Guiding Independence: Developing a Research Tool to Support Student Decision Making in Selecting Online Information Sources
This study of fourth grade students indicates that the use of a "research resource guide" increases student independence during the research process. The article describes approaches to support students in making determinations about the readability, trustworthiness, and usefulness of sources of information.
Helping students become strategic and independent
readers of information is increasingly
challenging due to the proliferation of networked
information, especially the Internet with its
varied text structures and formats (Coiro, 2003).
Determining which sources to select, which to trust,
and which to avoid is essential in an age of information,
especially when criteria for selecting sources of
information seem to be in short supply (Alvermann,
Swafford, & Montero, 2004).
- Is that website easy for you to read and understand by yourself? Can you retell it in your own words?
- How can you be sure that the information you found for your research topic is accurate? Do you trust that the information is correct?
- Is that information helping you find answers to your research questions? Did you plan out questions about your topic to help you in the research process before you started searching for information?
Rindi's students generally approached research
projects with enthusiasm, yet most lacked effective
strategies for evaluating sources or finding resources
that were "just right" for them to use in their research.
They typically didn't have a plan in mind as to what
they were trying to find in sources of information they
encountered during their investigations. Most often
students were willing to use any source they could locate
(from the library, Internet, or home) that related
to their topic and didn't carefully consider the reading
level of the source. For notes, they often copied
sentences or entire paragraphs they didn't fully comprehend.
Pictures copied from other sources were often
used to fill up space, and great care was especially
obvious in the creative use of font and text color to
make their work attractive.
The Internet increasingly is used in student research,
and for even technologically savvy elementary
students the process of researching can generally be
summed up in one word: Google. For students, Google
is both a noun and a verb. With Internet access, what
more do they need to complete a research product?
Many student "researchers" simply type in a keyword,
get a list of websites, open a few, copy and paste information
into a document, find a few pictures, and repeat
the process. Then they move sections around,
add color, use a fun font for the text, and use a customization
tool in the word processing program for the
title. As Kuiper, Volman, and Terwel (2005) noted, the
Internet makes access to a great deal of information
possible for students and allows them to become "authors"
of information themselves.
Core challenges of research with elementary students
Finding informative resources at appropriate reading
levels is a challenge for teachers and students alike.
Teachers often try to cut short this challenging and
time-consuming process by finding resources for students
or by sitting one-on-one with students to interpret
information using vocabulary they can understand.
However, trying to do this with each student pursuing a
different research topic is difficult. To address these issues,
teachers need to show students strategies for finding
resources at their reading comprehension level,
for finding "kid friendly" material, and for quickly
checking to see that a source is trustworthy in the context
of their research. Students need to learn systematic
and strategic ways to make decisions about information
they encounter in their investigations.
Students can learn these more systematic approaches
at the elementary level. Can I use this
source? Is this source what I am looking for? Can I understand
this on my own? Do I trust this source? These
are questions young students should be asking themselves
as they peruse potential resources. Armed with
effective strategies to guide their decision making, students
are more likely to answer these kinds of questions
in ways that help them become more
independent and efficient readers and researchers.
This study investigates what happened when students
were taught independent research strategies
and the use of a research resource guide during a project
on layers of the rain forest. On the basis of research
that points to independent readers' abilities to evaluate
sources of information by applying certain criteria
and guiding questions as consistent reading
practices (Burke, 2002; Duke, 2004), we examine the
extent to which these students became more independent
researchers through explicit instruction and
the use of a set of guiding questions (the research resource
One core challenge young readers face in inquirybased
learning involves making decisions about what
sources of information to use in their investigations. As
Leu and Kinzer (2000) have argued, developing the
strategic knowledge necessary for selecting sources of
information needs to become a critical component
of literacy curricula.
Especially when using the Internet to conduct research,
the texts students encounter may be too difficult
to read, unreliable, or inaccurate. Burbules and
Callister (2000) pointed to several negative aspects of
using the Internet: Students may come upon misinformation
(e.g., wrong or incomplete information); "malinformation"
(e.g., information that is harmful, such as
pornography); "messed up" information (e.g., information
that is badly presented, unorganized, and unusable);
and useless information (e.g., information that
is of little relevance or use). Our study points to the
need to help students become more discerning readers
of all texts, able to make judgments about the readability,
trustworthiness, and usefulness of information.
