Steps & Strategies for Developing Research Skills in the IB PYP

Research. The ability to help ourselves to find an answer to a question or the solution to a problem.

This potential to find answers for ourselves is a skill that  includes the ability to decide specifically what we want to know, to find information about a topic, evaluate that information,  analyse and interpret the information  and then put it all together in a way that brings us answers and solutions for ourselves. This is a skill that we want our students to develop.

Developing research skills includes explicit teaching of the skill, leading to implicit practice. This resource does exactly that with task cards targeting the research sub-skills.[/caption] The research sub- skills that our IB PYP students need, right from the earliest years include:

  • Observing
  • Formulating questions
  • Media literacy
  • Sourcing data
  • Evaluating sources
  • Analysing & interpreting data
  • Synthesising
  • Reflecting
  • Presenting

We want to ensure that the children's research inquiries are structured in such a way that will introduce strategies and guide and support the children as they experience and develop those independent inquiry skills as an authentic part of their programme of inquiry. This is where we begin by explicitly teaching research skills. The same skills taught throughout the PYP look very different as we progress through the Primary Years Programme, progressively  building upon them and extending the autonomy of our young researchers. I use multiple resources to develop research skills throughout the year. It is an on-going part of embedding the Approaches to Learning Skills into our daily practice.  You can link to many of the resources mentioned by clicking on the images or the direct links. I prefer to build upon the sub-skills, adding to them as we go. Dont  worry about overlap of the skills. Remember that the ATL sub skills are interconnected and interdependent. This allows us to plan for specific and explicit teaching of certain skills across the Programme of Inquiry that will build upon other skills. (Example: Think about , sorting information, skimming and scanning for information as part of thinking skills AND research skills.) For the sake of simplicity, here are 5 steps  I generally use to tackle developing research skills.

  1. Observational Skills- Looking closely, looking slowly, close reading, inferring
  2. Questioning Skills- Formulating questions , developing higher level questions, formulating conceptual questions, hypothesising, optimising research
  3. Media Literacy- Understanding sources of information, evaluating reliability of sources, understanding primary & secondary sources, academic honesty
  4. Analysing Information - Critical thinking, evaluating reliability of sources, close reading, questioning, going further, conceptual understanding
  5. Recording the Research - note-taking, synthesising data, drawing conclusions, reflecting and communicating findings

As I explain each step, I also provide examples for putting it into practice. You can choose to read the entire article or scroll to the steps you're most interested with, for practical suggestions to take away.

1.Observational Skills: Observing closely, slow looking, going beyond the surface. Learning to reflect on what they see and drawing conclusions based on inductive and deductive reasoning.

Putting It Into Practice:

  • Try this - The simplest way is with pictures and objects. The power of simple images and objects can take us into the realms of our metacognition (thinking skills)  that will bring depth to their awareness of everything around them. We are developing thinkers and inquirers and this is where it begins - thinking about our thinking.

I created these concept discussion mats as a tools to support development of the ATL Skills to kick start the inquiry. Whilst tuning into the additional concepts, the children are implicitly putting those observation skills into practice, together, of course with critical thinking & communication skills. The kids are SO engaged! 

  • Take the time to practice observing - looking slowly, using all senses in
    Multi sensory experiences build observation skills.
  • observation - providing multi-sensory experiences to develop this skills. Move onto first thoughts and second thoughts, adding to the initial observations.
  • Practicing close reading skills:  The children can practice annotating what they observed    ( metacognition) as they were reading,  identifying language patterns, things that don't make sense to them, logical reasoning and things that they wonder.
  • Explicit teaching time: I created these task cards explicitly for developing research skills with the kids. They touch on observational skills as well as the other sub-skills and are fantastic for collaborative thinking activities. You can click through to the resource in my store to get a closer look.
  • Task cards that are perfect for explicit practice with research skills. Easy to integrate into ANY unit of inquiry, as a collaborative group activity and as stations.

2. Questioning Skills: Developing the ability to inquire, to ask questions, formulating higher level questions, conceptual questions and refining inquiries to optimise  research results

IBPYP Developing Questioning Skills

These have been great resources for helping my students build their understanding of how to move through a provocation. — Evalina E.

Putting It Into Practice: 

  • Question words: I begin with the question words. (who, what, where, why, when) This may sound obvious. But let’s not underestimate the basics. You can use this simple strategy across all ages.
  • IBPYP PROVOCATION QUESTION CARDS Questioning skills are a key part of developing the IB PYP ATL Thinking Skills.
  • Thinking Sticks. They can be used to teach the question words, especially useful for the youngest children and those learning English but also to guide the children’s thinking so that their focus will only be on question words that begin with those words. “Let’s think ONLY about WHAT questions.” This works well with ANY provocation – For example, if you have an artefact on display, then have the children consider only one type of question at a time. This can then be used to create a simple bank of questions, categorized by the question word. These Thinking Sticks are great for helping the children to see how each question word can change the direction of the inquiry. Example:
    • What is the colour of the sky?
    • How did the sky change colour?
    • Why did the sky change colour? 
    If you have older children who are more able to analyse and sort the questions, then you can have them try to sort the questions in several ways:
    • Use the questions to look and then look again at something. Example: Which questions would work for the beginning of the picture book? The end of the picture book?
  • This video offers a lot more practical ideas for developing inquirers.
  • Optimising Research: I've found that children often enter a broad search term, say, “ migration” and then they search through pages and pages of results that aren’t related to their research ( consider the vast difference between migration of geese and migration of Europeans between 1600-present day)
  • Try this:  Give small groups three search terms each, ranging from the broadest to the specific- example: MIGRATION - MIGRATION OF BIRDS - MIGRATION OF HUMMINGBIRDS . Have each group record how many results they get for each term. Reflect on this and discuss how being specific with our search terms can narrow their search to the results that they need. You can then challenge each group to come up with three different search terms for the most specific item on their lists. For example: MIGRATION OF BIRDS could try " Destinations of migrating birds" or " How far do migrating birds fly?  Yellowstone?”) Have the children compare their results and reflect on how changing words in their search can generate different information.

