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Doing Internet Research at the Elementary Level

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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One of the hardest things to teach, in my opinion, is research. I have been teaching in a computer lab for going on five years and I have never taught research the same way twice. This is partially because I never teach anything the same way twice, but it's also because each year I learn something new. Sometimes I learn the hard way when things don't pan out the way I planned in the classroom, sometimes I learn because something I didn't plan arose and worked out well, and sometimes its due to my own self-education as I prepare to teach my annual research unit.

I begin teaching research skills in third grade -- just at the time where my students' reading skills are such that they can feel successful and just at the time when they have mounds and mounds of natural curiosity. In the past, I have done your typical find-information-and-regurgitate-it-to-me kinds of projects, all in the name of teaching students how to locate information. As this year's project approached, I decided that I needed to step it up a notch. If I rail against the way standardized tests have taught kids how to regurgitate facts, then how is what I've been doing any different? This year, I took a different approach.

This approach was informed by my own experiences, my own research, and a deliberate attempt to really break down the individual skills that my kids will need to be successful researchers.

First, I should mention that my school does not have a library and I have actually never worked in a school here in Philly (I've worked in three buildings) that had a functioning library. That being so, all of my students will be researching using the Internet -- which has its own special challenges.

I have broken the research process up into mini-lessons, which will ultimately culminate in a larger project.


All of my students in grades three to seven will go through this process, with each lesson meeting them where they are and attempting to fill in gaps.


Choosing a Topic, Creating Keywords and Search Terms

All classes begin with a discussion about what research is and why we do it and how we do it. Each grade will be using their research and applying it to a larger question or problem. For instance, rather than having my third regurgitate answers back to me about animals, they will use the information they find to answer the larger question. (i.e. "Your parents said you can have any pet you want. What will you need to keep the pet?")

When creating search terms, I use a template to help my students in all grades through the process. They use the SweetSearch search engine, which weeds out the junk they usually find on Google or Bing and which highlights their keywords and pulls text from the website into the list of search results.


Taking Notes

Each grade will differ in how they take notes and share their results. My 3rd graders will most likely stick to paper and pencil notes due to the nature of my class schedule, but they will enter their websites into a Google Form to track where they've been and what they've found.

My older students will be using EasyBib to organize their links and their notes. While my third graders will not be doing true citation yet, I will be teaching citation to my seventh graders and requiring all of their projects to be accompanied by a bibliography, which they will create in EasyBib.

Whew! Teaching research is a HUGE task!

Here are some resources that help along the way:

  • The SweetSearch Tutorial: Not only is SweetSearch an amazing search tool for kids, but they have some great resources here for helping digest what research is and how to approach it.
  • Copyright Confusion Wiki: A one-stop shop for all things copyright and fair use.
  • How to Do Research Another take on the research process from the Kentucky Virtual Library.
  • Diigo for Educators A robust social bookmarking tool through which students can bookmark sites, highlight right on the site, share bookmarks with their peers and take notes on webpages. Teachers can create student accounts without needing emails.
  • SweetSearch A kid-friendly search engine.
  • EasyBib A robust online citation and organizing tool.
  • Flickr Find copyright-free images with Creative Commons licenses.
  • Search Creative Commons Find Creative Commons content on popular sites.
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Kelsey's picture

Since I am not a full-time classroom teacher (YET) I have always wondered how we can start young students doing research that is fun, but informative. The diagram above is great! I also liked the idea of using the SweetSearch tool that puts relevant articles in front of the students. I am going to try that search engine tomorrow in an assignment! I also think that teaching them to cite at a young age is important and a tool they will definitely need to know later in their education.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Glad that you found the post useful, Kelsey. One of the struggles with younger researchers is giving them access to resources that are not too challenging to read and comprehend. SweetSearchforMe might help with that ( Also, Google has a built in reading level filter in its advanced features.

Matthew Kitchens's picture
Matthew Kitchens
Seventh-grade reading/ELA teacher from Ennis, Texas

Here is a guest post by second-grade teacher Michele Eaton, who uses the safe social-networking site My Big Campus ( to scaffold lessons for her classes as they do research projects. Check out how she harnesses MBC's built-in collaborative documents and wiki-like pages to help students organize information found online.

Part 2 - Social Media's Versatile Role in Elementary Education

John Hennessey's picture
John Hennessey
US citizen working as a teacher in an international school in Asia

Hi Mary Beth,

Thanks for your article. I strongly agree with you that teaching research is one of the hardest things to teach students. I teach ICT to primary students, and I am always looking for better ways to teach the subject.

