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Teaching Johnny to Search

By Rita Sorrentino

      Although today’s students are tech-savvy in many ways, they tend to have less-than-stellar searching skills. In an article, “Why Kids Can’t Search,” Clive Thompson makes a strong case for search engine fluency. I am not surprised by the research results that were conducted by a group of researchers led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan. In the study, students relied on Google’s ranking of web pages, and selected information from the top of list even when the order was changed resulting in (falsely) top-ranked pages. From this and other studies cited in the article, we have identified a new quandary in our educational landscape: Why Johnny can’t search?

      With an emphasis on high stakes testing, many schools focus on test prep for reading and math. Standardized testing leaves little or no time to teach the skills for searching. Ironically, the critical thinking and strategies needed for intelligent and efficient searching are foundational to reading comprehension and everyday problem solving. We cannot assume that our “digital natives” know how to construct search terms and evaluate the results. Many students have formed the habit of posing a question for their Google queries. “What can I do for a science experiment?” or “What city in Pennsylvania is fun for a family vacation?”

      With the vast amounts of information available at any moment, we need to help our students search smarter, waste less time, and retrieve the needed information. When I am feeling a little rusty, I look for tips and tricks for better searching and then select a few that would benefit the students I work with in elementary school. Here are some that Google offers to help students form good searching habits: keep it simple; don’t worry about spelling or punctuation; use quotes for exact terms; and use + or – to ignore or include words in your search.

      For all the above reasons, I believe librarians are a vital part of our schools and it is a travesty that many are eliminated due to budget cuts. In this digital information age, our librarians are invaluable for teaching our students searching skills, evaluation of results, and using information appropriately. Even though Google indexes and paves the path to massive amounts of information, authenticating the information is the task and responsibility of the user.

      To help Johnny and Jane locate, evaluate and use information, teachers, librarians and parents must all do their part. At each grade level and in every content area, our students need instruction and guided practice to ascertain the validity of content by questioning authorship and recognizing misinformation.  With more intelligent and efficient searches in their repertoire, students will be on their way to becoming “college and career ready” in this digital information age. Quality instruction is the key to effective searching and effective searching is the key to learning anywhere, anytime in our digital world.


Rita Sorrentino profileRita Sorrentino is a recently retired teacher from Overbrook Elementary School in Philadelphia. Rita is finding new pathways for working with teachers and students to use digital tools for reading writing, speaking and listening. She presented ‘Beyond Superheroes: Using Comics Across the Curriculum” at the PETE&C Conference in Hershey in February. Rita joined the Pennsylvania Writing Project in 2004 and the Philadelphia Writing Project in 1994.

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