Search Engine Scaffolding: Free tools help your students become search engine experts

Nearly every teacher in America integrates technology into the classroom through at least one gateway – research. Generally, I stay away from discussing Internet research with teachers because it’s something most already feel comfortable with. I try to focus on tools and strategies that teachers may not know about. However, in the past few months, I’ve discovered some search engine tools that I wish had existed a few years ago, when I was working with 3rd– and 4th-grade English-language learners.


In the Disney movie Wall-E, there’s a scene where the captain of a spaceship sits in front of a screen and asks his computer to define various words he knows very little about. “Computer, define ‘Earth.’” “Computer, define ‘pizza.’” And so forth. In response, the computer shows him a series of images and videos, accompanied by a brief narration that is basically an excerpt from an encyclopedia.

That is Qwiki.

In essence, Qwiki is a quick Wikipedia. Type in a name, place, word, or phrase like, for example, “Hurricane Katrina,” and you’ll get a series of images and videos, along with a short computer narration explaining the basics. If you want more info, the website links you to broader sites, like Google and Wikipedia.

The beauty of Qwiki is not in its depth. A student isn’t going to get all the information they need for a research project on Qwiki. But it is great for the basics. When a student asks, “who is Sojourner Truth?” or “what was the Apollo program?” Qwiki is the perfect place to turn for a brief shot of basic information, without having to sift through 5 million hits on Google or ten pages of college-level reading on Wikipedia. Because the site integrates multiple mediums – images, videos, and sound – it can give information to students of nearly every level, even struggling readers. (Everything on Qwiki has closed captions so, even though the computer is actually reading the text, students can see the words being read, which helps with fluency and comprehension.)

Here’s a video of one of the early Qwiki demos, which also includes a peek at a pretty cool Qwiki phone app:

One warning: Qwiki is far from perfect. I first heard about it several months ago, when it was in an early testing phase. Then, you needed to register and login to use the site. It didn’t have a very wide base of knowledge, and many of the computer pronunciations were wrong. The site has since been upgraded, and now anyone can use it without registering, but there are still some issues – things that should resolve themselves with time. There are several people and terms that aren’t yet in Qwiki’s database (you’ll get a message saying “We’re sorry, we couldn’t find a Qwiki by that name”). The language used is taken from various websites, so there is a lot of upper-level vocabulary used. And there are still some pronunciation errors (with one Qwiki, the computer read “1,867” as the year rather than the number). However, each Qwiki has a button requesting feedback – so if something is pronounced incorrectly, read at the wrong speed, or if there are other images and videos you’d like to see associated with it, you can mention them. With this feedback method, Qwiki seems to be getting better every day.


One of the main problems with search engines like Google is the sheer number of hits users get when they search for a general topic. Even adults have issues coming up with the exact wording necessary to produce the results you’re looking for. A friend of mine once had a student researching breast cancer, and her searches were turning up some really inappropriate pages simply because she didn’t know how to properly narrow her search.

Enter SortFix, a website that I first heard about from Erin Klein. SortFix offers the scaffolding students (and many of us) need when we’re using search engines.

Let’s say a student is researching raccoons for a report. When they type “raccoons” into SortFix, the website will list the millions of results but it will also pull up a list of “power words” that seem to appear in several of the hits – food, information, facts, television, north, pictures, animated, common, wildlife, procyon, animals, natural. Now, the student can drag relevant words to an “add to search” pile and irrelevant words to a “remove” pile (if there are words students don’t know, they can drag them to a “dictionary” pile to define them first). “Information” and “facts” go to the add pile; “animated,” “television,” and “pictures” are removed, while we leave the other words alone. Click the search icon, and now the first hit gives us some basic raccoon facts – just what we were looking for. If we’re still struggling, a whole new group of power words appears so we can refine our search again.

SortFix is a great way to help students improve their Internet searches while simultaneously teaching them to become better search engine users.

Google Search Tricks

If your students are 13 years old or younger, Google has existed for their entire lives. Every K-12 student today is considered part of the Google Generation because, for as long as they’ve been in school, Google has been a tool at their disposal. Google is such an ingrained part of our society that the name itself has become a verb, synonymous with “searching on the Internet.” Most of us — and most of our students — use Google as our main search engine.

But most of us aren’t using Google to its fullest. Everything Google designs is brilliant, and its search engine is no exception. If you know the tricks, with just a few keystrokes, you can use Google as a units converter, a calculator, or a flight tracker. In Google’s help section, you can find all of these shortcuts, along with some simple tips to help you (and your students) become better search engine users.

The main Google Search Tricks are also outlined by Tony Vincent in one of his Prezis:


Lesson Integration Ideas

Elementary Classrooms

Grade: 1-5
Subject: English Language Arts, Technology
Objective: The student will be able to find and understand information from a variety of sources, including the Internet.

Whenever a student has a basic question in class — i.e. “What’s Paris, France?” — look it up on Qwiki as a class. As time goes by, start having conversations about what students can and can’t learn from Qwiki. How does Qwiki compare to a dictionary? Can you ask Qwiki specific questions or just general questions? As a class, use chart paper to make a list of things Qwiki would be able to answer and a list of things it wouldn’t.

After several weeks or months, once students become more accustomed to using Qwiki for basic facts — similar to an encyclopedia — introduce SortFix to them. First, use it as a class to research a topic. Explain that, sometimes, computers need extra clues to understand your questions and, by giving them additional words, it helps computers answer our questions. Go back to the list the class made with things Qwiki wouldn’t be able to answer. Discuss whether there are any questions on that list that SortFix would be able to help answer. After using both SortFix and Qwiki several times as a class when questions arise, invite students to use the sites on their own for their research projects.

Middle School Classrooms

Grade: 4-8
Subject: English Language Arts, Technology
Objective: The student will be able to find and understand information from a variety of sources, including the Internet.

Introduce students to SortFix. First, use it as a class to research a topic. Explain that, sometimes, computers need extra clues to understand your questions and, by giving them additional words, it helps computers answer our questions. Have students use the site as they work on research topics.

In their notebooks, have students record their original searches and their searches after they added and removed power words. After several weeks, once students become accustomed to using SortFix, discuss what SortFix teaches us. Tell students you want to know what jellyfish eat, so you’re going to type “jellyfish” into Google. Ask students to help you refine your search, without using SortFix. Ask them to predict power words and infer how you would add or remove words from a search, using Google rather than SortFix. Invite students to start using SortFix strategies on more general search engines, like Google, as they research future topics.

High School Classrooms

Grade: 9-12
Subject: English Language Arts
Objective: The student will be able to comprehend various texts and synthesize his/her knowledge in order to communicate the main idea and supporting details to others.

Introduce students to Qwiki. Start a discussion about what Qwiki can and cannot tell users, guiding students to the idea that Qwiki is mainly for basic facts (main ideas), rather than in-depth information. Invite students to create a Qwiki based on a text they’re reading in class. Explain that they’re only communicating the main idea, supporting details, and main themes of the text; nothing more. Using a movie-making program (MovieMaker, iMovie, or PiTiVi), have students use image, videos, and their own narration to create a 30-second Qwiki.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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1 Response

  1. Jenai says:

    Sounds like a couple of great websites, but I think the Sortfix has blinked out of existence… Was looking so forward to trying it out too!

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