outcome.

The posters and the defined structure worked very well in Years 5 and 6 but the process needed to be simplified further for lower KS2. However the basic overview of PLUS was a constant basis for enquiry based learning in school. The question, What do I want to find out? in this model is just part of an initial gathering of thoughts about what the children have been asked to do by the teacher and is therefore less vague. In my experience this approach does help the child to focus on the specifics and is preferable to the broad, “Find out about the Tudors”, approach to research. In order to answer specific questions children have to think about what they are reading and decide if and how it answers their research question.

Some children’s idea of independent research is to ‘Google it’’ with little idea of how to use a search engine properly. Although Google can be an extremely valuable research tool children of this age do not generally have the skills to search successfully or to appraise the vast amount of information available.  School librarians are trained to teach research skills – referencing, plagiarism etc. and know how to carry out online research, use digital tools and can guide Google searching. As librarian I stored links to numerous websites for both teachers and pupils, provided links to suitable sites on the school VLE for young children to use both in school and at home and guided research lessons using books and online resources. School librarians can educate the next generation to select, appraise and use the information they find with confidence. This is just one of the many reasons for the Great School Libraries Campaign.

When planning this whole school approach to research based lessons I found a publication from the School Library Association immensely useful: Cultivating Curiosity: Information Literacy Skills and the Primary School Library This is available to purchase from the SLA website for both members and non-members.

A structured approach to research, using a recognised model, will help primary school children to develop good habits that they will be able to build on as they move through secondary education. We all need to have critical thinking skills and to be able to access, assess and use information to become engaged citizens and primary school is a very good place to start.

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