Cheat Sheet for Launching the Research Writing Unit

Toughest Unit? Piece of Cake

research writing unit

I knew it was research time today when I hoarded both of the copy machines to make 28 page research essay packets. Research essay packets you ask? These are handy little guides about how to do a paper and in what order. These packets are amazing at keeping up with parent communication, helping differentiate student learning with the writing process, and tracking student accountability. I love essay packets. They guide how I teach any unit of writing. 

The research unit is my favorite unit of study, but it is also the toughest for a variety of reasons. Students are granted the freedom to do their own research and not given all of the materials needed to produce a piece of writing (our curriculum is heavy novel based with literary analysis). In sixth grade, they get to choose from a list of topics that are focused on a theme. Choice is still an option, but with limitations. Students need freedom in their writing to make choices, yet restrictions to allow for structure with the assignment. 

The main components of the checklist include lessons on:

  1. Plagiarism

  2. Source Evaluation

  3. Resource Location

  4. MLA Formatting/Other Format

  5. Great Student Exemplars

Checklist Area #1: Plagiarism

As a middle school english teacher, I have only had two major instances of plagiarism that were both intentional and obvious. I always have the conversation with students about what plagiarism means and what the consequences of plagiarism are in my classroom. This really also depends on intention. I define both of these as:

Intentional Plagiarism: I chose to copy word-for-word from another source with the goal of submitting that work as my own (Often larger chunks of information or seen more than once in the paper)

Unintentional Plagiarism: I chose to use information from another source, yet meant to cite my source (Small pieces of research where a citation was missing, etc. This happens particularly on rough drafts before final draft submission. 

Now, I know both are plagiarism. However, in middle school, while students are learning for the first time, it is important to allow mistakes and show how to correct those mistakes in writing. Writing should evoke reactions in the reader, not provoke fear in the writer. There should be a progression. I was harder on my seventh grade students than I am on my current sixth grade students. The goal is that not only should writing feedback increase with skill-set, but the precision of drafts should increase with this acquisition of skill. 

Writing should evoke reactions in the reader, not provoke fear in the writer.
— -Writing Mindset


First, I really love this YouTube Video about plagiarism. The kids also find it hilarious. 

Next, I love using Laura Randazzo's resource Plagiarism Teaching Resources. This makes everything easy, and it is available on TpT.

Checklist Area #2: Source Evaluation

I like to team up with the librarian in my building for this area. We do a tag-team lesson on source evaluation and looking at some specific areas for source evaluation:

  • Reliability of Sources

  • Web Source Criteria (domain names, authors, etc)

  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources

We take notes in the essay packet, and I have activities to use with each of them. They particularly like my example of "Let's say there was a food fight in the cafeteria..." and I explain the gossip trail using primary and secondary sources. If you do not have this amazing resource of a library/school librarian, never fear. You can teach these lessons easily by using some high-quality engaging resources. Remember, enthusiasm is always key. 


  • Mister Mitchell's Resource: Evaluating Sources for Credibility on TpT

  • FLOCABULARY: Source Evaluation (I will just say Flocabulary has changed the game of teaching for me, I will include more information in another post. In case you haven't heard of Flocabulary, think of putting amazing teaching lessons to music and rap/poetry....just amazing.

  • FLOCABULARY also has some amazing new resources and lessons that go with each of their videos.

Checklist Area #3: Resource Location

Where will students find their materials? I love showing students the meme that has the old card catalog system pull out drawer. "Think of a time with no internet or wifi..." I am not that old, but I do remember typing the DOS into the old mac computer we had at home. During my middle school career, I used only books. Now, students have a variety of options for sources. 


  • General Google Search (good for preliminary research)

  • Online Databases

  • Books

  • Articles

  • Newspapers/Newsfeeds

  • Other

I like to show students how to find information in order to help evaluate the information. One of the most beautiful quotations I found from a student goes like this:

“I learned that people are like always have to have a trustworthy source.”
— Middle School Writer

I will often recommend to students to have a print source or book source, and then also include some web sources and online database articles to go with their print articles. I require 3 different sources for a middle school level research paper. 

Checklist Area #4: MLA Formatting/Other Format

I have a personal obsession with this topic. Mainly because it has become the center of debate in my teaching career in the past few years. Many teachers think middle school is too young to learn MLA formatting. Many teachers think the opposite. I am in the second camp. Not only have I seen the evidential proof that my sixth graders can handle MLA format, but they can retain and apply this knowledge throughout the course of their academic career. Therefore, I teach MLA. 

I like to start with an MLA flipbook. Tracee Orman at TpT makes an amazing updated flipbook that I catch former students using years outside of my class. It is an accessible format for middle school that just works. The process for teaching this usually involves giving students a resource, practice, and application. Repeat this process. As we work through the many drafts of research, we also practice each of these skills. You may not use MLA, but teach a format to students to help with formal tone and unified presentation. P.S. I also really love the MLA Purdue OWL website. I have students do a scavenger hunt of this each year. 

Additional Resources:

Checklist Area #5:

I was showing my pre-intern my storage room today where I keep my mounds of student samples. Yes, I know this should be digitized. Yes, I know that I am a hoarder. However, I need them. I like to start a writing unit by showing students quality examples. We talk about genre. We talk about format. We talk about writing. We do an example notes activity together where we look at exemplars and break down what we see. For example this is what my students saw today when we looked at quality research exemplars

  • Title page

  • Multiple paragraphs (not just five)

  • Third person only

  • Works Cited page at the end of the document

  • Many sources-not just one

  • Running header with last name and page number

  • Double spaced throughout

  • Font-size 11 or 12 pt

  • Longer quotations used (Yes, I teach block quotes)

  • Genre: Expository/informational

See? They saw a lot. I really value the first exemplar conversations because it sets the tone. They understand the final product before they begin. These conversations are key to helping students become better at critical analysis of their own writing and the writing of others. I am constantly looking for ways for students to learn to become more independent when it comes to peer editing, and this is one sure-fire way.

If you don't have samples from previous years, the MLA Purdue site that I listed above has a good writing sample to start with in terms of a formatting conversation. 

Note: I have not received any income to sponsor the products listed in this post...they are just that awesome.

Writing Mindset Reflections: What about a research project is scary? What is exciting? What tools do YOU use when teaching the art of research writing? COMMENT BELOW!