Last updated January 19 2019.
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How often does this scenario play out in your classroom?
You want your students to go online and do some research for some sort of project, essay, story, presentation etc. Time ticks away, students are busy searching and clicking, but are they finding the useful and accurate information they need for their project?
We’re very fortunate that many classrooms are now well equipped with devices and the internet, so accessing the wealth of information online should be easier than ever, however, there are many obstacles.
Students (and teachers) need to navigate:
- What search terms to put into Google or other search engines
- What search results to click on and read through (while avoiding inappropriate sites!)
- How to determine what information is credible
- How to process, synthesize, evaluate, and present the information
- How to back up research by combining multiple sources of information
- How to cite sources correctly
Phew! No wonder things often don’t turn out as expected when you tell your students to just “google” their topic.
All of these above skills can be said to come under the term of information literacy, which tends to fall under a broader umbrella term of digital literacy.
Being literate in this way is an essential life skill.
This post offers tips and suggestions on how to approach this big topic. Scroll down to find a handy poster for your classroom too.
How to Teach Information Literacy and Research Skills
The topic of researching and filtering information can be broken down in so many ways but I believe the best approach involves:
- Starting young and building on skills
- Embedding explicit teaching and mini-lessons regularly
- Providing lots of opportunity for practice and feedback
- Teachers seeking to improve their own skills (it’s easy to stick with old habits!)
While teaching researching skills is something that could be worked on throughout the year, I liked the idea of starting the year off strongly with a “Research Day” that 7th grade teacher Dan Gallagher wrote about. Dan and his colleagues had their students spend a day rotating around different activities to learn more about research skills. Something to think about!
Google or a Kid-friendly Search Engine?
If you teach young students you might be wondering what the best starting place is.
I’ve only ever used Google with students but I know many teachers like to start with search engines designed for children. If you’ve tried these search engines, I’d love you to add your thoughts in a comment.
Note: If you’re not using a kid-friendly search engine, definitely make sure SafeSearch is activated on Google or Bing. It’s not foolproof but it helps.
Here are three search engines designed for children that look particularly useful:
These sites are powered by Google SafeSearch with some extra filtering/moderating.
KidzSearch contains additional features like videos and image sections to browse. While not necessarily a bad thing, I prefer the simple interface of Kiddle and KidRex for beginners.
Maybe start with no search engine?
Another possible starting point for researching with young students is avoiding a search engine altogether.
Students could head straight to a site they’ve used before (or choose from a small number of teacher suggested sites). There’s a lot to be learned just from finding, filtering, and using information found on various websites.
Five Steps to Teaching Students How to Research and Filter Information
This five-step model might be a useful starting point for your students to consider every time they embark on some research.
Let’s break down each step. You can find a summary poster at the end.
Students first need to take a moment to consider what information they’re actually looking for in their searches.
It can be a worthwhile exercise to add this extra step in between giving a student a task (or choice of tasks) and sending them off to research.
You could have a class discussion or small group conferences on brainstorming keywords, considering synonyms or alternative phrases, generating questions etc. Mindmapping might help too.
Time spent defining the task can lead to a more effective and streamlined research process.
It sounds simple but students need to know that the quality of the search terms they put in the Google search box will determine the quality of their results.
There are a LOT of tips and tricks for Googling but I think it’s best to have students first master the basics of doing a proper Google search.
I recommend consolidating these basics:
- Type in some simple search terms using only the important keywords
- If the initial results aren’t what you want, alter the search terms and get more specific (get clues from the initial search results e.g. you might see synonyms that would work or get ideas from the “People Also Ask” section)
- Use quotation marks if you want your keywords in an exact order, e.g. “raining cats and dogs”
- use your best guess with spelling (Google will often understand)
- don’t worry about punctuation
- understand that everyone’s results will be different, even if they use the same search terms (depending on browser history, location etc.)
Links to learn more about Google searches
There’s lots you can learn about Google searches.
I highly recommend you take a look at 20 Instant Google Searches your Students Need to Know by Eric Curts to learn about “instant searches”.
Med Kharbach has also shared a simple visual with 12 search tips which would be really handy once students master the basics too.
The Google Search Education website is an amazing resource with lessons for beginner/intermediate/advanced plus slideshows and videos. It’s also home to the A Google A Day classroom challenges. The questions help older students learn about choosing keywords, deconstructing questions, and altering keywords.
