It happens to every student at some point or another. A large research paper or project is assigned, with a due date several weeks or months ahead, and she feels like she has all the time in the world to get it done. But, slowly but surely, the due date approaches. Sometimes students feel too intimidated by the enormity of the task to get started. Others think they can cobble it together at the last minute. But one thing's for sure: to succeed on a long paper assignment, students will need to make a plan, and stick to it!

If your child hasn’t already, he’ll undertake the long paper early in middle school. A “long paper,” which differs structurally from other essays, takes various skills other than writing. His paper could be a multi-sectioned book report, a biography on a U.S. president, or an elaborate project accompanying his science fair entry on homemade stalagmites and stalactites.

In seventh and eighth grade – and throughout high school – the long paper will most likely be a research (or term) paper, which comprises your child's findings from numerous sources on a particular topic, like the Revolutionary War or the history of European film, and can range from five to 20 pages in length (or more, depending on the class).

Regardless of your child’s level and subject matter, the keys to success are the same: sharp planning and research skills, and a whole lot of motivation!

Choosing a Subject:
Your child should leave class knowing exactly what her teacher requires. “Read the assignment over with your child,” says Anne Gronet, a fourth grade teacher at Corte Madera School. “Have them read it several times. If there are parts of the project that aren’t clear, your child needs to check in with his or her teacher.” Then, write the due date and other important deadlines on your family calendar.

After she has a grasp on the topic, she can find her focus. Her topic shouldn't be too broad (a history of the Civil War), and not too narrow (Over-Irrigation and the Collapse of the Mesopotamian Settlement of Mashkan-shapir). Help her brainstorm topics. Next, visit the library together or assist her while surfing the Internet to gauge how much information is out there. After this preliminary research, she picks her subject.

Planning the Paper:
After your child decides what her topic will be, she should immediately plan an outline, or at least have an idea of what kinds of information, and from what books or periodicals, she plans to research. Assist her in creating a schedule, scattered with mini-deadlines over the coming weeks or months.

Your child should work on the paper in increments, promptly after receiving the assignment. “Tell your child that you expect them to work a little each day on the project, and that you will be checking in periodically to find out how they’re doing,” says Gronet. Your child can begin writing even if he hasn’t finished gathering data, and doesn’t have to start at the beginning.

Gathering and Organizing Research:
The hunting and gathering stage may be unpredictable, so suggest these steps:

  • Consider several strong sources over many minor texts (or sources with simply a paragraph or two of relevant data). Otherwise, your child may have trouble keeping track of information.
  • Sift through the behemoth of the Internet, but limit surfing to official sources, including government Web sites, university research pages, or trusted kid sites, like Ask For Kids or BrainPOP. Compare Wikipedia data against recent encyclopedias in the library. Ask your child to bookmark each site he visits so you can check its reliability, and be on the lookout for bogus sources.
  • Write key ideas and supporting details on colored index cards, using colors to separate your ideas. A middle schooler can use pink cards for section I of her outline, or blue for section II, for instance. “In elementary school, the teacher usually provides note-taking sheets or graphic organizers,” says Gronet.
  • Cut the work into fragments. “Have your child split the project into three or four parts,” says Gronet. “For a book report, the first part is reading the book. The second part is writing the rough draft. The third part is editing and writing the final draft.” A research report is similar. Will they be using the Web or encyclopedias? How many times will they need to visit the library? “Survey any resources they will use,” says Gronet. “Allow time to collect materials.”

Documenting Sources:
As the research piles up, your child must know from where it originates. Lost sources make it difficult to find a piece of information again, and may lead to unintentional plagiarism.

  • Compile the bibliography, or “works cited” page, as research is gathered. Don’t wait until the last minute!
  • Photocopy copyright pages or covers of books used. Write down the page numbers to be cited on these sheets, as well as short key phrases of the ideas found in each book.
  • Use different colored Post-its to mark pages, using green to indicate potential information for the introduction, or yellow to denote details for paragraph four of the project, for example.
  • Cut and paste URLs of consulted Web sites onto a Word document to keep track of Internet research.

"Some kids need a great deal of support, while others are more capable and independent," says Gronet. It's best to chat with your child immediately after receiving the project, whether she's in elementary, middle, or high school, to make sure she understands the task. From there, you can assist her appropriately and remind her of deadlines, but also giving her the freedom to hone her sleuthing and organizing skills.