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Designing a Developmentally Appropriate Research Foundation

By: Fourth Grade Teachers Taylor Berns and Amy McMullin

February 26, 2019

Thinking about elementary school may bring up memories of multiplication facts, phonics, or memorizing state capitals. But what about research projects? For Rossman students, research projects are a core component of education. Surprisingly, the experience may not be all that different from your own experience in middle or high school, with a few modifications to ensure that it’s safe and developmentally appropriate for our students.blog_research-2.jpg

While many skills necessary for research are taught much earlier (how to read, take notes, and organize information, for example), fourth grade is the first time that Rossman students conduct a formal research project. We consider several factors when catering a research project to the development level of a fourth grader.

The first is engagement with the topic. Traditionally, children at this age are fascinated by animals, and that natural curiosity is fueled by their study of mammals in fourth grade science. Knowing the strong correlation between children’s interest levels and success in a task, we ensure that each child gets to research one of their favorite mammals. As a bonus, the topic of animals lends itself nicely to be broken into categories (i.e. habitat, diet, life cycle), making it an ideal research topic for fourth graders.

When it comes to research, we scaffold the process to create a framework for success. Our librarian preselects age-appropriate books and websites since elementary learners need research materials that are safe, straightforward and appropriately leveled. We rely on trusted organizations who operate kid-friendly versions of their websites, including National Geographic, Sea World and PBS. For specific searches, we encourage the use of Kiddle, a search engine that aims to produce only kid-friendly results.

blog_research-1.jpgThrough our Digital Citizenship program, students are taught how to use key words and analyze website credibility for a safe and productive search. Next, they take notes on index cards (which may sound familiar), but those cards are structured with guiding questions and sub-topics to steer their research. In addition, we teach the students how to identify key facts, paraphrase and finally synthesize the information they gather into an organized final report.

Giving credit to sources is our last step, and it is usually uncharted territory for fourth graders. We introduce students to this concept in library, where they are given templates to fill in the information needed for a bibliography (i.e., author, publishing date, URL). At the end of the project, students plug this information into NoodleTools, a free application that automatically creates a correctly formatted bibliography using the details that the students input.

While they learn some very sophisticated skills, we know that it’s important to keep the project kid-friendly! The children enjoy drawing a sketch of their mammal as a cover page for their report, creating a homemade mask, writing and delivering a speech from the perspective of their mammal, and documenting their speech in a video using a green screen to depict the habitat. We have so much fun with these aspects of the project that it’s easy to forget that critical writing, artistic and public speaking skills are being reinforced.

And this is only the beginning! Activities such as the fifth grade Civil War Project and sixth grade Hero Project help children develop and refine these skills, allowing Rossman students to enter secondary schools with a solid foundation in the realm of research. It is our hope that they will use these skills throughout their lives, across many subjects, using sources and covering topics that may not even exist in our world today.


Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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