Search, find and use

8th March 1996 at 00:00
INFO SKILLS series. By James McCafferty. Book 1 Accessing Written Information. Book 2 Library and Research Skills. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 18.99 each.

Age range 11 - 16

If today's students are to become independent learners, they need to be confident about finding, using and evaluating information. Contrary to popular belief, these skills do not arise naturally out of research-based project work. To be effective, they need to be taught by every teacher of every subject, preferably within the context of a subject-based work assignment.

These two books of photocopiable exercises may help teachers to plan the integration of information skills into the English, history or humanities curriculum, but they need to be used with care. Without careful planning, information skills teaching can become a sterile exercise for the library or the English classroom during the first term of secondary school. If pupils are to transfer the skills they have learnt, these skills need to be reinforced and practised across a wide range of subjects. The use of these exercises as "free-standing lesson opportunities for supply teachers and staff covering for absent colleagues" (as recommended in the introduction) should be shunned.

While any assistance with the teaching of information skills is welcome, these books of exercises are very uneven in level and content. They fall into the trap of aiming at a very wide ability and age range at secondary level. Consequently, older and more able pupils are likely to be bored by the tedious repetition of alphabetical order exercises, while the less able may well be daunted by the higher order skills required to answer set questions on "Medicine and Health" from multi-volume encyclopedias.

The exercises assume that secondary schools have access to a broadly similar range of resources in classrooms and school libraries. In the real world, this is not the case, and teachers and school librarians intending to use the exercises with real reference books would be well advised to check whether their own resources are adequate for the task. Not all the common one-volume encyclopedias, for instance, will tell the student the colour of zinc, or what you use in ice-hockey instead of a ball. Many school libraries will find the exercise on oil impossible to undertake from the resources available.

The value of the exercises is further limited by inaccuracies which may cause confusion to pupils. By no means all children's encyclopedias are arranged alphabetically, for instance, as the author claims, nor are all larger encyclopedias used in the same way.

The exercises are most valuable when concerned with specific resources. Exercises on using Roget's Thesaurus and the Word for Windows (TM) Thesaurus are beneficial, and unusual for this kind of manual. Also useful are the instructions and exercises for using the Hutchinson Multi-Media encyclopedia on CD-Rom.

Although flawed, the exercises embody a helpful approach to the teaching of information skills. If used within the context of a whole-school policy, and provided they are checked carefully before use, they could provide an effective means of ensuring that these essential skills are being widely taught and reinforced across the whole school.

Pearl Valentine is chief librarian of the North-Eastern Education and Library Board, Ballymena

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