Reading….that thing we did before video

At the beginning of each school year I like to integrate what the 5th graders are doing in Social Studies with many of the technology standards that I have to cover. After a couple weeks of research, some graphics editing work, and some word processing, the students manage to produce a pretty nice looking baseball card about a famous European explorer. I’ve blogged about it before, so I’ll just point to the post for the details, but what I found myself reflecting about this morning was how many of the students aren’t actually reading the websites that I’ve provided them for researching their explorers.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that the students aren’t really doing any research (a fact that I’m not happy about but have to endure in order to get the project done in the little time that I see them each week). It’s the weak point in the Webquest I built about creating these explorer cards, and I feel that the outcome justifies the means, considering that I only see them for 45 minutes each week. However, I always make a point to emphasize the importance of reading through the websites I give them carefully in order to answer the questions I’ve provided about their explorer. Even though they’re carrying out the digital equivalent of a worksheet, the students still have to carefully read, process, and reformulate the text in order to find answers.

Example; Student A looks at a website, trying to find who sponsored their explorer. He starts skimming the page for the word sponsor, only to be disappointed when the word doesn’t come up. Student B looks at the same website, trying to find who sponsored their explorer. She looks at the headings for the word voyages or expeditions, and then starts reading the entire section to determine not only who sponsored their explorer, but also why. She eventually learns the answer

I often recount this observation for the students in my class, hoping that many will pick up on the clue that reading in order to learn the answer is much more effective than skimming in order to discover the answer. I even go so far as to show them that by picking one of the websites at random, I can start reading, and in the first paragraph find the answers to almost half of my questions. And yet still I watch students struggle with the urge to “hunt and find” answers.

I know what you may be thinking, “these are digital natives, that’s how they process information, in bite size pieces!” As a matter of fact, I actually encourage the students that have effective skimming and searching skills to find the answers like that, but they’re the ones that will also slow down if they need to to re-read and take time to process. It’s usually the students functioning at much lower levels of processing or comprehension that want to rush through and find all of the easy answers, as if they’re playing a video game and trying to hit each waypoint or objective in as short a time as possible. I know that the design of the activity is really what’s hurting me, or at least not helping, but I’ve struggled to find an effective way to get the students to search through the websites I’ve provided them, read carefully, and process on their own. Too often, as we get pushed for time, I’ll find myself plunking certain students in front of the website I know will give them the answer, and then tell them not to leave that page because it has all of the answers. 5 minutes later, and they’re confidently stating that they couldn’t find anything, which leads me to sit down and actually read a paragraph or two outloud (these are 5th graders remember), and then talk them through processing the text. And they’re not hards texts to read either; we’re talking Enchanted Reading and Thinkquest sites, websites geared for kids.

Perhaps I’m just being a bit too harsh and unrealistic of what I hope to achieve in the short time I have to give these kids the opportunity to search. The one thing I know for certain, is that allowing them to search for the answers on their own will produce several class periods of stalled research, while students type in poor search queries like “why was Francis Drake unsuccessful”. Maybe this is just the motivation I need to start working on a really great, but efficient (fits into 40-45 minutes), lesson about effective searching.


  1. Ben.. I’ve followed your blog for a whle now.. I found this last post so right on. I tend to not even see kids until November because of my other side job as the “help my machine isn’t working” person and the teachers focused on upcoming tests and such. Once I do start though, like you I tend to find the websites I know will work to help with the time crunch that I have.. I have the kids for 40 minutes per week. My CDV project took several weeks alone and then the time crunch at the end of the school year took away the chance to hear all the presentations with me present. Each year I try to do something a little different… tweaking and such.. to find the best combination. My Intranet for students is used to list many things.. one being a page of research & resource links that I will let them use more blindly this year at least for one project where I think I’ll focus more on research skills.. reading vs that quick skim and scan that so often puts a kid dead in the water.

    I am so glad to read your feelings here.. I was beginning to think it was a flaw in my system and was frustrated!

    As a side note.. how do you like the Promethean?

  2. I feel your Pain. I start the year with a Unit I do with 5th grade teaching them how to write a report. Their Social studies teacher and I picked the content thmeme of disasters because it is such an attention getter.

    I have been most successful using the software Inspiration to have them take notes. We travel to the websites to research the disaster of their choice: Hurricanes, Tornados, Floods, Blizzards.
    Their first task is to take notes on how to prepare for a disaster. I even given them they Google search terms prepare+hurricane.

    I cannot tell you how many kids will raise their hands and say, “There is nothing on my site about it!” I go over and point to the passage and have them read it outloud to me. At which point I always say, “Reading is such a good thing. I bet that is why your teachers have spent so much time teaching you how to do it. It is not going to jump out and grab you!” Then we laugh.