Useful videos about Google searches
How Search Works
This easy to understand video from Code.org to explains more about how search works.
How Does Google Know Everything About Me?
You might like to share this video with older students that explains how Google knows what you’re typing or thinking. Despite this algorithm, Google can’t necessarily know what you’re looking for if you’re not clear with your search terms.
Entering quality search terms is one thing but knowing what to click on is another.
You might like to encourage students to look beyond the first few results. Let students know that Google’s PageRank algorithm is complex (as per the video above), and many websites use Search Engine Optimisation to improve the visibility of their pages in search results. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most useful or relevant sites for you.
Point out the anatomy of a Google search result and ensure students know what all the components mean. This could be as part of a whole class discussion, or students could create their own annotations.
An important habit to get into is looking at the green URL and specifically the domain. Use some intuition to decide whether it seems reliable. Does the URL look like a well-known site? Is it a forum or opinion site? Is it an educational or government institution? Domains that include .gov or .edu might be more reliable sources.
When looking through possible sources, you may want to teach students to open sites in new tabs, leaving their search results in a tab for easy access later (e.g. right-click on the title and click “Open link in new tab” or or press control/command and click the link).
Once you click on a link and land on a site, how do you know if it offers the information you need?
Students need to know how to search for the specific information they’re after on a website. Teach students how to look for the search box on a webpage or use Control F (Command F on Mac) to bring up a search box that can scan the page.
Ensure students understand that you cannot believe everything you read. This might involve checking multiple sources. You might set up class guidelines that ask students to cross check their information on two or three different sites before assuming it’s accurate.
I’ve written a post all about teaching students how to evaluate websites. It includes this flowchart which you’re welcome to download and use in your classroom.
So your students navigated the obstacles of searching and finding information on quality websites. They’ve found what they need! Hooray.
Many students will instinctively want to copy and paste the information they find for their own work.
Obviously, we need to inform students about plagiarism and copyright infringement while giving them the skills they need to avoid this.
- Students need to know that plagiarism is taking someone’s work and presenting it as your own. You could have a class discussion about the ethics and legalities of this.
- Students also need to be assured that they can use information from other sources and they should. They just need to say who, where it was from etc.
Give students lots of practice writing information in their own words, and show them how to use quotation marks and cite sources.
There are many ways you can teach citation.
- I like Kathy Schrock’s PDF document which demonstrates how you can progressively teach citation from grades 1 to 6 (and beyond). It gives some clear examples that you could adapt for your own classroom use.
- CitationGenerator is a really handy free online tool without ads that helps with citation.
Note: I had previously recommended EasyBib as a tool to help with citation. Thank you to reader Jenn who let me know that EasyBib now has advertising and is less easy to use. She found out about CitationGenerator from Chicago Education newsletter. It looks like a great find to me!
You might also like to set up a system for students to organise their information while they’re searching. There are many apps and online tools to curate, annotate, and bookmark information, however, you could just set up a simple system like a Google Doc or Spreadsheet.
One free tool I’ve found particularly useful recently is Wakelet. Using Wakelet, you build collections of content from around the web.
The format and function is simple and clear meaning students don’t have to put much thought into using and designing their collections. Instead, they can focus on the important curation process.
Being able to research effectively is an essential skill for everyone. It’s only becoming more important as our world becomes increasingly information-saturated. Therefore, it’s definitely worth investing some classroom time in this topic.
Developing research skills doesn’t necessarily require a large chunk of time either. Integration is key. Model your own searches explicitly and talk out loud as you look things up.
When you’re modelling your research, go to some weak websites and ask students to justify whether they think the site would be useful and reliable. Eric Curts has an excellent article where he shares four fake sites to help teach students about website evaluation. This would be a great place to start!
Finally, consider investing a little time in brushing up on research skills yourself. Everyone thinks they can “google” but many don’t realise they could do it even better (myself included!).
Free PDF Guide and Two Classroom Posters
I’ve turned this post into a 13 page easy-to-read PDF guide. You can download it, print it, share with a friend, and read at your leisure. The PDF also includes three posters that you could use in your classroom.
If you’d like this free guide, add your details here and I’ll email it to you instantly!
Here is one of the posters that summarises the tips from this post.
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What tips or resources can you add?
How do you integrate information literacy into a busy curriculum?
Do you use custom search engines designed for children?
I’d love to hear from you!