Another Call For Search Literacy

Tonight I helped my daughter with homework. No big deal, right? But tonight the assignment came from her fifth grade teacher: Define these related words: Ballot Campaign Civil Rights Democracy Incumbent Issues Nominee Poll Platform Register Now, the teacher said there were two ways my daughter could find out…

Define Function

Tonight I helped my daughter with homework. No big deal, right? But tonight the assignment came from her fifth grade teacher: Define these related words:



Civil Rights








Now, the teacher said there were two ways my daughter could find out the definitions. One was to use a dictionary. And the second was to “talk to your parents about it.”

What I found telling was that while my daughter has been trained in using a dictionary, she found it entirely cumbersome. Now, I am all for cumbersome, as I find using a dictionary forces all sorts of new learnings (ie, the definition often has words that have to be looked up as well). I have already been through the process of forcing my kids to learn how to use the dictionary, and I sensed a new kind of learning opportunity. So I asked: “Have you tried using Google?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But my teacher said it’s not very good, and we shouldn’t use it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It doesn’t work very well,” she replied.

“What did you ask it?”

“Well, I dunno, I typed in something like “what is the meaning of polls” she replied.

And true enough, when you type that in, Google fails, particularly for a 5th grader who is not quite “search literate.” Not that most folks who use Google are any more search literate, of course. Most folks don’t use advanced search functions, and certainly that applies to my daughter. (Turns out, Google does do pretty well for “meaning” related searches, but not as well as advanced search…)

“Well, have you tried to use Google’s define function?” I asked her.

Blank stare. (Of course!)

But imagine if our schools taught that function!

The next half hour, we had a great time touring the define: function in google. And I must say, it was a true Learning Moment.

I just wish our schools would learn along with us. It’s time to renew a call for search literacy. In the age of Google, Webster’s is…well, the province of a diminishing class.

Update: Nice furtherance of the meme from Cyrus here.

26 thoughts on “Another Call For Search Literacy”

  1. You have pointed out an obvious issue. I’m always amazed how easy it is for me to find people an recruit using the web, yet veterans in my industry have stopped learning. Never even thought schools have stopped short.

    I guess my kids benefit from my persistent need to find credible facts using all tools available.

    Opportunities galore….

  2. This is a shameless plugin from a Microsoft employee in the name of search literacy:)

    Define operator is how Live search won my loyalty (besides my pay check of course:) ). Since, a fraction of my searches is looking up for definitions.

    Here is the definition of polls, from Live search and the search leader.*&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&startIndex=&startPage=1

    Take your pick.

  3. Hakia, a natural language search engine would be the best option for search term illiterate people. Also I dont mind school kids being taught to use search engines.. I know that is going to constitue most part of their adult schooling anyways.

  4. This has got to be the most ridiculous post you have ever made (though I haven’t read all of them — this is hands down a one massively huge pile of crap).

    You are teaching your daughter to trust only 1 source of information? And more than that: a source of information that is widely considered to be secretive and bureaucratic? This is certainly not the attitude made America great — on the contrary: it’s the attitude that is normally exploited by dictators!

    I am totally aghast. Benjamin Franklin, the publisher and a sort of “founding father” of public libraries in the USA, must be turning in his grave — if I were dead, I would too!

    I hope that teachers and librarians across the world take this as an example of what NOT to do.

    ๐Ÿ™ nmw

  5. @nmw Thanks for your candor! But it’s not ONE source, in fact, the define function shows scores of sources, which is part of why I like it. And don’t forget, Websters is/was “one source” and it had no hyperlinks…

  6. I agree with the educatorโ€™s point of view that Google does not work well. My kids wasted a lot of time on Google and other search engines as well. A list of links with short descriptions does not provide much insight. I found a new product called ChunkIt! which helps find information faster. Google is good but Google + ChunkIt! is great. The ability to preview the links and see keywords highlighted is awesome. For real data mining the ability to chunk links on any Web page is really great as well.

    You should all try it – – itโ€™s free

  7. I wonder if the teacher had in mind a “reverse teachable moment.”

    In other words, “Ask your parents… and thus ensure that they, who can vote, are actually thinking about the meanings of these words.” What’s a platform? Do the nominees actually support it based on their words of the past two months? Does it represent a real agenda? If you’re in a vote-by-mail state, did you show your daughter your ballot? Wow, there are a lot of things on there. What’s a proposition? How do you decide who and what to vote for?

  8. @John

    I like using (for obvious reasons — though of course in the long run, the definitions may acquire a “commercial” focus ๐Ÿ˜‰ AFAIK, all of lexico’s properties (including and were acquired by IAC earlier this year…(?) is taking the same approach as — another good source.

    Of course there are hundreds (thousands?) of online dictionaries (“online dictionary” is one of the most sought after keyphrases of all). Some universities do very sophisticated analysis of text corpuses (perhaps JG will know more…?)

