Thursday, October 22, 2009

For Elementary Students the Challenge is...

The younger a student is, the more challenging searching becomes.

On average, middle school students have more difficulty than high school students (the subject of an earlier post). Compared to middle school students, searchers in the elementary grades find themselves with fewer advantages.

There are a number of reasons (developmental, social, economic, etc.) for this and by no means is this post intended to be exhaustive. In fact, I'm going to focus on only one cause. Early childhood specialists, elementary teachers and librarians will have much more to contribute on this subject--and I encourage you to do so!

An obvious obstacle children face is vocabulary.

This might not be as big a problem if there were universal words used to describe the things we seek. Elsewhere I've talked about the "1 in 5 rule:" that, on average, there are four other words that may be used to describe an object or action. Unless children stick with fairly simple terms (butterfly, acorn, planet) there is a good chance they will not use the correct term (the term that matches the information they want). Moreover, 1-word searches are among the least effective ways to search--two words prove to be much better--and matching both words (if they're not the right ones) can produce unexpected results.

Because their vocabularies are limited, they may be unable to think of alternate words. That being said, it's amazing how few older students approach searching as a task of finding better keywords. Apparently, knowing more words is not the only obstacle to becoming an effective searcher.

But not having a good command of words, their meanings and the relationships among them poses a serious limitation. It is on this point I welcome insights from practitioners: what do you see as the limits?

There are some accommodations that can be made. One is to limit the search. Having children search in a closed, vetted environment is a fairly popular solution. Using or creating a custom search engine provides children with an authentic search experience while fishing in a pond that's appropriately stocked (not like a free range search engine where you can hook on to some real sharks).

Another alternative is to use a subject directory where the keywords are already supplied and the choices are vetted. This approach, while less efficient than a search engine, can be used to teach relationships among words. And again, notwithstanding your school's filters, the pond is largely protected (to check this yourself, use the search box on a directory site to search for an objectionable term).

That's all for now. I want to hear your thoughts on what makes searching challenging for children and what you may have found that helps.

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