Search Alouds: Showing Not and Telling the Search Process

When I have the opportunity to work with students within the the core subjects I attempt to make research sessions active for students. I have noticed from the past when I was doing most of the talking and pointing out resources eyes would glaze over, and I knew the tricks and tips were fleeting for them. So I decided to borrow a pedagogical process I used when I was a reading coach helping secondary students breakdown the complex process of reading by retooling the “think aloud” as a “search aloud.” A “think aloud” is sharing the often hidden mental process of academic work by talking out loud the steps. Many teachers intuitively model “think alouds” within their teaching, but I want to draw attention to how useful it is to be intentional and explicit with sharing aloud cognitive processes; especially, as it pertains to seeking information in research.  I think many teachers assume students have searching skills, but students have limited exposure to hearing and seeing the process in action. As librarians when we get the opportunity to “search aloud” with students we can share explicitly our pathways and processes; all our years of training in searching for information. This method can be adjusted at all grade levels; just adopt the level of language for the age group you are addressing.

An example of this recently was when I was working with a 11th grade English class on searching skills. Additionally, with the “search aloud” modeling I created a template chart with search tasks so that the students were active in searching and had a blueprint to the searching process related to my “search aloud” examples. I modified ideas I found from the book, Teaching Google Scholar: A Practical Guide for Librarians by Paige Alfonzo.  I created a comparative chart for searches on general Google, Google Scholar, and then our database JSTOR  using the search queries from the book. So, instead of me telling them which site would get them to accurate information most efficiently- the process of them going through each site with the same search terms let the students see for themselves. Then the students share their searches aloud and talk about their observations (see image below). Overwhelmingly, they were more excited about using Google Scholar in conjunction with the JSTOR database when they witnessed the search results in comparison.

Search task questions based on chart in Teaching Google Scholar by Paige Alfonzo

Another example of creating an active “search aloud” exercise  I did with 9th graders in a social studies class. The 9th grade social studies program wanted uniform lessons and research skills across three classes of different teachers.  So I had created a library resource page specifically for 9th grade with history links embedded. But I wanted the students to be active in using the page and not just me point and clicking through it. So I devised a simple What-If game through a basic slide presentation. I gave them a search query conditional on a slide and the students had to look for the library website route that would get them there. I had them use old-school whiteboard slates to share their search process out to all. By doing this I could quickly see misguidance; and in some cases, other pathways I had not intended. I could then share a “search aloud” when they were wrong and quickly move away from a long repetitive knowledge lecture. A variation on this could be sharing their iPads or laptop screens through airplay too. I noticed that the students were much more engaged than when I would be directing from the front the whole time.

Click on image to go to slides of What If…

Students showing markerboard answers

I have also shared with teachers to do “search alouds” with their students when they have an article or website that are using in class. This is just as simple as remarking on why they are using the sources. Who the authority is in the subject matter. One of the upper school English teachers links JSTOR articles as examples, so I told him that is great way of modeling research for students. It reinforces the work we do them in our library sessions. I find “search alouds” to be a nice complement to the times when we do need to explain through lecture or when we are in reference question mode. I hope to continue to increase my discussions with students on the process of searching for information when there is an opportunity.  Like the writing adage says, “show, don’t tell,” in order to get an invested reader. Or in this case an invested researcher through sharing the search process out loud.

Works Cited

Alfonso, Paige. Teaching Google Scholar: A Practical Guide for Librarians. Adobe Digital  Editions ed., Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016,

7 thoughts on “Search Alouds: Showing Not and Telling the Search Process

  1. These are great ideas. More active classes are definitely more engaging. Will be building ‘search aloud’ techniques into future classes.

  2. Thanks for this great lesson framework, Courtney! I’m not able to view your slideshow link. Might you be able to send it along? This is totally stealworthy!!!

  3. Thanks for the practical tips. I’ve also tried to get away from the search “lecture.” We do a lot of modelling and small group activities. In less structured settings I’ve found students more willing to admit times when searches haven’t gone as planned, which opens up a brainstorming session about ways to vary searches.

  4. This is so helpful Courtney, thank you. I love the idea of having teachers articulate why they are using particular sources. I also could not get the slide show to work and would love to understand better the ‘What if’ process.

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