Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn ways to navigate all available sources
  • Learn to categorize source types by the kinds of questions they answer
  • Learn how to use context terms in your search
Knowing what kinds of sources exist is actually another challenge to students who are trying to imagine sources. Being able to navigate the types of available sources is one segment of source literacy. Nora Murphy's been doing excellent work in reenergizing the conversation around source literacy. She writes a lot about her work with 11th and 12th grade students, who are learning to recognize characteristics of different source types. She has them categorize their sources by characteristic and the expectation is that as they become more adept at this, when they run into new sources in the wild, they'll be able to identify characteristics that allow them to classify those new sources.

One step is knowing what kinds of sources are out there and being able to recognize them when you see them. I find that students have additional challenges with trying to understand what kinds of sources answer what kinds of questions. I've met teachers who work with elementary school students and they ask them sometimes, rather than taking notes to identify questions that a particular paragraph could answer. This is one way the students can practice tying type of source to information needs. Over time, you could compare and categorize source types by the kinds of questions they answer.

With our middle school students, who are getting ready to do National History Day projects in American History, we take another approach. We give them sets of cards, each card has the name of one type of primary source on it. In their small groups, they talk about each of these types of sources, figure out which ones they know, which ones they're not so sure about. They explain source types to each other, and then the teachers step in and answer any outstanding questions. Then the students get the second type of cards and these cards have information needs. They're pretty general, things like, "What was the public opinion about X?" or "What was a woman's day today life like in Y time?"

One by one, the groups of students take the question and they match primary sources to the question. For each primary source that they match to a question, they have to have a sentence with a word "because" in it. "An oral history is helpful in answering this questions, because--" and explain what the contents of an oral history are that are unique to the information need. I could imagine playing a game of Scattergories based on the same principle with older students.

The capacity to identify sources and know what kinds of questions they answer is really important when students are searching for information. Obviously, it'll allow them to identify specific databases, websites or print sources, in which they should look. But additionally, it will allow them to use context terms to weed out some inappropriate sources.

A context term is a word in your query, that's not part of the topic, but instead clarifies the kind of result you want. It's a term that, one, describes the kind of source you're looking for, and two, would actually appear in the title, caption, tags or other text on the page. For example, "document" doesn't tend to be a very good context term, because it's very non-specific. I've traditionally taught that primary sources make an equally bad search term. That is changing as libraries and museums and other academically oriented sites are putting more and more collections of primary sources online.

Let's think about an easy way to understand context terms. I like to use image search as a demonstration and you can try this yourself. You can pick a word, let's say "food waste". If you go to the image search and type in "food waste", you'll get results, I am going to guess, there are going to be pictures of food being wasted. So try "food waste map" or try "food waste infographic" and try "food waste chart". With each of these searches, you're naming a specific type of source and I am guessing that your results are changing pretty dramatically to match those sources.
So, context terms are simply naming the source that you want to find in your search. It seems pretty obvious to some people, to other people it's never occurred to try this before.

Context terms are complete game changers with students who are struggling with search. I like to introduce them to students, who've been working on an assignment for a while and have gotten to the point where they feel like they are finding the same thing over and over again. Often I'll just distribute a list of context terms/source types that are helpful in a particular assignment.

In the fall, my 9th graders will tend to encounter general journalism style articles and open web searches they do when they're left on their own. But then I give them a list of context terms and this is what we do. I have them use one or two-word topic related search term and then they just supposed to plug in different context terms, one after another, and see what comes up. Over time, they start discovering really different types of information than they've encountered before. They tend to get very excited by this, because it really is a whole new world for them. We often do this as a jigsaw, where different groups try different terms. Then they switch and describe to each other a new type of source they found. This has actually proven to be a pretty good way to also introduce them to new types of sources they haven't seen before.

Through building this habit of observing what you're seeing in a way where you're actually thinking about what is this thing, they get in the habit, again, of looking carefully at sources and thinking about their features and their structures that might be helpful in searching later. Later in the year, our ninth grade history students are tasked with finding a statistic about nationalism in mid to late 19th century, France. The teachers want them looking in databases specifically. It's a pretty challenging search, because the first thing they have to do is go from the abstract notion of nationalism to specific search terms that are countable, that symbolize nationalism within France. Once they do that, there's the challenge of actually finding statistics. Here the students successfully employ the concept of context terms.

If you think about the caption underneath datasets in scholarly writing, you'll realize that the captions usually have either the word 'table' or the word 'figure.' That becomes searchable in many of our databases. They could actually search for the concept of France and whatever specific terms they had chosen to represent nationalism. Then they actually used as search terms, table or figure, and that frequently helped them reveal data sets that they might not have otherwise found.

Among the librarians I know, especially high school librarians, those who teach context terms have all found that it gets students really excited, and is kind of a game changer. Once students have proof that they'll find something significantly different and helpful by searching with context terms, they seem to be more motivated to draw on a variety of types of evidence, which not only helps them find what they need in a moment, but also over time increases their source literacy.
Navigating Through Sources

One segment of source literacy is being able to navigate through the available sources. This is another challenge that students face as they begin their research journey. What types of sources are out there and how do I recognize them? Primary sources are a great place to start navigating. As students become more familiar with the different types of sources available, they will begin to recognize what information need a certain source can provide. Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



Having students create cards listing the different types of primary sources they are familiar with as well as what types of questions those sources answer is a great way to give students something to refer to during research. Use page 10 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above), provide a list of 2-3 different types of primary sources to your students. Allow students to work in small groups to pool their knowledge on what types of information they can gather from these sources and what questions it will answer. You can then have groups swap/compare sheets to continue to share their knowledge. Once completed, students have a great base of knowledge on what types of primary sources will help them in their searches.

Context Terms are Game Changers

A context term describes the type of source that you are looking for and would actually appear in the title, caption, or other text on the page. Using these terms can help your students find sources that they wouldn't normally find in an open web search. In this lesson, Bergson-Michelson states that "context terms are complete game changers with students who are struggling with search." How will you introduce your students to context terms and show them how they will open up new resources that may have not been explored? Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



Context terms allow you to search for specific items surrounding your topic. Students who use context terms in their searches, build a familiarity with different elements found in different sources, increasing their source literacy. How can you introduce this exciting, game-changing concept to your students? Using page 11 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above) create an assignment for your students using 3-4 different context terms for each topic and list the different results that they get. Ideally, this exercise increases source literacy and continues to build strong researchers.

Additional Resources


About the Presenter

Tasha Bergson-Michelson is the Instructional and Programming Librarian for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. Since 1995, she has been exploring what makes for successful information literacy instruction in corporate, non-profit, subscription, and school libraries, and through after school programs and summer camps. Previously, Bergson-Michelson was the Search Educator at Google, where she wrote an extensive series of Search Education lesson plans, the Power Searching MOOCs, and—most importantly—collaborated with other librarians around the world to explore the most effective ways of teaching research skills. Bergson-Michelson was designated a 2014 Mover & Shaker—Tech Leader by Library Journal.

MLA Citation

Bergson-Michelson, Tasha. "Context Terms and Source Literacy [8:02]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131954. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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