Research Essay Guidelines For Kids

The “three R’s” is not just a clever educational slogan.  The three R’s should be the foundation of your homeschool program.  The reality is that if you give your child a solid grounding in mathematics (including algebra, trigonometry, etc.) and a proficiency in reading and composition, whatever else you do is not particularly all that important.  I’m not saying that I don’t teach history and science and geography, I’m just saying that it’s a good idea as a homeschooler to give your primary energies to the foundational subjects – in reality one of your main jobs as a homeschooling parent is to equip your child with the tools they will need to be able to educate themselves throughout life.

As part of your composition program (i.e., the third “R” – writing) writing a research paper should be a requirement for your high school student.  Because my kids dual-enroll at the community college for their junior and senior years, I have them write a research paper in tenth grade.  This prepares them well for any writing they will need to do at the community college and beyond.

Over the years I have accessed a variety of resources to teach my children how to write a research paper but was never really satisfied with any particular program.  For my third child (my middle son who is now 17) I decided to design a guide for him myself.  That is what I am sharing with you today.  I believe this guide is comprehensive and yet easy to follow.  I suggest you print a copy for yourself (just hit the print button at the bottom of the post) so that you have it handy for when you need it.  You can call this “Anne’s Guide to Writing a Knock-It-Out-Of-The-Park Research Paper.”

Step One:  Assign a Topic

It may not seem like it but choosing the right topic is crucial.  Choose too broad a topic and your child will get lost in the weeds.  Choose too narrow a topic and they won’t be able to find enough information.  There are several different ways you could go about assigning a topic.  You could have your child come up with a topic which meets with your approval.  You could simply assign a topic of your choosing (maybe something to do with the history curriculum you’re using, for example).

Or you can do what I did with my kids which was: I came up with a general subject myself and then I had them brainstorm with me ideas for a specific topic they could write about.  This process of brainstorming ideas is a valuable tool to teach your child, in and of itself.  Furthermore, together you and your child can find a topic that can serve a dual purpose.

For instance, with my 17-year old I had selected the general topic of engineering and then, because we already knew he was going to be pursuing an engineering degree in college, we narrowed down the topic to “career choices in engineering.”  The research he did in writing his paper led him to the decision to pursue a Computer Engineering degree.  So not only did my son learn how to write a quality research paper, but the process helped him to narrow down his college major – and therefore helped us to plan his next few academic years accordingly.

In short, keep in mind that spending an adequate amount of time choosing a topic will make the next steps that much easier for your child.

Step Two: Research

Your child may have done research for essays you’ve assigned previously or they make think they know how to do research because they know how to use Google, but the kind of research required to write a research paper is an entirely different thing.  It is important that your child find and utilize quality, reliable sources of information.  If they think they can just re-write a few pages of Wikipedia you’ll need to quickly divest them of this idea!

I have to admit here that I am kind of “old-school.”  I like to have my kids use 5×7 index cards to record their research.  I believe that actually writing out the information tends to cement thoughts in their mind that will help them when they begin writing.  On the back of each card your child should notate where they found the information – all they really need is the title of the book or article and the page numbers.  If they happen to be using resources that have the same name (which can happen) then they should also include the author’s name.

Naturally your child is not going to write down whole chapters out of books or even very long passages.  This is part of the teaching and learning process – you need to instruct your child that they will be writing out brief ideas and quotations on their index cards.  This is actually where the nuts and bolts of learning to write a research paper takes place.  Throughout the research process they should be thinking about what is key to their subject matter, what information do they need to use to substantiate their thesis, and what quotations would be useful to make their paper not only accurate but engaging.

You need to also instruct them to make a Word document that will comprise their bibliography.  This information should include the source, the author (or editors), the publishing company, where it was published and the year it was copyrighted.  I strongly encourage you to tell them to list every resource they use in any way, even if it is just a chapter they read or an online article – they may later cull the list a little if they find they didn’t actually use the information they first read, but this way they won’t waste time trying to go back to locate a resource.

Your child should start their research with books from the library.  And I don’t mean two or three.  If your child doesn’t come home with a stack of books something’s wrong.  Keep in mind – and inform your child if they don’t know it already – that through inter-library loan they can get just about any book in print.  They may want to utilize this resource.  They can certainly do research online, but any articles they use from there not only need to be noted in the bibliography, they also need to be reliable articles such as those from professional journals.  Depending on the subject matter and what you require of them they may need to useThe Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (which should be available at your local library) or even microfiche.  When I wrote a Civil War research paper a few years ago (for a college class) I was required to use original sources which meant going to the college’s library and peering through microfiche at newspaper articles that were over 100 years old!