    There was this visual thesaurus thing a while back — too gimmicky for my taste though….

    Reminds me of , though (well, a bit tangential — I guess… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Another valuable resource is — don’t know of other sites like it (haven’t really searched recently — anyone else?).

  9. Sorry, BTW, for being a little “hot under the collar” — but that was maybe the wrong button to press for a person trained as an information scientist…

    Anyways — I had a queesy feeling about being so gruff, and I’m happy to hear that you don’t hold it against me personally.

    ๐Ÿ™‚ nmw

  10. I was at the Internet Librarian conference this week. A constant theme that I kept hearing from K-12 librarians was that kids have trouble adapting to the unnatural use of keywords in search.

    There are two paths to solve this problem. First, we could teach kids how to search effectively given current tools. That is, we can adapt our rich, human language to the limited, deficient language of keywords. A second option is to rethink search and make computers understand our language. By speaking in questions or phrases, you can express yourself more naturally and ask questions without thinking about how the words appear on Web pages. Also, a search engine that understands language should be able to present a more rich set of features: better relevance, answering questions directly instead of providing links, and aggregating and summarizing information on disparate Web pages.

    Note, I am a bit biased, since I’m a program manager at Powerset, but I feel passionately that an “understanding engine” will help everyone – from 3rd grade to 3rd life – search better.

  11. Wow, I thought this was obvious too, and such an indispensable function… but many of the commenters here don’t even seem to understand the post they just read!!

    If you’ve never tried “define:” before, please try it now. Type “define:poll” into or use your search bar up there. Look at the variety of sources and judge the accuracy of the various definitions. Then come back and make defunct arguments about things you haven’t even tried to understand!!

  12. @Mark Johnson:

    you may be interested to read the “Wisdom of the Language” (I strongly feel that this is the direction the Internet is headed — the earliest precursors of this approach date back to Vennevar Bush’s “memex” vision; for more details about what the “Wisdom of the Language” is, please see ). I’ve also got a blog post in me right now about an intriguing (and recent) commentary regarding the role of “social” media in this process (watch http://Gaggle.INFO/News for it ;).

    It’s not like this is far-fetched either — the Wisdom of the Language is already at work today. One-size fits-all search engines are just like trying to flyers on the “information superhighway”.

    A much better approach is to focus first: target the neighborhood, address the right audience — instead of dropping leaflets from airplanes….

    ๐Ÿ™‚ nmw

  13. @windows.dead (& John)

    there are hundreds — if not thousands or even millions — of sites that might “qualify” as dictionaries (according to Wittgenstein, the meanings of words are defined by the contexts in which they are used).

    Google’s selection of dictionaries is more haphazard than a “standard language” online dictionary web site such as or (or other similar sites more focused on returning standardized language types of definitions). Indeed: Google’s selection is just the tip of a gigantic iceberg — and I doubt that a schoolchild would be able to discern some of the nuances of how to use e.g. the algorithmic definitions produced by a corpus-based software application such as Princeton’s wordnet.

    Beyond that, if a schoolchild were to learn language by searching for more or less “random” definitions of terms, then I expect their use of language might become equally random…(?)

  14. As a technology teacher at a K-8 school I couldn’t agree more that teaching how to search using the internet is an important skill. The define feature in Google is a good one to know, but there are certainly other online resources available. We have the “Dictionary” program installed on all of our school computers, and students can use it to look words in: New Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, Apple Dictionary and Wikipedia.

    In an education environment, another search literacy skill that is or should be addressed is the one of checking the source of information and giving credit where credit is due. Certainly encouraging a conversation between children and their parents around political terms during this elections year is essential to encourage students to make form their own views about policy.

    Personally, I have always loved using the dictionary to enrich my vocabulary and learn new words in the process. So hopefully young students today can look at using the dictionary as a straightforward endeavor. Note: I found the word “straightforward” as an antonym to cumbersome using our online Thesaurus.

  15. I was a fifth grade teacher up until a year ago. Part of the problem is that in my school district the students are not allowed to use Google on any school computer. It’s to keep them from accidentally seeing porn or otherwise inappropriate material. In fact, students at our school weren’t allowed to touch the address bar. They could only go to sites to which I had created links.

    I know it’s the case at a LOT of school districts. So your daughter’s school’s problem is something deeper: if they don’t let kids use the internet for fear of seeing something naughty, how are they going to teach them at all any more?

  16. @windows.dead: Whose fault is it that John’s daughter, her teachers, most parents, and most commenters on this blog do not know about the “define:” command? Is it their own fault? Or is it Google’s fault, for having such an empty, barren search interface that they do no expose the “define:” command in any way that helps people learn that it actually exists?

