Information Handling Skills

Harriet Martin - Cofton Junior School, Birmingham
first published in MicroScope Information Handling Special 1997

As CD-ROM systems enter primary schools, teachers are searching to find the most effective ways for their pupils to use the machines. The information disks available, especially the encyclopaedias, are potentially extremely powerful resources. As with any new technology, however, there are problems and many primary schools are finding it difficult to realise the full potential of these powerful information systems. CD-ROMs allow children to "paddle about" in an immense pool of information. If children are to do more than paddle, what skills will they need to master?

Many of the skills needed to use CD-ROMs effectively are the universal research skills which children need in order to become effective handlers of information presented in any format. Whatever the medium used - books, tapes, videos, computers - research of any nature involves four steps:

  1. define what information is desired (set goals, devise questions)
  2. find the information
  3. record the information (take notes)
  4. present the information in a new format (written report, picture, etc).


Children using CD-ROMs most effectively will be going through these four steps. I shall consider each step in turn and propose some suggestions for developing the necessary skills.


1 Setting Goals and Devising Questions

Teaching children to research "project" work well is a very challenging task. In many primary classrooms project work is either largely unmonitored and pursued in isolation from skills instruction or so highly directed that it is not really research at all. To find out all you can about the Vikings, for example, is not a specific enough goal and is likely to result in the waste of much time and effort.

Children must learn how to devise questions before they can find answers. This is extremely important. Effective learning is more likely to occur when reading is focused, when the reader has a clear goal in mind, a clear question to answer. The question may be testing an idea (eg Is it true that all the largest dinosaurs lived towards the end of the dinosaur age?) or it may seek data (eg Where was Alfred Lord Tennyson born and brought up?).

Questioning skills include:

In the early years the teacher may ask a question or set a problem for the children to solve but this should only be a preliminary step towards children setting their own goals. Techniques for helping children order their preexisting knowledge and devise questions for research include:


2 Finding the Information

Finding information generally involves using organisational devices such as contents pages or an index to locate material, skimming to gain an overall impression, scanning to pick out relevant information and detailed reading to answer a specific question. Having learned the alphabet children learn to use it to order words and to find words by letter order. This is the key to using dictionaries and indexes. The 1991/2 HMI English report suggests basic skills in this area need some attention in many schools. Dictionary skills are not always taught effectively and there is marked variation in the degree to which pupils are taught to use the contents pages or index of reference books. Children need to be aware of these entrance paths to books and encyclopaedias.

In practice teachers encounter a number of difficulties if they ask children to devise their own questions and then look up answers to them using children's books.

CD-ROMs use a variety of organisational devices, some familiar such as alphabetical indexes, and some new, such as keyword searches, menus and buttons. Children need to be taught to use these search techniques, in particular keyword searches which may not be clearly signalled on the menu pages. But, for the most part, the skills they are required to use when finding information on a CD-ROM are similar to those required for text based materials.

Skills for finding information include:

Given all the difficulties mentioned above, teachers may need to take most of the first step upon themselves, offering children only a limited set of materials which have been vetted for their accessibility. In my own experience l have felt it helpful to devise worksheets to match questions to a book or CD-ROM before asking the children to find the answers using the index, contents page or menus. It is easiest to start with the source material, find an interesting word, look up the reference and see if it is informative, then write a question that the reference will answer. This technique gives the children a fair level of success, but it is hardly realistic to suggest these children are doing their own research. They are, however, learning how to use indexes and other search tools.

Similarly, skimming and scanning skills can be developed using carefully selected texts or CD-ROMs which make good use of subheadings and other organisational strategies such as text linked to pictures or words printed in bold fonts. Use of a good dictionary or thesaurus can help children to check spellings and find synonyms and, incidentally, to develop their vocabulary.


3 Recording information - Note Taking and Planning from Notes

Research should not mean copying. It should involve taking notes from the resources studied and then rearranging these notes, using them as the framework for a new exposition of knowledge.

