Your child heads home after being assigned a history project. Finding the facts he needs for an A is easy, he thinks: All he has to do is log onto Google or another popular search engine, type a few words about what he's looking for and click the first few links.
You probably remember completing your school projects by trekking to the library and perusing drawers full of cards that pointed you toward specific books on the shelves. Our reliance on the Internet simplifies research but heightens the importance of making sure kids find reliable material.
"It's very easy to Google, but it's hard to vet the information," says Lisa Niver Rajna, science teacher at Brawerman Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Your child might have an easier time by turning first to an old-fashioned expert: A librarian.
Kristy Gale, teen librarian at the Tacoma Public Library in Washington state, says librarians can help students at nearly any stage of a homework assignment. "A lot of times, they see librarians as the keepers of the books and that's it," Gale says.
But most librarians in schools and public facilities are required to have master's degrees that make them experts at finding information in a variety of places. They can help your child decide on a topic and point her toward the materials that will help her earn a good grade on an assignment. Websites for many community libraries even offer the chance to chat with a librarian online.
Search Engine Tricks
Google is so ubiquitous it's become a verb. But it's wrong to think of the powerful search engine as a source of information. It's just a tool for finding information on the Internet, and not all of that information is credible. Gale suggests advising your kids to judge whether a Web page is trustworthy before using it. Have them ask these five questions:
- Is the author of the website an expert on the subject?
- Is the information presented in an unbiased way? If a site about skin care is full of ads for a certain anti-acne cream, it's probably not the best source.
- How can I tell if the information on the website is accurate?
- Is the website current?
- How thorough is the website?
Typing into a search bar isn't the fastest way for kids to find good sources. Tell your children about these techniques:
Advanced search: Make sure your search results include pages that use specific phrases, were updated within a certain time frame or contain at least one of several words typed into the search bar.
Google Books: Preview books around the world.
Google Scholar: A tool for older students to find articles in academic journals.
Many Internet search results point to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia anyone can edit. Gale says this site can be a good starting point for research because most of its articles list outside sources that provide credible information. But teachers generally advise against using Wikipedia itself as a source because its articles might not be accurate.
Beyond Search Engines
Search engines aren't the only tools for doing research on a computer. Libraries also subscribe to databases that make it easy to find reference books, articles from newspapers and magazines, and facts. There are databases with information about animals, space, inventors, American history and more.
Your child will probably will need to go to the library to use these resources or get a library card so he can access them at home. But Gale says they are far more effective than a simple Web search. "Databases contain information that has already been vetted and has been put together by people who are already experts in their fields," she explains.
Rajna, who teaches kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, loves the two online encyclopedias her school subscribes to.
"Every time a kid asks me a question, I say, 'Let's look in the encyclopedia,' " she says. A bonus is that some encyclopedias have different versions for children in different grades.
A library card will probably give you at-home access to these encyclopedias. Rajna calls this another key tool for your child's homework assignments, just like a desk or dictionary.
No matter which information sources your child finds, Rajna says you might need to help them search within the words for the information they want.
"One of the stumbling blocks with kids is, they don't even know what to look up," she says. You might be able to help simply by encouraging your child to read an entire article or try a different search term within a database.
Information literacy is a skill your children will use throughout life. And knowing how to find what they're looking for, and learning that Internet searches aren't the only way to answer questions, will help them earn better grades on any assignment.