    My next step is to divide the class into the disasters they choose, and do a “Think Pair Share.” Each person has to highlight one locate one fact, locate it o the website and read the passage outloud to their partner. I get to walk around the room and continue the pointing at the screen , and saying ,”Oh look I see it right there-now read it aloud!” After two sessions like this they actually start reading the site and the rest of the note taking process is a breeze. For my LD students I do allow them to do a keyword search by using edit–>find on this page–> but they have to read the passages outlod to me and I help they cut and paste the notes.

    As an incentive those who take great notes get to play the Resuce Hurricane Katrina game.

    I have all the students program icons in a folder in ABC order and I cn’t tell you how many times I would have a 4th, 5th, and even older student yell out, “I don’t have that progeam. Only to walk over and point to it. Now I make them check with their partner first and if I have to go over to point out the short cut I only give an hint like , “It is right there in the third column.Read the names of everything in third column-and ta da they find- to which I reply “Reading is such a good thing!”

  3. Ben – I think this is a problem well-worth puzzling over. I, who have a great education, have found myself in the last decade behaving like your bad students. I skim and don’t read websites. I tend to think of it as a problem of expectations: while I’m happy reading long books, I am very impatient dealing with the text on the screen. My expectations are different. Like you, I have no simple answer to these problems but I do agree that with the limited time that you have, you can’t turn them around. You can fight the good fight and get them to be aware of (and hopefully “self monitor”) the difference between reading and scanning.

  4. Jeanna: Glad to know I’m not alone with this experience. The Promethean Board totally rocks, btw! If you get a chance to play with one at a conference or PD event, you’ll want one for your own room 🙂

    Kelley: I’m seriously starting to consider having a “no question” time immediately following a demonstration and/or introduction. Force them to rely on those around them, or to re-examine their screen a few times before asking me as there’s so much more I can do to help students that are genuinely struggling or need assistance. Perhaps 5 minutes of “think about it and figure it out” before they can ask me. Maybe with an on-screen timer perhaps.

    John: Different expectations for digital versus print text can be expected, but what I’ve also found is that students will quite often do the same thing with print texts if they’re just looking for “the answers.” This leads me to believe that it goes beyond the medium, and perhaps might be better addressed by the structure of my assignment.

  5. Does anyone know of any research or “learned” articles that deal with this question of different expectations when faced with text on a screen and text on a printed page? I’ve observed annecdotally, that it’s a huge distinction.

    My latest website – – we’re trying to cater (pander?) to the expectations of people on the computer. Virtually no need to ever read any text….

  6. Wow, what a thought process you have going! I am not a teacher at this point, but am working on my degree to become one. My experience with children and researching are with my two children that are five and seven. My seven year old takes time to look up animals and any info he can find related to food, habitat, etc. His preferred site is Google. He does it on his own and quite effectively. The key to his effectiveness is his interest. I am not sure if the students get to choose their explorer or not, but interest in the person they are reviewing would help. Maybe they could help decide what the questions would be by asking, “What types of things would you want to know about your explorer?” Having them involved in the quest is like making them an explorer themselves. Just a thought.

  7. Ben, I have a thought about your dilemma. Maybe the solution lies in the question that you are asking. You describe your project as digital workbooks where the kids need to “read, process, and reformulate the text”. Basically, it’s fill in the blank.

    Just a thought. Maybe a different assignment would inspire them more and they wouldn’t be so lazy about the whole thing. Maybe a question in which they are asked to form an opinion might yield more inspired research by them.

    If it’s about famous explorers, rather than fact-based questions, how about: “If you had the views of the the people who sponsored (ie Paid for) Christopher Columbus’ trips, you would say that the was a failure.”

    OK, that’s a lot for a 45 minute/week class and the graders but you see my point.

    I’m sure you can imagine why homeschooling, with so few institutional problems, is a much simpler approach to putting together successful education. For us, we completely ignore most of the info-based education and instead, focus on more complex questions that the kids can really engage with.

    1. You raise an excellent point, and it follows my line of thinking at the end of the post; the lesson plan itself is flawed, primarily as a result of the time constraint.

      If I were the actual 5th grade teacher, and I could talk about this subject everyday for 45 minutes, then I would have taken the approach of building new understanding by asking the student to synthesize the information and form some sort of conjecture or statement regarding how these Explorers impacted both the New World and the Old. However, I am the technology teacher, and I have my own set of benchmarks and standards to reach, which means I’m using this Webquest in a different context. Not one to necessarily build new understanding, but rather to build opportunities to use technology in different ways. I could just give them the information they want in a worksheet, but then I’d be losing out on them using multiple tabs/multitasking between different programs, and all sorts of other simple little things that I have to cover as a public school teacher.

      It really isn’t so much about inspiring them; almost all of the students are pretty engaged when I show them what the end result will be like at the beginning of the unit (produce their own very realistic baseball card). The real problem is finding a way to encourage students to use effective strategies for particular problems (i.e. using the correct tool for the job). In this case, reading for information requires the kind of informational reading they need to do.

      My engagement comes from the tools that they’re using, and the product they’re producing. The engagement with what they’re studying comes from their classroom teachers, which they do a tremendous job of 🙂

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