Teaching Citation Use for Common Core

Flip Citation Teaching; put bibliographies lastAs the Common Core State Standards require students as young as upper elementary school to cite sources they use, it’s imperative that teachers in all disciplines at all academic levels understand what citing involves.

I remember with distaste faculty workshops which seemed to assume students who memorized the correct APA format for a bibliography entry for a chapter with five authors in the third edition of an edited book would never be guilty of plagiarism.

That assumption didn’t hold up for even one week.

Nor did having my college students use online programs like BibMe, Citation Machine, or EasyBib prove any more successful.

The reason: Bibliography creation is only marginally related to appropriate citation use.

Functions of citations

  1. They mark information the writer/speaker borrowed from others
  2. They give readers/listeners a place to find the borrowed information in its original context.

It is far more important that students learn to do the first task well than that they are comma-perfect at the second.

I’ve never heard of anyone being accused of plagiarism for an incorrectly formatted bibliographic entry. It’s in-text citations that present problems.

Identify the source

When the Common Core developers say students need to cite sources, they are using the word cite in its everyday sense of naming or pointing out. In a news story, a student cited for skill in science is pointed out by name and perhaps by other distinguishing characteristics, such as “the daughter of Charles and Mary Zamanger.”  The citation is written into the story, not pasted into a bibliography at the end.

Asking students to cite the source of information is a formal way of asking, “Who says that?”  Notice that is not enough to specify in a bibliography or even in the body of the paper that information came from “our science book” or the BigIdeaSite.com. The writer must identify — cite — the person (or people) who are the authors of our science book or BigIdeaSite.com.

Deliminate borrowing

The most important characteristic of a citation is that it indicates clearly where borrowed information begins and ends. Most plagiarism I find in my students’ papers arises from their failure to keep their ideas clearly separate from the ideas of others.

Students as young as elementary school can be taught maintain the integrity of the source’s information when they write using the same techniques they use when they speak: nouns, pronouns, and summaries. English speakers typically specify a source and then summarize what the source says. We don’t typically add our own commentary on the information until after we’ve finished relating with what the source said.

A elementary student might say something like this:

My mother  says we have to go to my sister’s dance recital Saturday. I  think dance recitals are stupid.

Notice the speaker cites her mother in the sentence but shifts very easily to identify herself as the source of the idea in the second sentence. If she were taught to follow that same pattern in her writing, the same elementary student might write something like this:

Jeananda Col, who writes Zoom Dinosaurs, saysdinosaurs lived from 248 million to 65 million years ago during the The Mesozoic Era. She says the earth was warmer then. I  wish I lived then  so I could of taken photos of them with my cell phone.

That’s not brilliant writing, but it does in fourth-grade fashion what the Common Core State Standards demand: It cites the source and makes clear which ideas are from the source and which are the writer’s own. All the online citation tools in the world are worthless if students cannot perform those two tasks when using unquoted summary from sources.

If my college students had been able to do as well, I’d have had far fewer plagiarism reports to file.