To understand how students learn to become independent
readers, we find it useful to view reading as a
social practice. Drawing on ideas grounded in sociocultural
perspectives of learning (Moll, 1994; Vygotsky,
1978), we feel literacy practices are more usefully understood
as "existing in the relations between people,
within groups and communities, rather than as a set of
properties residing in individuals" (Barton & Hamilton,
2000, p. 8). Sociocultural theories emphasize that reading
is done within a community of practice, such as a
classroom, where learners use a repertoire of resources,
such as the routines, tools, criteria, or concepts "that the
community has produced or adopted in the course of
its existence and which have become part of its practice"
(Wenger, 1998, p. 83).
Vygotsky's (1978) notions of tool use also help us
see literacy as an activity that can be guided through
the use of certain tools, such as models or heuristics.
In this sense, a research guide with guiding questions
to help students decide whether or not to use a particular
resource is a literacy tool. This study builds on
other work that suggests students can develop literacy
strategies through tool use (Damico & Baildon,
2007; in press).
Learning to be an independent reader able to evaluate
information requires that students learn to apply
criteria and guiding questions as consistent reading
practices. Good readers are strategic readers (Duke,
2004), and according to Burke (2002) no other tools
will help readers "as much as the right questions, asked at the right time
and in the right way By asking questions repeatedly
and deliberately, students become thoughtful readers,
developing 'habits of mind' that they can then generalize
to other situations or tasks." (p. 38)
As Duke (2004) noted, explicitly teaching reading
strategies supports students' emerging literacy skills.
According to Duke, explicit teaching "should include
information about what the strategy is, when it is used,
how it is used, and why it is worth using" (pp. 40–41;
italics in the original). This research suggests that explicitly
teaching and guiding students to ask the "right
questions" to make determinations of readability,
trustworthiness, and usability can help them become
more independent readers.
Independent reading consists of many different
tasks and purposes in specific contexts. One of the first
tasks students face is to make decisions about
whether to read a text or move on to other texts. As
Bean (2001) argued, a main problem in content literacy
is deciding whether or not information is worthwhile.
However, this problem and how students
manage this reading task is not well documented
through research. As the Rand Reading Study Group
(2002) noted, "comprehension assessments that are
widely used today focus heavily on only a few tasks
and thus may inadvertently limit the reading curriculum
to preparation for those few tasks" (p. xix).
Kuiper et al. (2005) provided a good review of research
on using the Web as an information resource
in K–12 education and the strategies that support students
in searching for and processing information.
Their findings suggest that young students don't work
systematically to examine information, and that they
make immediate decisions related to using information
rather than take time to carefully read and evaluate
it. Students often look at graphical elements, such
as font styles and images, rather than the whole text.
These findings also point to students' equating the
quantity or amount of information with quality. Most
don't question sources and assume most information
to be "correct."
Kuiper et al. (2005) also stressed the importance of
students' learning to make decisions on their own
about their information needs. They point to the need
for continuing dialogue with students about judging
the appropriateness of sources, making good choices,
and making sense of information. According to the
body of work they reviewed, these practices are developed
through explicit instruction; continual practice;
and the use of tools, criteria, and guiding questions.
However, there is a lack of research about the
ways specific tools can support students as independent
readers and researchers. This lack of research is especially
apparent with students 10 years old and
younger (Kuiper et al., 2005). This study aims to contribute
to understandings about the ways students
might learn to become more independent readers
and researchers and how explicit instruction and the
use of a research guide as a literacy tool supported students'
performance as independent researchers.
Methods and contexts
Our study was conducted in Rindi's fourth-grade classroom
in an international school in Singapore. The students
in her class were 10 boys and 11 girls, 9–10 years
of age, with diverse ethnicity (9 European American, 4
Indian, 2 Filipino, 1 Korean, 5 mixed ethnicity). All students
were fluent English speakers with a reading
comprehension range of third–sixth grade.
A Likert scale (Figure 1) was used to determine
students' assessment of their own independence in
doing research before and after the research project.
Other data were collected through observations and
anecdotal records throughout the study. Data were
also gathered using a pre- and posttest of students' responses
to a teacher-created website. Students were
asked to preview the website and evaluate its information
according to a scenario Rindi provided. Students
had up to 45 minutes to peruse the site and complete
the website review form (Figure 2). Their pre- and
postresponses were scored using a rubric (Figure 3).
We analyzed specific student language used to describe
how they would determine whether to use the
|Statements||Strongly agree||Agree||Undecided||Disagree||Strongly disagree|
|1. Making and following a research plan makes my job as a researcher easier.|
|2. I can easily find information that helps me complete my research plan, on my own.|
|3. I know how to find resources at my reading level to use in my research,
on my own.
|4. I am confident in reading, interpreting, and summarizing the information that I find, on my own.|
|5. I know ways to check that resources are trustworthy and good to use, on my own.|
|6. I feel it is important to find more than one resource that verifies the information that I have found.|
|7. On the whole, I feel like I can research topics on my own.|
|8. I like to do research.|
Rindi also kept anecdotal records and a reflection
journal with entries at the end of each activity and lesson.
