Writing the Research Paper Part I: Preparation

A Series in Four Parts

Writing the Research Paper, Step 1: Preparation

by Susan Wise Bauer

The research paper often looms like a mountain in the minds of homeschooling parents (and students): a huge obstacle that can only be crossed with much agony and effort. But the research paper doesn’t need to be the Everest of your home schooling experience, and you certainly don’t have to die on its slopes. With proper preparation and a good basic understanding of paper development, you can conquer the research paper assignment and even enjoy yourself along the way.

This four-part series will deal with writing the research paper — preparation, research, organization, and writing and documentation. If your student isn’t yet ready to write a research paper, I encourage you to read these articles anyway. Good students begin developing the skills necessary for research-paper writing long before ninth grade.

A research paper is an extended essay (eight to twenty-five pages, using three to ten outside sources) that summarizes information about a particular subject in order to prove a point.

The first full-fledged research paper should be written in ninth grade, and the student should write at least one per year. Two per year, one in the fall and another in the spring, is even better.

Don’t think of the research paper as an “English” assignment. Depending on the topic you choose, the research paper is a science project, or a history project, or an art or literature project. The research paper isn’t a dreadful rite of passage demanded of all high school English students. Rather, it’s a tool for the student to use as he explores one of the content areas of the curriculum — something he’s interested in. It’s true that some of the skills needed to complete the research paper successfully are acquired in English study. But the paper itself should be centered on something the student is learning in another area of his curriculum: astronomy, the history of the Revolution, or Victorian novels.

In writing the research paper, good preparation is at least half (maybe three-quarters) of the battle. For the properly prepared student, the research paper isn’t a big deal; it’s just a longer version of the short, well-reasoned, properly-written papers he’s been doing all along.

Grammar and composition
Although the research paper is a “content-area” project, the skills needed to write it are developed through the study of formal grammar and composition. Three-quarters of the frustrated home schoolers I talk to are struggling with paper writing because of grammar and composition deficiencies.

Good high school writers study systematic grammar — rules, drills, writing exercises, diagramming, and workbooks — every year. Grammar matters. Grammar is not easy; it’s difficult and worthwhile. Grammar cannot be taught in ten minutes a day. Grammar cannot be taught through rearranging cards. Grammar must involve writing; otherwise you’re trying to learn a skill apart from the content to which it is related.

I strongly recommend that home schooled students use the A Beka Book Grammar & Composition program. The middle-grade program (grades 4, 5 and 6) is called God’s Gift of Language A, B and C. The high school program begins with Grammar & Composition I, II, III, and IV (grades 7, 8, 9, and 10) and concludes with the Grammar & Composition Handbook, which is used along with Workbooks A & B (grades 11 and 12, respectively). Even if you don’t
use the Beka program in middle school, try to switch over to it in seventh grade. If you’re just beginning with an older student who has difficulty writing, go back to Grammar & Composition I (the seventh-grade book).

A Beka Book grammar is precise, demanding, and detail-oriented. It may drive you crazy, but that’s perfectly all right. Good writers are precise and detail-oriented too. If you can find another grammar program that involves 1) grammar and mechanics rules, 2) pages of drill to firm those rules in the young writer’s mind, 3) diagramming exercises (vital for understanding the ways sentences fit together), 4) composition exercises, and 5) outlining skills, you can use that instead. But after reviewing multiple grammar programs in this past year, I came back to A Beka as the best around.

Every high school student should read Strunk & White’s classic Elements of Style at least once a year. Strunk & White deal with mechanics and usage, but they also tackle those slippery matters of style: Put statements in positive form. A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one. Express coordinate ideas in similar form. These principles and many others are explained and illustrated.

The A Beka books have some composition exercises, but I recommend that you use the National Writing Institute’s Writing Strands program along with your grammar program. Where the Writing Strands assignments overlap with grammar exercises, skip the grammar exercises. (As a caveat, let me add that the A Beka research paper methods are enough to make anyone go cross-eyed; if you follow the method I’ll be outlining in these articles, you can skip all the sections having to do with research paper skills.) The Writing Strands program teaches sentence structure, paragraph organization, short paper organization, and finally long paper development. It’s a seven- book series, but the first book is a pre?writing program that you can skip. Older students should begin with Book 4.
After Book 7, the student should complete the Writing Strands Writing Exposition; I wish my college students would master these skills!

