Do Whales Have Teeth?
Supporting Young Researchers

    by Pamela Little

Children have an endless thirst for new information. By the time they reach the second or third grade, they also have school research projects. Helping them find out what they want or need to know requires not only providing quality kid-friendly research tools but also helping children develop research skills.

If your program is fortunate enough to be near a public library, you can take your children there to receive assistance from a trained professional. Most programs, however, must rely on their own resources. Is your program's library ready to help children with their research? You'll need dictionaries, thesauruses, almanacs, at least one set of encyclopedias, atlases, and nonfiction books including biographies. Internet access and computer software are good adjuncts. This issue's Bookshelf recommends age-appropriate reference books and websites.

These research tools won't help, though, if children don't know how to use them! Teaching children how to discover what they need to know builds a lifelong learning skill. One way to facilitate this learning is to introduce children to the process of doing research. The process has five steps:

  1. Planning the research
  2. Searching for information
  3. Taking notes
  4. Analyzing the information
  5. Sharing the information

To illustrate this process, I'll walk you through the steps my son and I took on a recent school research project.

1. Planning

My second grader got broad guidelines from his teacher for a research project on whales. He was free to research any aspect of whales, and he was encouraged to be creative about how he shared the results. He had to use a minimum of two sources.

The first step was to help my son narrow his topic, to figure out what he wanted to know about whales. My son generated a list of questions. The first was, How many different types of whales are there? Then he had a lot of other questions: What are the different parts of a whale's body? Do whales have teeth like sharks? Do they travel in schools like fish? How do whales sleep? Do whales eat people? I had my son write down his main question, about the different types of whales, so he wouldn't get distracted as he did his research.

To see if his prior knowledge could help him refine his question, I had my son list what he already knew about whales. He was sure that whales live in the ocean. He knew that they breathe through a hole on the top of their head; he even knew that whales are mammals. We wrote a list of key words and phrases he could use in his search: beluga whales, humpbacked whales, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, mammals, blowhole, dorsal fin, flipper.

The next step was to create a quest strategy. I asked my son to consider all the possible places where he might find answers to his questions. I knew he wouldn't use all of them, but I wanted him to see how this part of the research process goes. He generated a long list, which we then grouped into four categories:

  • Library: librarian, catalog, reference books, newspapers, encyclopedia
  • Classroom: teacher, textbooks, encyclopedia, software, Internet
  • Experts: marine biologist, oceanographer, whale specialist, authors
  • Home: educational video, TV programs, books, computer, parents

Next, I asked him to make sure he had everything he would need to search for information. He gathered a few pencils, a sharpener, and a notebook. I added his teacher's written guidelines and his list of questions and key words.

2. Searching

First, I wanted to make sure my son knew what he was talking about when he said "Atlantic Ocean." A map, atlas, or globe would have worked, but I thought my second-grader might best visualize using the globe. He successfully pointed out to me the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Our next tool was the Dorling Kindersley Nature Encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is often a good place to start because it covers so many different subjects. I showed my son how the encyclopedia is organized into volumes with subject in alphabetical order. If we'd had trouble finding our subject, we would have used the index volume to find what key word to look up. If we hadn't had a print encyclopedia, we could have used a CD-ROM encyclopedia such as Britannica or Encarta. Children often like the multimedia features of CD-ROM encyclopedias, such as video, sounds, maps, and timelines. There are also online encyclopedias, but institutional subscriptions, the kind afterschool programs would have to purchase, are expensive. Check whether your local public library offers online access to its encyclopedia subscriptions for children with library cards.

Next my son and I turned to a nonfiction book: Do Whales Have Belly Buttons?: Questions and Answers about Whales and Dolphins. I showed my son how to use the table of contents and index to find the precise information he needed without having to browse the whole book. This book told us that there are over 79 known whale species, in two main groups: baleen whales and toothed whales.

We were now back to a planning step. The answer to my son's original question was too simple. Now he wanted to know the differences and similarities between baleen and toothed whales.

So now we turned to the Internet. While printed books usually pass through quality control measures before they make it to market, anyone with a little technical skill and access to a host computer can publish on the Internet. Part of helping children use the Internet effectively involves teaching them to evaluate a site's information. Is the site the work of an expert or an amateur? Is the information being kept current? Is the site trying to sell you something?

My son typed "whales" into the Yahooligans search engine . The first site we visited looked child-friendly and offered a site index. My son pointed and clicked on pictures of whales, which gave him what seemed like solid information about the various species. However, the author of the site turned out to be a computer developer with advanced degrees in science. The most current date was 1997—not exactly up to date—and the site was selling children's software. While these facts didn't mean the site was useless, I sent my son back to Yahooligans for another site. This time we found the website of a nonprofit organization dedicated to marine mammal conservation and education. The content was written by marine biologists and oceanographers. I felt much more confident in the wealth of information my son found here. The site taught him that humpback whales are baleen whales, while belugas are toothed whales. He decided to narrow his research on these two whales, using them as example of the two main groups.

With a little more browsing on this second site and a visit back to the nonfiction book, my son felt he had enough information to start analyzing his information. If the topic had been different, we might have been using other research tools such as almanacs, dictionaries, or biographies.

3. Taking Notes

The note-taking phase is actually concurrent with searching. My son was writing notes in his notebook throughout his search. Older children may use index cards, recording only one piece of information on each card so the cards can be arranged when the student begins to write his or her presentation.

Teaching good note-taking skills could be the subject of another article, but here is one key tip: Tell children not to write down exactly what the book or other resource says but rather to look away from the book, say to themselves what they just read, and then write down the information in their own words. This helps their comprehension and discourages writing down absolutely everything, whether it's related to the research question or not.

4. Analyzing

The analysis also started during the search phase. The steps are recursive; you may start analyzing, or even sharing, and then realize you're missing something and go back to step 2. When my son decided to look at the differences and similarities between the two main groups of whales, I suggested that he use a Venn diagram. He drew a big circle for baleen whales on the left, and another big circle for toothed whales, overlapping the first, on the right. Things that are true of only one kind of whale went in the appropriate circle, while things that are true of all whales went in the space where the circles overlap. For older children, this is where the index cards come in handy. They can arrange the facts they have discovered in piles or rows for different categories of information.

5. Sharing

My son was lucky; he had a choice of how to share what he had learned. Often as not, students are simply told to write a report. But there are lots of fun ways students can share information with other people. They can write stories, letters, a feature article for a magazine, emails, poems, or brochures. They can create plays or videos, drawings, three-dimensional models, games, or songs. They can give a speech or oral report, or even interpret the information in a dance. Tap into children's thirst for learning by making research a process of discovery and by making the final presentation as fun as possible.

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