Your best resource to help your child (and you) if you are unfamiliar with this type of research is your local librarian.  You might also want to inquire if you can use a local college’s library (check out community colleges especially).

One useful resource I found on using microfilm and microfiche is: Conducting Research Using Microfiche, Microfilm and Microcard.

Finally, keep in mind that the amount of time your child spends on research will have a great impact on the quality of their paper.  I suggest you assign the paper several weeks before it is due.

Step Three: Writing the Paper

For important papers and essays I always have my children turn in a rough draft.  This rough draft does not include formal footnoting.  It is sufficient, at this point, to simply have your child put the name of the work in parenthesis after any quotes or footnoted information.

Outline: I believe it is generally a good practice that before your child even begins their rough draft they should hand in an outline.  This outline should include their thesis statement and supporting arguments or ideas.  If this is the first time they’ve written an outline for a paper, you’re going to need to walk them through it – but it’s a great exercise with many applications.  Keep in mind that the outline doesn’t need to be overly specific, and the construction of their paper may even change once they start writing, but at least they have a starting point.

Rough Draft: From the outline they should write their rough draft and hand it in to you to look over.  When I review my child’s rough draft I’m looking for cohesion in their thought process and glaring grammar errors.  I will walk them through where I think they are having difficulty and then assign them to write a second draft.  This second draft should be of such a quality that it only needs some polishing before writing the final draft.  I have to add here that our kids are so lucky to have computers where they can just go right into a document and make changes!  I remember having to re-type whole papers for high school and college classes.  Ugh!

Footnotes:  In regards to footnoting, which I will discuss in more detail in a moment, you need to explain to your child its usage.  Footnoting (and quotation marks) should be used any time your child is quoting directly from a source.  That is obvious.  But they should also footnote anywhere that they are giving specific information that would not be commonly known or that they would be expected to substantiate.  For instance, when I wrote my Civil War paper (on the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe) I included, and footnoted, the statement that, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin would eventually be translated into at least 23 tongues.”  I needed to footnote that sentence because someone reading my paper would want to know where I got that information.  Did I just pull it out of a hat?

There is a balance when it comes to footnoting.  If your child’s paper contains 20 footnotes per page then they either don’t understand how to footnote or they didn’t actually write the paper – they just combined the thoughts of other writers into a conglomeration of ideas that are not their own.  That’s called plagiarism and it’s a huge no-no.  On the other hand, if they have only one footnote per page they probably “didn’t do their homework” or again, they don’t understand the purpose of footnoting.  In the case of my Civil War paper, I had 22 footnotes for an eight-and-a-half page paper.   You do the math!

How your child’s paper is constructed will depend somewhat on the nature of the paper.  Is it a position paper where your child is expressing an opinion and defending it?  Is it a comparison paper?  Whatever the case, your child should be able to formulate some kind of thesis concerning their subject matter (they may need some help with this initially).  In the case of my son’s research paper on engineering, his thesis dealt with demonstrating the importance of engineering in history and in our day-to-day lives.

Step Four: Footnotes and Bibliography

I believe that it is in your child’s interest to have them follow a traditional footnoting model.  I actually have the “Chicago Manual of Style Citation Quick Guide” bookmarked on my laptop so I can reference it when writing papers.  It’s a great resource.

In rare instances your child may have a college professor who prefers another style.  If that is the case they can learn to use that style when they need it.  I still feel it is best for your child to learn the traditional “footnote and bibliography” method.  In all my years (many, many years!) of attending college I only had one class in which I was required to use a different method.

In order for your child to have a proper understanding of footnotes and bibliographies you need to require that they spend some time on the Chicago Manual of Style site.  They will find everything they need there to learn how to properly cite their sources in their footnotes and bibliography.

When it comes to my children, I do not allow them to hand in sub-standard work as their final paper.  Therefore, I recommend that after your child has handed in their rough draft and you have reviewed it with them, they should hand in one more draft before their final draft.  Remember, this is a learning process.  It’s as much about the process as it is about the end product.  So have them type up a second draft with their footnotes and bibliography and review that as well.  I guarantee you that they will still need to make corrections and it may be that you need to go over with them again the purpose and use of footnotes.  Look it over for spelling and grammar errors.  Then have them go back and polish.  What they turn in should be a thing of beauty!

