Check out the good, the bad, and the ugly with MLA format as well as resources that can help you teach MLA formatting in your ELA classroom!
I LOVE TEACHING SOURCE CITING IN MLA FORMAT!
There, I said it!
I know…who loves to cite sources? Pretty much no one…except me, but there is something about the process of it that I find very simplistic in nature. As an English teacher, you know that there are a lot of gray areas…a lot of subjectivity in grading and writing.
Formatting and citing sources are rather black and white as opposed to the other areas of our content.
Often when teaching MLA format, my students would ask their normal LARGE amount of questions…
- Student: “Why do I have to have a page number in the top right corner?”
- Me: “Because you have to.”
- Student: “Why does the heading have to be in that order.”
- Me: “Because it does.”
- Student: “Why does my text have to be double spaced?”
- Me: “Because it has to be.”
Ha! It can be very frustrating for some of my students…the ones who don’t typically like to pay attention to detail. However, many others appreciate the specific format.
Now, I could go into great detail as to WHY each piece of information is put into each area of the paper, but I have found over time that students simply don’t care. Ha! This is the bad part of MLA format. Often, students don’t feel a connection to the formatting style and “real life”. However, I emphasize over and over again that they will in fact have to use MLA, APA, or other formatting styles A LOT in upper-level high school and college courses, and it is best to learn it now!
Depending on the age you teach, formatting expectations may be varied. This is definitely the ugly part of formatting…it is not overly specific about which formatting details should be learned at which ages.
For example, the W8 standard for 7th grade states:
- Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
The W8 standard for 11th-12th grade states:
- Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.
There isn’t a lot of clarification in either of these as to HOW MUCH formatting is required. Do 7th graders need to perfect in-text citations? Or can they just hyperlink? Do all freshmen need to know how to format a paper from start to finish? Or is there a little more wiggle room until they are juniors and seniors?
There isn’t a lot of help in this department, so you will want to work with your ELA core team to stairstep the process from middle school through high school. It is imperative that students know how to format by then. (Check out this post which discusses how to use standards like the writing standards above to drive your curriculum.)
In my opinion, students should start early. I started teaching formatting in 7th grade because I feel like the more exposure students have with it, the better.
If you are looking for QUICK AND EASY help when it comes to teaching citations and MLA format, feel free to jump to the resources at the bottom of this post!
When it is time to teach MLA Format (or any other formatting for that matter), break down the lesson into three sections:
- Paper Format
- In-text Citations
- Works Cited Page
PART ONE: PAPER FORMAT
The best way to teach proper formatting is to walk your students through setting up the paper. Throw a Google Doc up on the screen, and have students format their own documents in front of them while you demonstrate on the screen. Clarify the small things.
For example, show them how to right justify in the header section and inform them to write their last names followed by one space followed by the page number. Explain that they must INSERT the page number so that it changes with each page. When students ask why there has to be exactly one space between the last name and the page number, simply say “Because it does.”
Students need to know that there is a very specific way to format. Just like a book, there is a place where every piece of information needs to go. Formatting is all about the little details and students need to learn to pay attention to the little things.
After the initial demonstration, require this formatting set-up for each writing piece over the next few weeks if not longer. It will be monotonous and you may get a few groans, but this entire process speeds up over time because students learn quickly when it is practiced day in and day out.
PART TWO: IN-TEXT CITATIONS
Each in-text citation must have a tag, direct or indirect quotation, and proper punctuation. However, the author can choose to put the tag in front of the quotation, behind the quotation, or in the middle of the quotation. For example:
- John Gables, a professor at Mason University states, “Although it can be inconvenient, all people should wash their hands for at least fifteen seconds before and after they eat.”
- “Although it can be inconvenient, all people should wash their hands for at least fifteen seconds before and after they eat,” states John Gables, professor at Mason University.
- “Although it can be inconvenient,” John Gables, professor at Mason University, states, “all people should wash their hands for at least fifteen seconds before and after they eat.”
Notice, all three of the citations use the same information but are simply put in a different order. Students can choose which order to use (and should use a variety in writing), but once they understand the three options above, the rest is about punctuation.
Start slow with this stage. Require students to write one paragraph with one citation using proper punctuation and then edit, edit, EDIT! Make sure the punctuation is perfect. If students can’t get this part right in one paragraph, they won’t be able to do it well throughout an entire paper.
Once students have mastered the formatting for one quotation, require a paragraph with both a direct quotation and indirect quotation.
Then move on to three quotations…all with different tagging variations. The more practice students get, the better they will be!
If you are looking for help when it comes to teaching in-text citations, check out the resources at the bottom of this article which cover different areas of MLA formatting!
PART THREE: WORKS CITED PAGE
One of the biggest problems with teaching the works cited page is that many teachers go directly to citation generators online. Sites like Citation Machine and Easybib provide quick, but often incorrect citations. The platform often recommends adding more information to each citation, but students don’t know how to find the information in each resource to finish the citations. Therefore, the entries they generate are wrong.
Instead of jumping straight into citation generators, start slow!
I like to take out the old hard-copy manual that I used in college and slowly walk students through the process of finding citation information. (If you still have one of these manuals, make sure it is an updated version. Lol.)
I typically use a textbook or book that all my students have for this process.
- “Okay students, the first item in a Works Cited entry is the author’s last name and first initial. Where can we find the author of this textbook?”
I then allow all students time to go looking for the author. Once we find it, we write down the name as it would be written in a Works Cited entry.
- “Next, we are going to find the title. Where do we find the title?”
The title is an easy one, but I think you get the gist of what is going on here. Students have to find each piece of information in the textbook provided. The full citation entry should look like this.
- Author. Title. Title of container, Other contributors (translators or editors), Version (edition), Number (vol. and/or no.), Publisher, Publication Date, Location (pages, paragraphs URL or DOI). 2nd container’s title, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication date, Location, Date of Access (if applicable).
In all honesty, I usually make this process slow and painful. Ha! It makes it that much more exciting later when they are allowed to use a citation generator.
After we complete the citation for the textbook, I have them create a citation entry for the following:
- free reading book
- an online article
- a database article
I have them utilize Purdue Writing Lab to learn how to complete each entry.
Once they are done, and we review to ensure correct information, THEN I allow them to do the same citation entries using a citation generator. Students are always in awe of how fast it is, and they should be!
Once done, I have them compare all the entries as a group. Do their self-generated entries look similar to the online generated entries?
Often, the citation generators have missing information, but students are now able to find the missing information and insert it before generating each citation. They are also able to switch to other formats like APA because they know the information is similar for each style.
Utilize the resources at the bottom of this article if you need help teaching your students how to find citation information online as well as how to create a Works Cited page!
When it comes to MLA format,
It is all about rules. Specific information needs to be in a specific location in a specific way. This is the good part of MLA! Once students learn MLA, they can figure out APA rather easily. Most educational institutions use MLA or APA formatting styles, thus students are set for the rest of their academic careers.
For help and guidance on MLA formatting and citations, check out the resources listed below: