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 kidrex.org, askkids.comawesomelibrary.org, and onekey.com.
  • 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?