If at all possible, try to complete Book 6 by the end of eighth grade. This is the level which teaches report writing and organization; the student who tries to tackle the research paper without these skills will flounder. If your ninth-grader struggles with writing, put off the research paper until Book 6 is finished.

Organization skills
Grammar and composition skills must be accompanied by organization skills. Before the student can tackle the research paper, he must know how to construct a proper four-point outline.
The major points in an outline are represented by Roman numerals:
and so on. Each major point is followed by supporting points, written as capital letters:
Each supporting point is followed by further details, written as Arabic numerals:
If necessary, the student can list further supporting details, using small letters:
The key to a good outline is to remember that each point on the outline must relate to, support, and give further information about the point that immediately precedes it. In the final step above, for example, points a, b, and c must each give details about the information given in point 1.

Any grammar program you choose must teach proper outline form BEFORE ninth grade, or you’ll be lost when you arrive at the research paper project.

The student’s organizational skills will improve dramatically if you can fit a logic course into the curriculum. Around seventh grade, consider using the Canon Press Logic series, which is a two-year program in formal logic. It teaches students to think through arguments, use evidence, and detect and avoid logical fallacies.

Whether or not you use the Canon Press course, buy and read Anthony Weston’s Rulebook for Arguments. This small handbook applies the rules of logic to written argumentation. Students who take the Canon Press logic course should read through this rulebook in ninth grade, as a refresher; if you don’t want to tackle formal logic, ask your eighth-grader to read through and outline Weston’s book, as preparation for the research paper.

You can’t expect a student to write a long paper until he’s written lots and lots of short papers. Beginning in fifth grade, ask the student to write paragraphs summarizing what he’s learned in history, science, and literature. In seventh and eighth grade, require frequent 1-2 page reports supporting a single conclusion or arguing for a single point. History papers might summarize a single historical event or give the most important biographical information about a single person; science papers can describe a particular discovery or phenomenon; literature papers should “report” on a novel or poem by analyzing a single character or pivotal scene.

The research paper requires the student to prove a complex thesis by arguing through it, one point at a time. These short papers are mini-research projects, each aimed at developing the student’s skill in writing about one point at a time. The student who has completed a number of these short papers will be well-drilled in this skill. He’ll find that the research paper simply requires him to string a number of connected 1-2 page papers together. And he’s had lots of practice in writing these.

As in all subjects, if you’ve already got a ninth-grade student or older who’s intimidated by the research paper, back up and do some of this preliminary work. It doesn’t matter if the student doesn’t write his first research paper until tenth or eleventh grade. If you don’t take the time to lay a proper foundation, the student will be frustrated and the ninth-grade paper will be a waste of time for both of you.

The ideal curriculum for developing research paper skills; adjust for each student.

Seventh grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition I
Writing Strands, Book 5
Canon Press: Introductory Logic
1-2 page papers weekly

Eighth grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition II
Writing Strands, Book 6
Canon Press: Intermediate Logic
1-2 page papers weekly

Ninth grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition III
Writing Strands, Book 7
Read and outline: Rulebook for Arguments, Anthony Weston
8-page research paper

Tenth grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition IV
Writing Strands: Writing Exposition
10-page research paper

Eleventh grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition Handbook and Workbook A
12-16 page research paper

Twelfth grade

A Beka Book: Grammar & Composition Handbook and Workbook B
14-25 page research paper


Grammar & Composition

The A Beka Book grammar series is available from A Beka Book, Inc. at

The Writing Strands program can be purchased from the National Writing Institute.

William Strunk & E. B. White’s Elements of Style (Allyn & Bacon) is a perennial favorite.

Organization Skills

The Canon Press Logic Course can be purchased directly from the publisher, Canon Press.

Rulebook for Arguments, by Anthony Weston (Hackett, 1992), can be ordered from any bookstore or from Peace Hill Press.

Read Part II: Choosing the Topic

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