    The whole point is that Google should be exposing these useful features, in the appropriate way, at the appropriate time, to its users. The users should not have to engage in periodic “learn every little command that Google offers” study sessions.

    Let’s do a little experiment: Suppose for a moment that you do NOT know that the define: command exists. Suppose you are one of the majority of people who has never seen that command on Google, that Google has never made you aware of it.

    Now, go to the Google homepage. My task to you is to use Google to discover the existence, and proper usage, of the define: command.

    You may use the search box to do this. But I challenge you to do your searching without using the “define” keyword, because, if you’ll recall, that’s the whole point of the experiment; you don’t know that a command by this name exists.

    Let me know how many searches / how much time it takes you to find it.

    You may also use any links that on the Google homepage, to directly navigate to any page telling the existence of the define: command.

    Let me know how many links you have to click, to find it.

    If you do find it easily, I’ll eat my words. If you don’t find it easily, then realize this: Teachers will never be able to teach a skill, if the search engine itself does a terrible job of letting people know that it exists.

  17. all – thanks for the great commentary, especially like hearing from those of you who are teachers. @nmw, of course never take it personally! Really look foward to hearing more from you guys. I learn more from comments than from writing.

  18. It turns out that cumbersome work does not stop after 5th grade. At school these days google is probably the most important tool I have available to me.

    Speaking of homework though, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately for a writing class. Regardless, I have started to use ChunkIt!, a search engine that definitely helps ease sometimes cumbersome searching.

    Maybe its something to show your daughter, who knows, but it makes google slightly easier to work with sometimes.

  19. is the entire American Heritage Dictionary โ€” my favorite, other than the OED โ€” online. I recommend it to all my SAT students, and usually give a little 60-second spiel about why I prefer it (Good usage notes, pleasant design, about the right depth of information, decent etymology links.) I think search literacy is important, but what’s even more important is for teachers to be engaged with the subject they are ostensibly teaching.

  20. I use the Google define function often but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for young students who are just developing their basic research skills.

    You can get a lot of objectionable definitions from define. It’s more reliable than Wikipedia but not as reliable as the average grocery store dictionary.

  21. I am a high school teacher at a small public charter school on the Big Island of Hawaii. We are project based and I only have the internet as a research source.

    I would love to teach my students search literacy, and I even teach in a school that would support me in that, but while I consider myself pretty computer literate, I don’t even know all of Google’s bells and whistles, much less what else is out there. I had never heard of chunkit until I read this thread. Where can I find this information so I can teach my students search literacy? For whatever it is worth the school is using a dual system of Linux/Windows while I am on a Mac. Thank you for any good pointers.

  22. @CSGray

    I suggest you consult with a professional librarian — librarians have a long tradition in information retrieval (and are generally quite knowledgeable in the variations in criteria used among the many many information sources available). Perhaps a “children’s” or “young adult” librarian may be the best resource (insofar as they may be best informed with respect to the safeguards and/or editorial review undertaken by information providers) — I guess the last thing you might want is to have to explain a “questionable” result to a concerned parent. I expect any professional librarian should have no difficulty whatsoever explaining basic search methodologies (and perhaps it’s even better to leave this “teaching” job to the librarian anyways — depending on the pedagogical abilities of the person in question ๐Ÿ˜‰

    BTW: If you would like to get a “snapshot” impression of what people (and kids) are generally currently searching for, take a peek at (that shows the top searches at Google the New York Times and Yahoo).

  23. I would suggest helping your kid to learn how to explore computers and the internet on her own and how to find and read technical help. You and the schools should be building the curiosity and skills that help her to find out how to best use a given tool, not to use the tool itself.

    Our schools should NOT be teaching site-specific knowledge except as examples. For instance, when i was in 6th grade, i learned how to use wordperfect (DOS version) in english class (Ok, so i do most of my text editing in vi these days…but DOS wordperfect is STILL not relevant!). It was probably the biggest waste of time i encountered in all of school. On the other hand, learning how to play with LOGO and BASIC were things that built my foundation of knowledge, and playing games and hacking around at home helped to build my interest.

  24. As Samuel Johnson said:
    “The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.”

    Search literacy is way too narrow…

    I can’t believe that Information Literacy has not been mentioned in this discussion – this ability to find, evaluate and use information
    ethically is a not so new basic skill. Unfortunately, it gets little attention in the current testing madness environment.

    Not all students are fortunate enough to have a parent walk them through such an assignment – in my district of approximately 70% kids of poverty, students rely on the school to provide them with these needed skills. Since they are not routinely taught, we now have a digital divide of skills as well as access.

    Hopefully, someone such as yourself can help bring this issue forward.
    The solution is simple. Making it a priority is not.


  25. read, read, read, and more…
    read a book…take kids to the library, bookstore, reading a lot will help them
    more and much more….

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