These data included her observations and student
comments during one-on-one guidance, their
work on the Research Resource Guide, and wholeclass
discussions. Students' final research reports provided
We coded data using a constant comparative
method of analysis to discern initial patterns and
themes that were refined and modified to generate
"descriptive and explanatory categories" (Lincoln &
Guba, 1985, p. 341).
To initially assess their independence and research
strategies, students were given a scenario with the
task of analyzing a website to form an opinion about the value of the site for answering specific research
questions. The students were unaware that the site
was teacher-created. Rindi purposely used text she
considered beyond her students' reading levels,
added fictitious information (overly exaggerated and
silly information), and removed any form of authorship
from the site. We also made sure this fictitious
site did not answer the research questions posed in
the scenario and then gave the site a believable URL:
www.savetheorangutan.googlepages.com/home. Attached to the URL was the word googlepages,
which could have been a clue about the site's authenticity.
Students were asked to evaluate the site as a
source to find out about orangutans' social habits and
diet and about efforts to protect the orangutan. They
were prompted to record reasons for either using or
not using the site. They were instructed to "take only
one position: Yes, I would use this website; or No, I
would not use this website" and to provide as much
detail as possible in their explanation. No class discussion
of the website followed the pretest.
Figure 2. Website review scenario
- Search on Google, using the keyword orangutan. Copy and paste the information found into a separate document.
- Ask the librarian or teachers for good books or resources on orangutans.
- Go to the research room in the library where all of the books for the unit have already been pulled off the general shelves and put in one place for fourth graders to use. Hunt for pictures on the cover or titles about orangutans.
- Take notes; copy as much information as you can.
- Rewrite it into a report, poster, or make a PowerPoint show using the information found. Add color, font, and pictures to make it look nice.
In this particular conversation with students, not one
comment had to do with finding readable, trustworthy,
or useful information that followed a research
plan. Although website layout, font style, and use of
graphics are important design elements selected to assist
readers in certain ways, students did not comment
on how design features influence their decisions
when searching for or processing information. Rather,
the focus was on finding information quickly and
copying it into a finished product that was attractive.
|Students state at least three reasons to support
their decision to use/not use the website.
Reasons identify most or all of the following:
readability of the site, trustworthiness of the
site, usefulness of the site (information answers
research question), and their independence in
the research process.
|*The website is above my reading level. I need
help to understand a lot of words. There are no
authors listed anywhere on this site, so it might
be incorrect information. I haven't ever seen the
URL address, or recognize it from anywhere
else. Seems a bit fishy to me. The article did not
give me any information to answer my research
questions, so it was not very useful to me. I
don't think this is a very good website to use.
|Students state two reasons to support their
decision to use/not use the website. Reasons
identify some of the following: readability of the
site, trustworthiness of the site, usefulness of
the site (information answers research
question), and their independence in the
|*Same as above but with two identified reasons
centered on readability, trustworthiness,
usefulness and independence. May have other
reasons, but they are for the opposite position.
|Students state one reason to support their
decision to use/not use the website. Reason
identifies either readability of the site,
trustworthiness of the site, usefulness of the site
(information answers research question), or
their independence in the research process.
|*Same as above but with one identified reason
centered on readability, trustworthiness,
usefulness and independence.
May have one other reason, but it is for the
|Students do not state a reason to support their
decision to use/not use the website — or —
reasons do not mention any of the following:
readability of the site, trustworthiness of the
site, usefulness of the site (information answers
research question), or their independence in
the research process.
|*I would use this website because there are
nice pictures and it has big words. It looks
colorful and there is a lot of information.
* Reasons can be stated either for or against using the website. Directions for this website analysis were for the students to choose either position (use/don't use this website) and to defend their position. "Mixed" reviews were scored using the highest number of reasons for or against using the website.
Developing criteria for readability
To give students practice determining readability, the
first set of activities had students determine the readability
of three informational texts. Three different level
texts about rainforests were presented to them:
Ranger Rick magazine at below grade level (numerous
photos, easy text to read, minimal amount of information);
Nature's Green Umbrella by Gail Gibbons at
grade level (text supported with pictures, easy to read,
some challenging vocabulary that could be figured
out in context); and the World Book Millennium 2000
encyclopedia on CD for above grade level (small
print, difficult vocabulary not easy to figure out in context,
encyclopedia-style format, no charts or photos
to support text).
- Can I read and understand this on my own?
- Can I understand most of the words and not lose meaning if I have to skip words?
