Strategy Guide

Promoting Student-Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper

8 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Inquiry-Based Learning

About this Strategy Guide

The sense of curiosity behind research writing gets lost in some school-based assignments.  This Strategy Guide provides the foundation for cultivating interest and authority through I-Search writing, including publishing online.

Research Basis

The cognitive demands of research writing are numerous and daunting.  Selecting, reading, and taking notes from sources; organizing and writing up findings; paying attention to citation and formatting rules.  Students can easily lose sight of the purpose of research as it is conducted in “the real world”—finding the answer to an important question.

The I-Search (Macrorie, 1998) empowers students by making their self-selected questions about themselves, their lives, and their world the focus of the research and writing process.  The strong focus on metacognition—paying attention to and writing about the research process methods and extensive reflection on the importance of the topic and findings—makes for meaningful and purposeful writing.

Online publication resources such as blogging software make for easy production of multimodal, digital writing that can be shared with any number of audiences.


Assaf, L., Ash, G., Saunders, J. and Johnson, J.  (2011).  "Renewing Two Seminal Literacy Practices: I-Charts and I-Search Papers."  English Journal, 18(4), 31-42.

Lyman, H.  (2006).  “I-Search in the Age of Information.”  English Journal, 95(4), 62-67.

Macrorie, K. (1998).  The I-Search Paper: Revised Edition of Searching Writing.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook.

Strategy in Practice

  • Before introducing the I-Search paper, set clear goals and boundaries for the assignment.  In some contexts, a completely open assignment can be successful.  In others, a more limited focus such as research on potential careers (e.g., Lyman, 2006)  may be appropriate.
  • Introduce the concept of the I-Search by sharing with students that they will be learning about something that is personally interesting and significant for them—something they have the desire to understand more about.  Have students generate a list of potential topics.
  • Review student topic lists and offer supportive feedback—either through written comments or in individual conferences—on the topics that have the most potential for success given the scope of the assignment and the research resources to which students will have access.
  • After offering feedback, have students choose the topic that seems to have the most potential and allow them to brainstorm as many questions as they can think of.  When students have had plenty of time to ponder the topic, ask them to choose a tentative central question—the main focus for their inquiry—and four possible sub-questions—questions that will help them narrow their research in support of their main question.  Use the I-Search Chart to help students begin to see the relationships among their inquiry questions.
  • Begin the reflective component of the I-Search right away and use the I-Search Chart to help students  write about why they chose the topic they did, what they already know about the topic, and what they hope to learn from their research.  Students will be please to hear at this point that they have already completed a significant section of their first draft.
  • Share with students the main components of a finished I-Search project:
    • The Search Story
      • Engage reader’s attention and interest; explain why learning more about this topic was personally important for you.
      • Explain what you already knew about the topic before you even started researching.
      • Let readers know what you wanted to learn and why.  State your main question and the subquestions that support it.
      • Retrace your research steps by describing the search terms and sources you used.  Discuss things that went well and things that were challenging.
      • Share with readers the “big picture” of your most significant findings.
    • Search Results
      • Describe your results and give support.
      • Use findings statements to orient the reader and develop your ideas with direct quotations, paraphrases, and summaries of information from your sources.
      • Properly cite all information from sources.
    • Search Reflections
      • Discuss what you learned from your research experience.  How might your experience and what you learned affect your choices or opportunities in the future.
  • At this point, the research process might be similar to that of a typical research project except students should have time during every class period to write about their process, questions they’re facing, challenges they’ve overcome, and changes they’ve made to their research process.  Students will not necessarily be able to look ahead to the value of these reflections, so take the time early in the process to model what reflection might look like and offer feedback on their early responses.  You may wish to use the I-Search Process Reflection Chart to help students think through their reflections at various stages of the process.
  • Support students as they engage in the research and writing process, offering guidance on potential local contacts for interviews and other sources that can heighten their engagement in the authenticity of the research process.
  • To encourage effective organization and synthesis of information from multiple sources, you may wish to have students assign a letter to each of their questions (A through E, for example) and a number to each of their sources (1 through 6, for example).  As they find content that relates to one of their questions, they can write the corresponding letter in the margin.  During drafting, students can use the source numbers as basic citation before incorporating more sophisticated, conventional citation.
  • The I-Search is easy to take online with a basic multi-page blog template on a hosting site such as Wordpress.  Preview ReadWriteThink resources on blogging, including Strategy Guides and Lesson Plans such as:
  • Use the post on the main page for the Search Story and individual pages for the write-ups of findings, reflections, and Works Cited.  Students can take advantage of the affordances of writing in digital environments by embedding images, sound clips, and links to video to enhance their own writing.  Peers can provide feedback on each others’ I-Search through the commenting feature.  Additional performance standards might include: 
    • Web Design
      • Content is placed on appropriate, well-labeled pages.  The pages are linked to one another sensibly (all internal links).
      • Images/video add to the reader’s understanding of the content, are appropriately sized and imbedded, and are properly cited.
      • Text that implies a link should be hyperlinked.  Internal links (to other pages of the blog) stay in the same browser window; External links (to pages off the blog) open in a new browser window.

Related Resources