The art of searching

Recently, I have been subbing as a para-educator at a local school district, and i found myself assisting fifth grade students in an oceanography research project.  For this project, each student had to select a marine animal, and construct an essay of 3-5 paragraphs on the animal’s habitat, locomotion, physical characteristics, and special adaptations.  While I realize I was working with students who most needed help, it occurred to me that all students could benefit from explicit instruction on how to search online, and how to analyze sources as early as elementary school.

Since I have been using the internet for years, it seemed crazy for me, abut I found students literally typing whole questions into Google and “researching” on non-professional discussion boards.  For example, students would type “what does the hawkfish eat,” only to be directed to discussion boards for fish tank owners.  This was not exactly scientific-based research teachers were looking for.  I brought my frustrations to fellow para-educators who were brave enough to admit that typing questions directly into Google was their primary search methodology as well.  I was a little stunned, until I realized this was a skill I was taught in college….right around the time that Google became the preferred search engine.  Because of this, I decided to compile a list of simple search tips that can be used by students in a classroom.  Please let me know your thoughts, as I plan on using this in my own class someday!

  1. Use only keywords and phrases.  Get at the heart of  your  search.  What are the most important words to help you find what you are looking for?  For example, if you want know to know a hawkfish eats, do not type in “what does a hawkfish eat?”  Instead, try “hawfish” and “diet,” or “hawkfish” and “food.”
  2. Try several different keywords.  Your original search may not yield the results you are looking for.  If that is the case: try, try again.  There is no exact science to searches, so a thesaurus could be helpful.  If the search for “hawkfish” and “food” directs you a website that sells fish food, you need to find different key words.
  3. Avoid searching sight words.  If would be better to search a random list of keywords than search a whole question or sentence.  Although you could hit the lottery on the latter, generally, search engines will search for pages that contain as many words in your phrase as possible.  Thus, you could have a whole list of results for your superfluous words, like “is,” “the,” or “and.”  Here’s a tip — avoid searching any of these words anytime: the, a, is, and, but, if, it, it’s, how, has, etc.  I could go on and on,a but a good rule of thumb is to avoid searching sight words, or common words used in everyday language.
  4. Use plus signs!  Plus signs are great at connecting two seemingly unrelated ideas.  For example, I could search for “grocery store + Westminster, MD” to find a list of all the grocery stores in a certain area.  In our oceanography example, you could search “hawkfish + predator” instead of “predators of the hawkfish,” or “what are the predators of the hawkfish?”
  5. Quotation marks are a great tool.  Quotes in a search will limit a search to only those two words together.  For example, if you are searching for the Common Core, you could potentially have a page of results for just “common” or just “core.”  To prevent this, you could search “common core” with quotes, and it will only yield results with those two words together.
  6. Don’t be discouraged!  Sometimes the key to a great search is persistence.  Keep trying and over time with practice, searching the internet will be second nature.  In the meantime, ask your teacher or librarian for help.  They may have some good ideas for key words.  If all else fails, try a different resource.  You answer could always be in a book!
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