- Is it a "just-right" read for me?
- Is the layout easy enough to follow?
- Can I stop and retell what I have just read in my own words?
- Are there pictures or charts that help me understand the text better?
Developing criteria for trustworthiness
To explore their abilities to assess a source's trustworthiness,
students were shown a photo depicting a giant
tsunami wave at its crest along a heavily populated
beachfront. (See Figure 4.) As a class, Rindi and her
students generated criteria and guiding questions that
students could use to help them determine the trustworthiness
of a source. Rindi led an open-ended discussion
that began with the question, What do you
notice in this photo?
Figure 4. Tsunami photo
An electronic copy of this image may be viewed at www.hoax-slayer.com/fake-tsunami-image.html. The original creator of the image is unknown.
"Wow that's the tsunami that happened a couple of
years ago in Thailand. So many people are going to be
killed on that beach.
"Why aren't the people running away?"
"I wonder where the photographer was standing to get
"That wave is higher than the tallest buildings I didn't
know the wave was that big is that possible? Wait my
dad told me that the wave was about 7 stories high...
this wave is higher than the building, which looks like
it's about 25 stories high."
"Where did you get this photo, Mrs. Baildon? I never
saw any like that before."
"Something doesn't look right at the top of this picture
the wave looks like it is crashing way out in the
ocean I thought it sucked the water out before it
could make that huge wave."
Students began the discussion with almost complete
acceptance of the image as authentic and gradually
raised questions about its believability. Several
students referred to their prior knowledge (e.g., what
parents had told them, other images they had seen)
and began to question its authenticity. The discussion
continued, ending with many students questioning if
the photo was actually "real."
- Is there an author or photographer identified with the source?
- Do I recognize the author or creator?
- Does the URL seem official or real?
- Have I found this same information in other books or websites?
- Does my gut feeling tell me that what I am reading and seeing is trustworthy?
- Does this information fit with what I might already know about this subject?
Developing criteria for usefulness
- What are the layers of the rainforest?
- What animal and plant life can you find in each layer?
- What are the physical differences of each layer?
- Can you find the same plants and animals in some of the layers?
- What would happen if one of the layers were missing?
- Does this resource have what I am looking for?
- Does it follow my research plan?
- Do I need it?
- Is this worthwhile, or am I wasting my time on this resource?
Developing the Research Resource Guide
As a culminating activity and to be certain students
were asking the "right questions" to make determinations of readability, trustworthiness, and usability,
Rindi and her class synthesized the ideas they had developed
in the previous activities into one Research
Resource Guide that students agreed to use each and
every time they considered using a resource. (See
At this point, students chose topics on the rainforest
that they would spend the next two weeks researching
individually using their newly created
Research Resource Guide and numerous resources
from the library, classroom, and computer labs. These
resources included websites and print resources, such
as encyclopedia, magazines, and books.
Initially students utilized this guide sheet with frequent
teacher reminders. Gradually the guide became
an integral part of the research process, with students
reading through the list more consistently as they considered
a resource. By the end of the week, however,
the sheets were tucked away, as a research notetaking
sheet (Figure 6) took over, with its simplistic
printed reminder of R-T-U (Readable-Trustworthy-
Useful) to help students make decisions on their own
about which resources to tap into. Students made use of this "softer" scaffolding by recording their ideas
about readability, trustworthiness, and usability.
Figure 5. Research Resource Guide Sheet
(two per question)
A statistical analysis of students' responses on the preand
posttest Likert scales and website analyses revealed
a significant difference in students' attitudes
and independence with regard to researching.
Students were much more likely to analyze websites
according to basic readability, trustworthiness, and
usefulness criteria after explicit instruction and the use
of the Research Resource Guide during their research
project on rainforests.
Students' improved ability to determine the readability,
trustworthiness, and usability of resources is
evident in their written responses in the website
posttest. Eighteen out of 21 students made the decision
to not use the proposed website, compared with
8 out of 21 on the pretest. They supported their decisions
by referring to notions of readability, trustworthiness,
and usefulness. (See Figure 7).
Would you use this website?
The use of specific language referring to the readability,
trustworthiness, and usefulness of a resource
was not evident in students' responses on the pretest.
When looking at language used on the posttest written
responses, it was obvious that students not only understood
the meaning of the keywords of readability,
trustworthiness, and usefulness, but also they were
able to make decisions on their own about their information
needs based on their understandings of
these important concepts (see Figure 8).
On the R-T-U sheets (Figure 6) students circled evidence
of readability if they used the resource and often
recorded that the source was "kid friendly," "easy
to read," or "has information I understand." At the beginning
of their research, every student identified encyclopedias
as good research resources because
"they have lots of information." However, only three
students listed encyclopedias as sources on their
R-T-U sheets, and students noted in discussion that
encyclopedia entries weren't easy for them to understand.