3. Media Literacy:  Developing an awareness of media sources. Where do we find information? Understanding the form and function of a document, primary versus secondary sources, evaluating our sources and recording our sources.

Putting It Into Practice:

  • By providing explicit teaching time to understanding where to find information and the form and function of different documents and sources of information, we are giving the children the directions to seek answers for themselves. Begin with tangible sources before moving into databases and web searches :
  •  -identifying/ sorting fiction versus non-fiction sources
  •  -compare and contrast pictures versus diagrams,
  • -scavenger hunt for data sources
  •  -exploring and analysing charts, graphs, maps.
  • Provide a list of safe websites for easy, guided searches. As the children move up the school, look at primary sources versus secondary sources, how to do web searches and use databases. 

Developing IB PYP Research Skills Primary & Secondary Sources This is a great tool that provides a week-long workshop for analysing primary & secondary sources.[/caption] Try this: This is a fake website that provides material for a perfect learning experience on how to carefully evaluate web sources and double check reliability.  What clues do we look for in reliable sites? How can we double check our information?

Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus can be used in many different ways and for all ages. It's fun! I would advise structuring this learning experience rather than simply allowing the kids to explore freely.

4. Analysing Information: Evaluating reliability of sources, critical thinking, questioning further, making connections, drawing conclusions, conceptual understanding. The chart below was from PYP1 as they used their provocation question and chart as a source for developing questions through analysis of the data that transpired. 

Putting it Into Practice: 

 Web search skills: I prefer to begin this as a whole class lesson, modelling the search. We discuss the key points  for evaluating a website, work with partners to evaluate a whole class (pre-planned) web search done using our Smartboard interactive screens and search for the following key points to determine reliability of our sources:

  • Ads. - Is the website advertising something?
  • Current -Is the information up to date?,
  • Authority -Is the website coming from a trusted expert?
  • Extent - Is the website providing in-depth information? Or is it too advanced?
  • Try this - The Critical Thinking Chart:  Working in small groups, the children were given a search term and then they had to find a website that met those key points and another example of a  site that did not meet those key points. They then evaluated the content of those those two sites ( safely) and compared the results. A verbal summary from each group, reflecting on the effectiveness of their sample sites was shared with the class. We created a chart of our findings to use as a reference tool.  During research projects, I encouraged the children  to check the key points on our chart for each of the sources they use.
  • Going Further & Adding Depth :This is where the children go beyond simply scratching the surface of their research. My experience, and what I hear from other teachers, is that the children have a tendency to stop when they have found the first source of information. They don't check their sources, question their sources or add to their inquiry.
  • Try this: Invite the children to go beyond page 1  while researching on the web. Many students only check top 2 or 3 sites. What can they find as they move past page 1? Reflect on the value and validity of the content beyond page 1 of the search engine.
  • Create a FACT TREE:  This is basically a graphic organiser that is used to track and record the data found from the research. The starting question is going to be the root of the tree — for example, “How successful was the Roman Empire? (as revolutionaries?)” Then, on the branches growing from the tree, the children will write the facts/data that provide answers to the question along with the source.  Younger children can use books, databases, encyclopedias etc. gathered by the teacher. Older children can use a web search using safe sites, databases etc. The challenge is that each fact must come from a separate source.  You can encourage the children to find at least a set number of sources of information to complete their fact trees.


Introduce the FACT TREE as whole class lesson then it becomes a strategy for the children to use independently.

 5.Recording Our Discoveries:  synthesising information, note taking, summarising their findings and presenting their discoveries. This is the part that the children LOVE! Slowing them down and helping them work through each of the steps is important to the quality of their research and the standard of their results. At the same time, we have to find that balance so that research becomes something that can be enjoyed.  This chart is a great reference tool for the children to self-evaluate the completion of their research.

Putting it into Practice

  • Note taking: Beginning with visible thinking routines and graphic organisers, we explicitly provide the children with tools that structure and guide their thinking. I suggest that you stick to only 2-3 thinking routines until  the children become familiar with those strategies and will begin to select them or create them for themselves.

I have a couple of great resources that brings ALL of those research skills together for big kids and also for little kids. The lower grades resources are presented as complete mini inquiries. Take a look at those early years tools here.

This bundle provides explicit instruction as the children learn to formulate conceptual questions, identify the big ideas of their inquiry and supports multiple techniques for sourcing, evaluating, NOTE-TAKING, sorting and recording data.

IBPYP Developing Research Skills Bundle This is a complete bundle for developing RESEARCH SKILLS. There are many different resources out there that you can use or even create your own versions to suit your students.

If youre looking for ready-made, ready-to-go, Lidia at The Art of Inquiry has a great selection too. You can link to her store here.   You can find a great selection of research-based graphic organisers at The Art of Inquiry. 

    Next week, I shall be sharing the tools that I use for on-going development of research skills and how they connect with the rest of the Approaches to Learning Skills. If you just cant wait and would like to see those tools now, you can find them in my store here. Just search RESEARCH and they will pop up. 



P.S. If you'd like to know more about embedding the IBPYP Approaches to Learning Skills, you can read about it in these articles too. 


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