To summarize:

  • Choose a topic.  Make sure it is not too broad or too narrow.  Another hint: if you choose a topic your child has an interest in, it may make the process more interesting and, possibly, easier for them as well.
  • Research.  The research portion of the paper should actually form the bulk of this process.  It will take time so assign the paper several weeks ahead and check in on your child’s progress from time to time.
  • Write.  Your child should make an outline (that they turn in to you) that contains their thesis statement and major points.  Once you have gone over the outline with them, have them write a rough draft that does not include the footnotes and bibliography.  After reviewing the rough draft with them, have them write their second draft with footnotes and bibliography.  Review again, then have them polish it and turn in their final draft.
  • Cite.  Make sure they know the use and purpose of footnotes.  Review the “Chicago Manual of Style Citation Guide” to ensure they are properly citing their sources.


Co-authored by Renae Hintze

It’s a beautiful sunny day, you had a big delicious breakfast, and you show up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for your first class of the day. Just as you’re getting comfortable in your chair, your teacher hits you with it:

A 5-page, size 12 font research paper… due in 2 weeks. 

The sky goes black, your breakfast turns to a brick in your stomach. A research paper? FIVE pages long? Why???

Maybe I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But not all of us are born gifted writers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of us struggle a little or a lot with writing a research paper.

But fear not!! I can help you through it. If you follow these 11 steps I promise you will write a better essay, faster.

1. Start early

We all do it. We wait until the LAST day to start an assignment, and then something goes wrong at the LAST minute, and Woops! We get a bad grade. 

ALWAYS start your essays early. This is what I recommend. Especially since writing a research paper requires more effort than a regular paper might.

I have a 3-week timeline you can follow when writing a research paper. YES, 3 weeks!! It may sound like waaay too early to start, but it gives you enough time to:

  1. Outline and write your paper
  2. Check for errors
  3. Get pointers from your teacher on what to improve 

All of this = a better grade on your assignment. You’re already going through all the effort — why not be positive that you’ll get the best results??

2. Read the Guidelines

Ever taken a shirt out of the dryer to find it has shrunk 10 sizes too small? 

It’s because the shirt probably wasn’t meant to go in the dryer, and if you had read the tag, you’d have saved yourself one whole article of clothing!

Before you even START on writing a research paper, READ THE GUIDELINES.

  • What is your teacher looking for in your essay? 
  • Are there any specific things you need to include? 

This way, you don’t have to finish your essay only to find that it needs to be re-done!

3. Brainstorm research paper topics

Sometimes we’re assigned essays where we know exactly what we want to write about before we start.

Write an essay on my favorite place to travel?? I know where I’M going to choose!

But there are probably more times where we DON’T know exactly what we want to write about, and we may even experience writer’s block.

To overcome that writer’s block, or simply avoid it happening in the first place, we can use a skill called mind-mapping (or brainstorming) to come up with a topic that is relevant and that we’re interested in writing about!

Here’s an example of a mind-map I just did for Influential People!

By writing whatever came to my mind and connecting those thoughts, I was able to come up with quite a few influential people to write about — I could come up with EVEN MORE if I kept writing!!

See here I can choose to write about Hillary Clinton and how she may have an influence on women and women’s rights in society.

Following this method, you can determine your own research paper topics to write about in a way that’s quick and painless.

4. Write out your questions

To get the BEST research, you have to ask questions. Questions on questions on questions. The idea is that you get to the root of whatever you are talking about so you can write a quality essay on it.

Let’s say you have the question: “How do I write a research paper?” 

Can you answer this without more information?

Not so easy, right? That’s because when you “write a research paper”, you do a lot of smaller things that ADD UP to “writing a research paper”.

Break your questions down. Ask until you can’t ask anymore, or until it’s no longer relevant to your topic. This is how you can achieve quality research.

5. Do the research

It IS a research paper, after all. But you don’t want to just type all your questions into Google and pick the first source you see. Not every piece of information on the internet is true, or accurate. 

Here’s a way you can easily check your sources for credibility: Look for the who, what, and when.


  • Who is the author of the source? 
  • What are they known for? 
  • Do they have a background in the subject they wrote about? 
  • Does the author reference other sources?
  • Are those sources credible too?


  • What does the “Main” or “Home” page of a website look like?
  • Is it professional looking? 
  • Is there an organization sponsoring the information, and do they seem legitimate
  • Do they specialize in the subject? 


  • When was the source generated — today, last week, a month, a year ago?
  • Has there been new or additional information provided since this information was published?

Double-check all your sources this way. Because this is a research paper, your writing is meaningless without other sources to back it up.

Keep track of your credible sources!

When you find useful information from a credible source, DON’T LET IT GO. You need to save the original place you found that information from so that you can cite it in your essay, and later on in the bibliography.

You don’t want to have to go back later and dig up the information a second time just to list the source you got it from!

To help with this, you may be familiar with the option to “Bookmark” your pages online — do this for online sources.

There IS another tool you can use to keep track of your sources. It’s called Diigo, and it’s what we use at Student-Tutor to build an online database of valuable educational resources!