During the research project, Rindi saw few students
Information sources at lower reading levels, such
as Zoobooks magazines, were initially deemed by students
not to be good resources, but in class discussion students acknowledged that lower-level reading materials
could contain valuable information and help validate
information from other sources.
For websites, students used the five-finger rule they
learned in class. Generally, if students could read the
site for a few minutes without coming across five comprehension
problems, like difficult vocabulary, they
considered it a readable source. Rindi also noticed that
students commented on the layout of websites.
Students noted whether websites looked "kid friendly,"
"easy to read," or "easy to navigate." Students didn't ask
for teacher help as often when using sources at a suitable
"Many of the words were too complicated to understand"
"Sentences were too long and difficult to read"
"I don't think it is kid friendly or readable because I
can't read or understand the words"
"I would rather find a trustworthy, readable, and useful
website to find better information about orangutans.
And if you were a kid and you used this website you'll
be hanging on the dictionary like forever to find all the
difficult words that you really don't understand."
"I can't coax a meaning out, even using the context."
These comments indicate a range of decisions students
made to reject sources based on vocabulary,
sentence length, and degree of text difficulty.
"I can not find where they got the information."
"This site is about 14 years old I would use newer
"The address is really short; it's hard to be able to tell if it's a learning website, 'cause a lot of them have 'org'
in them, and it also has 'google pages' in the URL. All
the websites I've found on Google don't have the
word 'google' in them at all.... Since the trustworthiness
is kind of iffy, I'd have to find the information on
"I don't think [the site] is trustworthy because it does
not tell you who wrote the website."
Students were surprised that they had been
"fooled" by the teacher-created site. This led to a discussion
about how websites can be created by anyone
and the importance of carefully considering
whether information can be trusted.
During class discussions and their research, students
were encouraged to verify facts by finding other
sources that provided similar information. On their
R-T-U sheets, students identified sources as trustworthy
if they had found the same information twice, confirmed
the information was up-to-date, or trusted the
creator of the website.
Students' research plans and guiding questions
helped them make determinations of usefulness.
Students quickly abandoned sources that didn't help
them answer their questions. On their R-T-U sheets,
some students commented, "This helps me answer my
question[s]," "This tells me about " and "This
[source] gives me info I'm looking for."
"Although it has tons of information it doesn't tell the
orangutan's social habits, diet, or anything about an
organization trying to protect them."
"It doesn't have the info that I need. So it doesn't fit the
U for usefulness or R-T-U."
The effects of the study
Teacher observations and anecdotal records supported
pre- and postresponse data indicating greater student
independence and use of strategies to
determine readability, trustworthiness, and usefulness.
It was interesting to note the progression of the
use of the research guide. Initially students didn't use
this guide sheet without frequent teacher reminders.
Gradually this sheet became an integral part of the research
process, with students reading through the
list more consistently to consider resources.
Eventually, students used the research note-taking
sheet (Figure 6), with its simple reminder of R-T-U, to
make decisions on their own about which resources
to use. Students were able to make use of this "softer"
scaffolding to record their ideas because they had become
more practiced in using the questions from the
Students' final research reports on rainforests provided
further evidence of student learning. Not only
were the reports consistently written in the students'
own words, but the reports were on the whole better
organized and closely followed their research plans.
Furthermore, a closer look at the resources students
used provided a clear indication that they chose material
more at their reading level and, in the case of citing
website URLs, picked sites that were more familiar
and "kid friendly."
Implications for the future
It has been exciting for us as educators to observe improvements
in students' confidence and independence
as researchers. Not only do the results of the
study reveal this, but also the diminished number of
requests for individual assistance in interpreting material
during research sessions supports this finding.
Although our study doesn't investigate specific challenges
individual students faced or different strategies
they used for print and Internet sources, the findings
suggest that the development and use of literacy tools
such as the research guide can effectively focus and
influence literacy instruction and students' literacy
There is a need for continuing dialogue with students
of every age about judging the appropriateness
of sources, making good information choices,
and making sense of information as they engage in
the research process. Elementary students benefit
from rich conversations about informational texts
and opportunities for input about developing key
criteria, guiding questions, and literacy tools such as
the research guide. These guiding questions and
tools spur ongoing conversations with students
about issues such as readability, trustworthiness,
and usefulness to help them become more independent
readers and researchers. It is our hope that
this exploratory study will encourage other teachers
and researchers to investigate the development and
use of literacy tools that have such practical classroom
About the author
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