Beyond doubt this is one of the most difficult tasks faced by young researchers. Reading strategies among primary children are very often of an all-inclusive, unselective nature. Similarly, in general, primary children do not establish writing goals in their non-narrative writing, but use trial and error memory searches, setting down everything they know about a topic in a non-systematic way. They usually start writing tasks with very little thought or planning and if asked to extend their writing, they use association to attach more data to that already included. This is a linear, low-level approach to writing with little or no planning or goal setting. It fails to distinguish essential detail from supporting, peripheral information.

Children have difficulty in planning and organising their own thoughts, but this is a relatively easy task compared to reading someone else's writing, making notes from it, and reconstituting it in one's own planning. It is hardly surprising that children tend to copy when they "make notes". Even if they manage to reword sentences, the organisation of the material is almost always copied. Notes made by a ten year old tend to be complete ideas or sentences. Typically they write them down in their finished essay in the same order in which they thought of them or noted them, although as many as half of the notes may be elaborated or combined. When asked to plan, older students can produce a plan; younger ones produce text. For this reason brainstorming is difficult for younger children because they produce whole sentences, not words.

Organising collections of items or describing them to others is a new skill for children that needs to be taught. Children up to and including 10 years of age find independent planning and note taking almost insurmountably difficult but in the National Curriculum these skills appear in the KS2 Reading Programme of Study. At level 5 children are required to "retrieve and collate information from a range of sources" and at level 6 they should be able to "summarise a range of information from different sources".

Note taking and planning skills include:

A number of strategies can be used to develop these skills. The first three involve working with printouts from a CD-ROM or photocopies of a text.


4 Presenting Information in a New Format

Children start their literate lives reading narrative stories and writing narrative text themselves. Writing text which informs rather than tells a story is a more difficult task. It is rarely attempted before KS2.

Writing which presents information gleaned from a number of sources can only emerge if note taking skills are developed as outlined above. A child who can do this well is working at NC Level 5. Children are unlikely to reach this level before the final years of KS2 and many, indeed probably the majority, will not achieve this before secondary school.

There are a number of features of informative writing which make it so much more difficult. Information texts have very different linguistic structures from story/narrative texts. They are more likely to have complex sentences, to use the passive voice and to have long series of prepositional phrases which tax short term memory. In addition words may be used in unusual contexts and with unusual meanings (eg "a polar bear's coat commands a price"). Frequently verbal meanings are transferred to nouns (eg "distribution of brown bears").

Children find it difficult to unpick these structures when reading informational texts and nigh on impossible to emulate them when writing their own. This leaves them without a useful model for their own work. Furthermore, informative, non-narrative writing is more difficult because there is no story line to suggest an order.

Development of mature writers is a slow and tenuous process extending throughout the school years. A writer requires four types of knowledge:

The skills involved are numerous and complex. Many writers need explicit instruction in the writing process; they do not learn it automatically. This is particularly true with non-narrative writing. Children read fiction predominantly. A reading survey of all 180 children in Cofton Junior School revealed that 2/3 of the boys and 3/4 of the girls prefer fiction to non-fiction in their own reading. Children also are more likely to write from a personal point of view, describing what has happened as a story rather than describing it in the impersonal register of non-fiction text.

Skills required for presenting information in a new format include:

Many of the note taking techniques outlined above can be used to help children develop an order for their final writing. Most will lead straight into writing if only one reference source is used. Tabulation is particularly useful if children are combining material from several reference sources. Other techniques include

There are no quick and easy solutions to the problem of developing children's informational writing. Desk-top publishing work and the development of multimedia presentations are extremely time consuming activities and it is not easy to find space for them in a crowded curriculum. However, the benefits can be considerable in terms of both skills development and motivation. Children find researching material and including it in their own non-narrative writing very challenging. If the product of their work is a multimedia presentation which can be viewed by other children, or by parents at open evening, they will be more likely to be stimulated to meet the challenge.

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