I especially like your flowchart of the steps that you take when teaching your students to do research. I notice that you have included as your fourth step "Evaluating Websites." This for me has been the most challenging part of teaching my students to do research. I have found some resources online that have been helpful; however, teaching primary students some of the skills involved in evaluating websites has been quite difficult. I would love to hear the approach you take.

One of the resources that I have used to teach students how to evaluate websites is, which appears to be quite widely used (it is mentioned in most of the blogs that I have read about teaching students to evaluate websites). Have you used it? I have used it with my grade 5 students with some success. Another resource that has been especially helpful has been episode 2 of the Cyperpigs videos ( I've used it with my grades 3 and 4 students. The children really enjoy it, and it does a good job introducing the idea that you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. It also gives some very simple advice for evaluating online sources--check more than one website and ask a teacher or another adult if you aren't sure if the information you've found is reliable/true. This is a much simpler approach than much of the advice I've found for teaching evaluating websites, some of which I use with my older students.

I would love to hear more about how you teach research to your younger students, especially the part regarding evaluating sources.


Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA


I definitely have used All About Explorers. I use the Cyberpigs activity to teach Internet Safety, but I haven't used the one for teaching evaluation. I usually do a lesson where I guide students through the process of finding the author, publish date, contact and about pages on sites. We also evaluate sites to find if they are fact or opinion and I definitely tell them to find their info in more than one place.

Thanks for sharing the links!

John Hennessey's picture
John Hennessey
US citizen working as a teacher in an international school in Asia

Hi Mary Beth,

Thanks for the additional information.

Actually, I found the Cyberpigs videos when searching for resources to teach e-safety. The one I mentioned (episode 2) teaches e-safety as well as fact or opinion, so I've used it to teach e-safety and at the same time introduce the need to evaluate websites (since it also deals with distinguishing between fact and opinion, and thus the idea that you shouldn't trust everything you read online).

I have taught each of the things you've mention about evaluating websites to my 5th grade students, but I'm concerned that it might be too difficult for my younger students. I also have had some doubts about the usefulness of doing so. The students can find out who the author of a website is, but how do they know whether or not the person (or organization) is really an expert? They can also find out whether the website was recently updated, but is that information really helpful for evaluating the type of information they are searching for? They can find whether or not the author has provided a real physical address and contact information, but does that really help them know if the information on the website is not merely opinion? Actually, these are some of the questions that have been raised during discussions with my 5th grade students. It seems to me that what you've said about requiring our students to check more than one source and compare the information may be the most reliable (and simplest) way of evaluating whether the information they've found is likely true.

It seems to me that if we were teaching high school, or even middle school, it would be a lot easier, since the students could more readily understand the English on more scholarly, or university, websites (those written by true experts). Students could be taught to trust the information from such sources, since the author's reputation would be on the line if they were to publish anything that was clearly false. However, most of the sites that are written for primary students that my students find in their searches are not created by universities or other more scholarly organizations, and they generally don't cite their primary sources. It seems to me that for primary school, it might be better to just give the students a list of trusted websites to use for their research projects, instead of asking them to evaluate websites they find themselves. After all, isn't this more in line with what they will experience if they later go on to university? In university, they will likely be required to use peer-reviewed sources for their research, which amounts to basically the same thing--they are using trusted sources; they aren't asked to evaluate sources themselves.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these things. I am also wondering how many lessons you need to teach the entire process that you've outlined in your flowchart, and how many lessons you need to teach evaluating the websites in particular. I am required to teach these things, so I will continue to do so. I just wish I didn't have to teach them to such young students. It seems to me that it is enough for the younger ones to realize that they shouldn't blindly accept everything they find online.

Thanks again!

Ms. McKenzie's picture
Ms. McKenzie
Technology Facilitator at an Elementary School

I'd love to hear about particular successes/opportunities for improvement as far as how teaching research skills went for you this year. It's an area I've struggled with but am determined to do it well this year. How much collaboration do you have students do? Also, I wanted to give you a heads up that I just tried to go to & the domain's expired. :(

Erin Kramer's picture

I like the idea of linking it to a larger question. Can you share the other scenarios you've come up with to present to your students?

Harriette Huang's picture

I'm a new teacher and trying to help kids understand different job, income, and requirement. This article is super helpful. Thank you very much!

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