Ah! The age old English-teacher dilemma! Should I teach MLA, APA, Chicago, or something else? For most teachers, you’ll probably settle on the style that you’re most familiar with from your college experience. Still, this might mean that students will be learning one style in your classroom and a different style in another classroom. This can be very frustrating and confusing for students! Just when they’ve memorized one style, they have to learn another. Learning documentation is a skill that every student must learn during their middle school and high school education.
The good news is there is a simple solution to this seemingly complex problem! Rather than teaching a specific documentation style, just teach documentation! Let me explain: First of all, documentation styles are constantly changing, so even when you’ve mastered teaching MLA, you’ll have to adjust as the documentation style changes. This might seem like a scheme to get you to buy the new manual every few years, but really it’s a reflection of how language and research change over time. Once you’ve accepted that you’re going to have to adapt yearly, you can re-frame the way you teach your students. Because let’s face it, memorizing a documentation style isn’t a great use of time in the classroom and just because they memorize it doesn’t mean they understand it and will be able to apply it.
Instead, teach your students why documentation is necessary, why do different documentation styles exist (hint: it has to do with the task), and how to access the information when you need it. In this post, I’m going to answer these questions for you, so that you can answer them for your students!
Explain Why Documentation Is Necessary
Plagiarism, duh! Of course, a major part of documentation is that we want to avoid plagiarism because I explain to my students, there are very real consequences for plagiarism even if it’s by accident. If you want to really convince them, pull up your school’s plagiarism policy and search some plagiarism policies for colleges and universities, which tend to be even stricter. Here is Harvard’s policy for example.
Aside from the fear element and much more importantly, I want my students to understand the reason we use documentation is to strengthen our writing, add credibility, and show our readers where to find more evidence.
Explain Why Different Documentation Styles Exist
Depending on the writing task, you can focus specifically on one aspect over another. For example, when my students are writing arguments, they should document credible outside sources to build their credibility and appeal to their audiences’ logic.
This brings up an important point: different writing tasks draw on different reasons for using sources. This means that different documentation styles are created specifically for different writing tasks. Click here to read about the different documentation styles and how I frame them in the classroom.
Teach Students the Resources to Find the Documentation Style They Need
The ultimate gift you can give students is the knowledge and skills to find what they need when they need it! This type of empowerment is particularly important as they become writers across different disciplines. So, rather than asking them to memorize specific documentation styles, teach them to use the resources available to them.
At this point, it’s important for me to admit that, though I am most comfortable with APA because it’s how I document my research in education, I am not an expert in APA, and I don’t desire to ever become one! Who wants to memorize all of that? Instead, I am an expert in the resources available to me, and I am confident that I can document anything correctly given the time and access to the internet.
Here are the resources I share with students:
- Purdue Owl: This website has everything you need to learn about documentation styles! It includes up-to-date information on formatting bibliographies, writing citations, and formatting an essay. Once students learn to navigate this website, they can use it as a reference to cite any source.
- My Bib Chrome Extension: I have this extension, and I use it often! It generates a bibliography for any website. It’s not always perfect, so I cross reference it with Purdue Owl, but it’s a time saver!
- Easy Bib and Citation Machine: These two websites provide auto-generated citations and bibliographies. Some of the styles are free and others aren’t, so I prefer Purdue Owl, but it’s a good starting point. Again, it’s important to remind students that they should always cross reference to check the accuracy.
- Google Docs: Google Docs has a built in citation option for APA, MLA, and Chicago. This is very convenient if your school uses the Google Education Suite. Go to Tools > Citations to access this option.
- Google Scholar: This is one of my best tips! If you’re citing scholarly research, you can look up the source on Google Scholar and cite it right from the search results! You usually can do this with other databases too!
Once I’ve introduced students to the resources, I give them a breakout/escape challenge that require them to use the resources. This is so much more effective than me going over notes on MLA in a slide show (passive learning). They’re actively using the resources and learning how to apply them (active learning)! I like letting them work in groups so that they can work together to solve challenges. Plus, this frees me up to be able to work with them one-on-one or in small groups. You can download this fun engaging activity complete with MLA and APA options and a teacher’s guide for free below:
If you’re interested in more information on teaching writing, download my free writing guide: