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Conducting Effective Internet Research

There has been a great deal of buzz about research-based writing lately, in no small part because of its emphasis in the Common Core Standards. Indeed, there is an entire strand of the writing standards dedicated to research. From the document English Language arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (p.18):

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating
understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research

Research-based writing is quite challenging in that it requires complex reading skills. Students must comprehend, analyze, and translate evidence, and they must evaluate sources. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. They also must learn to write well, to structure their writing, to link ideas and evidence, and to connect with their readers.

One thing I find so interesting when I visit schools, or when I’m teaching myself, is noticing what is exactly the same as when I was in elementary school thirty years ago and what is different. When I was in school, we conducted plenty of research projects. There are very few of us born before the new millenium who cannot conjure images of notecards, confusing tomes, and the Dewey Decimal system. There is much that has not changed when it comes to research projects.  I remember struggling with the research portion of research-based writing when I was in school, and I see many students now doing the same.

There is, of course, one HUGE thing that has changed about research-based writing: the Internet. Imagine being able to type in a phrase such as “eating habits of the Tasmanian devil” and getting about 14,000 results in .61 seconds. That would have been very hard to believe for me as a girl, as I combed through old volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica hoping I might find a kernel or two that I could weave into my report.

Here are a few tips for helping students to conduct online research effectively and safely to support research-based writing. Many are based on ideas from Bringing History to Life, in the Grade 4 Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing, which I co-wrote with Lucy Calkins.

  • Bookmark appropriate search engines. Although Google is the go-to search tool for many of us, it’s not always the most kid-friendy. Try,, and
  • Try channeling kids to conduct image searches rather than Web searches. Images are more accessible in the sense that one does not need to be at a particular reading level in order to be able to make sense of them. Additionally, studying images can help students to visualize topics they are researching in order to get a better understanding of them. And of course, images encourage analysis and interpretation as students must translate ideas they garner from studying them into their own words.
  • Teach kids to minimize the words they enter into a search engine. Kids often use too many words when conducting searches, yielding results that are off topic or that lack focus. Many kids enter an entire question, such as: “What kinds of things do kiwi birds eat at night?” While search engines might produce some viable results, the results will be much more targeted if fewer words are entered, such as: “kiwi bird diet”.
  • Many kids (and adults) aren’t aware of how to use keywords and symbols effectively to refine searches. Typing a phrase into a search engine without any keywords will yield a list of results that contain the words in the search in any order. Putting quotes around the phrase will yield a list of results in that exact order. Additionally, the keywords “and” and “or” might be helpful. The keyword “and” will return sites with all of the terms (kiwi and echidna, for example), while the keyword “or” will return results with one or the other.
  • It’s ok to go retro – kids still do benefit from reading actual books. One tip: make sure you have a variety of reading material at appropriate levels, and let your students pick they books they read and use for research. If books are too difficult, students will just skim them in hopes of finding a line or two they can understand enough to pluck out and pop into their reports.  Incidentally, this is what they often do with websites, most of which are too difficult for many young students.
  • As my husband, who loves to go on “Wikipedia walks” can attest, the Internet can be a real time-waster. One site leads to another, a list of tens of thousands of websites must be pursued. Be on the lookout for students who have gone down the rabbit hole of web-searching, and limit their time online.
  • Finally, to ensure that students are thinking, crafting, and composing, and not just parroting or reporting, emphasize ideas in addition to (or more than) facts. As they collect information in their notes, teach students to study information they find online and to sort it, weigh it, and distill it. As they draft, teach students to include their own thinking about the information and some transition phrases to link their ideas to information from published sources (This is important because…, In other words…, This connects with…). Chris Lehman’s book, Energizing Research Reading and Writing is a wealth of insightful tips on helping students to distill researched information.

Your Turn

  • What does research-based writing look like in your classroom/school/district?
  • What are ways you teach your students to safely use the Internet?

Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

20 thoughts on “Conducting Effective Internet Research Leave a comment

  1. Sorry for the typo: in #4
    4. …, is stealing if they out it in a project with their own name on it unless they cite it.
    Should read …if they put it in a project…

    Happy researching! It really need not be painful!


  2. As a librarian, I’d like to offer the following thoughts:
    1. Engage your librarian. Most are expert at research and are just waiting for an opportunity to co-teach with you!
    2. Find out what online databases your librarian has purchased for student research. These provide a middle ground between blocking and open access to google. I see no reason that any younger elementary students should be doing google searches! Yes, I occasionally
    Model searches for them, but to turn them loose? That parallels giving a ten year old the keys to my car.
    3. Utilize the Big 6 research format. It breaks the entire process down into 12 much more easily-achievable steps instead of just throwing out a major project.
    4. Be sure to require students to cite their sources. I made simple fill-in-the-blank forms for grades 1-5. For older students there are many easy online citing tools, like Bibme. Even my first graders understand that taking anything from the Internet, including someone else’s images, is stealing if they out it in a project with their own name on it unless they cite it.
    5. Let your librarian help you with the process (oh, did I already mention that?) then YOU can focus your energy on assisting your students with the crafting of the text-the writing:)


  3. I was thinking more about Julieanne’s comment about conducting safe image searches, and Elisa’s comment about no-nos makes me think of this too – I do think it’s also important to use research-based writing as an opportunity to have frank conversations with kids about Internet use. Letting them talk about what kinds of images and information they might run into while researching and what to do if they find something questionable might be better protection in the long run than trying to block every single questionable site or image.


    • This has been my approach – be sure filters are in place but students search at home with out those extra school filters so we start with this conversation. We talk about what to do and I also put a note in my weekly note to parents to be watchful and helpful as student begin using the internet for research. (I had students one year find an article which appeared fine on race relations until they read the whole article and then they were upset – with deeper reading on my part and then class discussion I shared that this article was written by a group called the KKK. It was an amazing eye opener for the students and parents about what their students might read on the internet. – I was teaching 4 and 5th graders at the time.)


  4. I I think I am as guilty as the next teacher of doing some of the no no’s you mention in your post even as I’m aware of the pitfalls. However, your ideas and tips are a helpful start and provide the incentive I need to change the path of my students’ research journey. I’ll be sure to share these tips with the teachers I work with. Thanks!


  5. Do you have a Librarian who can assist you? Do they use Noodletools or Libguides? The OWL Purdue website includes not only citation examples but writing skills assistance, as well.


    • Thanks Kevin, I will check that out. I love that it provides bibliography help. Of course kids need to provide a bibliography by sixth grade according to the Common Core, and a list of sources much earlier. And it wouldn’t hurt to start teaching them proper formatting as soon as possible.


    • That’s a great point about images. Certainly doing a Google image search often yields pretty questionable items. Try image searches on some of the kid-friendly search engines. has an option to search images. You can also filter out explicit results by turning on safe-search filters on Google by going to search settings.


  6. Another teacher and I are in the midst of exactly what you’ve discussed here! We discovered that students’ facts were not as plentiful as they believed they would be. We are modeling a step-by-step process of chapter writing with facts they know, then moving into research and note-taking, and then return to writing and revising their first informational book. It’s a process! Thank you for your expertise.


  7. Another teacher and I are in the midst of exactly what you have addressed here! We discovered that topics students believed they knew much about were not as plentiful once they began writing. We are now going step-by-step or chapter by chapter with facts they do know, then research and note-taking, and then writing again. It is a process! Thank you for your expertise.


    • That sounds like a really good idea to slow down the process, Tricia. What’s most important is that kids learn methods for research and compiling research in written form, what’s less important at first is that how much research they do. Sounds like you are making really effective choices about how to scaffold your students.


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