You can create a Diigo account and one free group for your links. Check out this video on how to use Diigo to save all your sources in one convenient location.

Now, of course there are other ways besides the Internet to get information, and there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a well-written book to enrich your essay’s content!

Ways to get information when writing a research paper

  • The Internet
  • Books
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Journals
  • Interviews

6. Create a Thesis Statement

How to write a thesis statement is something that a lot of people overlook. That’s a mistake.

The thesis statement is part of your research paper outline but deserves its own step. That’s because the thesis statement is SUPER important! It is what sets the stage for the entire essay. 

How do you write a thesis statement? 

Here’s a color-coded example: 

7. Create an outline

Once you have constructed your thesis, the rest of the outline is pretty simple. It should mimic the structure of your thesis!

Here’s a color-coded research paper outline you can follow:

8. Write your research paper

Here it is — the dreaded writing. But see how far we’ve already come? 

We already know what we’re going to write about, and where we’re going to write it. That’s a lot easier than taking a pen straight to your paper and hoping for some magical, monk-like inspiration to come, am I right?

As you write, be sure to pin-point the places where you are inserting sources. I’ll talk about in-text citations in just a moment!

Here are some basic tips for writing your essay from International Student:

  • Generally, don’t use “I/My” unless it’s a personal narrative
  • Use specific examples to support your statements
  • Vary your language — don’t use the same adjective 5 times in a row

9. Cite your sources

This goes along with the second step — make sure to check your essay guidelines and find out BEFOREHAND what kind of citation style your teacher wants you to use.

Like I promised earlier, Purdue University has a great article that provides instructions on and examples on how to cite different types of sources WITHIN your text. Reference this when you’re not sure what to do.

As a general rule of thumb, in-text citations usually go AFTER the sentence drawing from the source, but BEFORE the period of that sentence, in parentheses. If more than one sentence is referencing the same source, try to place it at the last of those sentences.

However, no matter what you cite INSIDE your writing, all the sources you use for the paper need to be included in your bibliography.

This goes on a separate page, after your main essay and may be titled “Works Cited” or “Bibliography”. (Make sure to check the guidelines, and ask your teacher!)

For this, I’m going to introduce you to an awesome, totally free citation tool called EasyBib.

Important Tip: Make sure that when you use EasyBib, you are filling in a template provided by EasyBib and NOT asking EasyBib to pull information directly from the source. EasyBib can’t always find information that is there, and your citation will be incomplete without it!

By selecting “Manual Cite”, EasyBib will provide you with a template for filling in the necessary information to create your citation.

You can then ask EasyBib to generate the source in the citation format you’ve selected. Copy and paste that source into your bibliography — easy!

10. Read your essay

Why do I need to read my essay if I wrote it? 

You’d be surprised what you’ll catch the second, third, and bazillionth time around reading your own writing! Not that you have to read THIS a bazillion times… just once or twice over will do.

I recommend that you read your essay once-through, and the second time read it aloud. Reading your essay aloud reinforces your words and makes it easier to recognize when something is phrased strangely, or if you are using a word too often.

11. Have someone else read your essay

Lastly it is always important that someone else besides you read your essay before you submit it.

Find a professional who can give you constructive feedback on how to improve your essay — this may be a tutor or a teacher. It can also be someone who specializes in the subject you are writing about.

The absolute BEST person to review your essay would be the teacher that assigned it to you.

And yes, many teachers WILL read the essay they assigned before it is due and give you pointers on how to make it better. They want you to succeed and they’re the ones grading it — I think it’s safe to say they know what they’re talking about!


For most of us, writing a research paper is no walk in the park. Unfortunately, it’s important that you know how to do it!

Let’s review the steps to make this process as PAINLESS as possible:

  1. Start early — 3 weeks in advance!
  2. Read the guidelines
  3. Mind map/Brainstorm research paper topics
  4. Write out your questions
  5. Do the research (Remember to keep track of your sources!)
  6. Create a Thesis Statement
  7. Create an outline
  8. Write your essay
  9. Cite your sources (In-text and in your bibliography)
  10. Read your essay (twice and once aloud!)
  11. Have someone ELSE read your essay — try your teacher first.

Do you have experience writing a research paper? What process did you use, and was it effective? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Hello! My name is Todd. I help students eliminate academic stress, boost confidence, and reach their wildest dreams through college tips and digital age knowledge they are not teaching in school. I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. Currently, I am traveling across America delivering presentations, rock climbing, adventuring, and helping inspire the leaders of tomorrow. Let's become friends! Follow my journey via my YouTube Vlog for inspirational value added tips!

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