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Media literacy starts with SEARCHing the internet

By Jodi Pilgrim and Elda Martinez 2/28/2018

Consider the word search within the bigger word research. Many teachers use online searches throughout the day as a regular part of classroom practices, but are we teaching students how to search effectively?

One way to teach this skill is to use the SEARCH acronym as a tool to guide young students through the steps of the internet search process. Each letter in the acronym reflects important components of an internet search and provides direction to guide students.

This acronym was created for teachers to scaffold student knowledge as they begin research projects. The strategy provides guided direction and a structure for online research with specific considerations for each step of the search. The goal is for students to use the SEARCH strategy for just a short while as they internalize ways to conduct effective internet searches.

Once they have mastered this skill, they will have addressed two of the indicators of the Knowledge Constructor standard within the ISTE Standards for Students. Indicator 3.a. states, "Students plan and employ effective research strategies to located information and other resources for their intellectual or creative pursuits." Indicator 3.b. states, "Students evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources."

The S in SEARCH. Locating online information begins by typing words into a search engine. Students need to begin a search using intentional strategies, so the S in SEARCH stands for “Select Keywords.”  The use of precise keywords produces better search results, so keywords should echo what students need to know about their research topic.

For example, a student researching the U.S. Constitution might attempt a keyword search such as History of the United States Constitution instead of using Constitution. Classroom discussions regarding key words helps students become intentional in their online quests for information.

The E in SEARCH. E stands for evaluation, which involves two specific tasks – analyzing hits and  examining content. Internet searches consistently produce an overwhelming number of results (hits) for students to survey and inspect. For example, a search for eclipse produces about 289 million websites for the student to consider. It is important to explain that the order of results is reflective of paid content and most frequently accessed sites, not necessarily the most accurate content.

The first evaluation task involves inspecting the kinds of websites a search generated. Effective researchers skim the list of websites to find promising content. During this step of the search process, teachers should demonstrate ways to avoid commercial websites and to seek out websites from respected organizations. For example, a student conducting research on planets may decide to select links associated with reputable organizations like NASA or National Geographic.

After students carefully select a website to study, they must evaluate the site’s content for accuracy. Evaluation of content is the most difficult skill to teach because there are so many factors to consider. For example, students should evaluate the author of a website, the author’s expertise and point of view, and the credibility of a website. You can print out and share the ISTE infographic in this article to show students what to look for.

How can we teach these evaluation skills? Students must be instructed where to find the author or publisher of a website. Perhaps the website includes an “About Us” section. In some cases, students need to know how to truncate a website to find the home page. When examining questionable websites, students can determine authorship or publisher information with tools like www.easywhois.com.  Alan November’s website provides additional information regarding evaluation tools and things to consider during online searches. The teacher’s role in this process is to explicitly model these skills for students.

The A in Search. A stands for “Add quotation marks or Boolean terms.” Again, initial search results can be overwhelming for young students. A few simple “tricks” may empower young learners to find specific information related to their topic. The use of quotation marks with keyword phrases ensures key words are searched in the order in which they are entered. For example, a search for “marine biology” should include quotation marks around the phrase to produce desired results about marine biology. Otherwise, search results include all references to the both marine and biology.

The colon, plus, and minus signs are just a few examples of Boolean terms students may implement in a search. The plus sign joins words or phrases and alerts the search engine to include – not ignore – common terms. For example, when searching about dolphins, the plus sign may be applied to add “animal,” or the minus sign could be used to omit Miami Dolphins from the search (Ex: “dolphins” – Miami). Other student-friendly Boolean terms include words like OR (to expand a search) or AND (to restrict a search).

The R in SEARCH. R stands for “Refine results.” Students can narrow their searches further using Google toolbar features. The Google toolbar may be most useful for students in upper elementary grades or higher. Teaching students about this tool enables them to conduct advanced searches, which allow them to specify language, file type (video, PDF, etc.), or usage rights (free to use, share or modify).

Another advanced search would be to retrieve only information updated within the last year. This enables students to find the most up-to-date information on their topic. To conduct an advanced search in Google, simply search for advanced search to find the page. You can also find a list of options in “settings.”

The C in SEARCH. C stands for “Check the URL” for clues about a website’s reliability. This step reinforces the evaluation of the author and the content and has the student further examine the credibility of the source. If the student has decided to use the website as a source for a research paper, the source to be cited should be legitimate. Internet users must understand the domain and extension (.edu, .org, .com). Many educators suggest that .edu and .gov websites reflect more reliable websites than .com or .org websites, which anyone can own. Understanding the URL can help students find author information as well as the geographical location of the server (uk, ca).

The H in SEARCH. As students locate accurate websites they want to read further, they must begin to gather information for their research. With this in mind, H stands for “Hunt for important information.”  Students must apply both web literacy skills and reading skills to navigate online text efficiently and effectively.

This final phase of the search process requires students to synthesize online information and may require instruction related to online reading skills. To scaffold the “hunt” or search for information, teachers may model online reading skills, including skimming text for headings and important information, examining multiple sources, using hyperlinks or refining searches when necessary.

Syncing instruction with the digital age

As we strive to help student develop their digital literacy skills, our goal should be for students to learn how to effectively access and evaluate online information, but we cannot always control content our students encounter on the internet.

We must provide students with the tools they need to be consumers of online information. Searching the internet for accurate information is a complex process that requires explicit instruction, with both guidance and modeling on the part of the teacher. The skills addressed within the SEARCH acronym support students as they learn to navigate and evaluate online information.

The nature of reading has changed, in both content and needed skills, and classroom instruction should explicitly address this evolution of information. Instructional tools like the SEARCH acronym may help teachers support web literacy skills in an authentic way, which provides students with a way to differentiate between factual, inaccurate and false content.

Jodi Pilgrim is an associate professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. She currently teaches literacy courses for preservice teachers and graduate students. She enjoys research related to digital literacy in order to support web literacy practices in K-12 education.

Elda E. Martinez serves as the director of teacher education and professor of education at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. She taught special and general education for 10 years and is now focused on the various aspects of teacher preparation for undergraduate and graduate teacher candidates as well as ongoing support for inservice teachers.

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