Ebooks as Textbooks - Part 4 - Finding and Searching Inside for Text Content


Usually with reading textbooks people think about things like reading comprehension, where students are able to remember (recall) or understand the portions of the chapter being read. But textbooks also involve a different type of reading or literacy that of finding information within a passage - Searching. When searching, instead reading and understanding the entire text, the goal is to find a specific word, sentence, or information within a passage or chapter, or even an entire book.

One of the big differences about reading ebooks is how it is possible to search within your text. In a print book when you are looking for something you have to skim and hope that you find the word that you were looking for. This can be a difficult process for some, as you may be trying to remember the location where you read it before (even harder if you haven't read that text yet) or if you have any kind of print disability then it can get even harder. You scan or skim to locate a single fact or a specific bit of information without reading everything in the whole text material.  Skimming and scanning are a kind of speed reading where the reader is either searching the text on a page for clues to meaning or is where the reader is skipping over text that is less interesting or not thought of as important or relevant. Usually readers who are skimming will spend more time reading text at the beginning of paragraph and page. Studies have shown that skimming can help with recall for important ideas from text, but don't help with recalling other details or of inferences from the text. Studies that were looking at brain differences found that the brain shows no differences between reading from printed paper versus eink devices, although there are differences when reading from led screens - so skimming should work pretty much the same between the different formats.   One difference with ebooks though is that they can be adapted for improved skimming and scanning. For example one study found that students were significantly faster in finding specific words in new text paragraphs when the text was displayed in a larger font, and adapting the font size is something that ebooks can do while printed books are limited to their printed font.
Other than skimming or scanning your textbooks when searching in a printed textbook readers have other features to assist in finding including tables of contents, indexes, headings, adapted words (bold, italics, highlights, etc) to use to exclude or include portions of text for consideration to help find the desired content. One unfortunate thing that I've noticed is that some etextbooks lack some things like an index, which can still be very useful for a student to use to find information, even when searching, as an index can act like a word wall to remind students of the words that they should be using or the correct spelling of words to find. 
An index or a table of contents is a great thing for books (or ebooks) as the TOC and index provides a method for readers to use allowing them to compare, contrast, and correlate information without having to first read the content, they can act as a tool for recalling previous information and help with directed re-reading. Ideally the electronic textbooks that students use will still have an index, so that they can use those terms as keywords in their search for the specific portion of text that they need. 
The fact that the information that the student needs is in the book doesn't mean anything unless the student can find it. For years we have taught students that when using a textbook (printed) they should used elements such as the table of contents and the index to help them find what they want within the book. Most electronic versions of textbooks do have a table of contents, although it may be an extra link to access (and too often I've found that the only words in the table of contents are things like Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 without the other context information).
So how is finding information different when using the search tool in an ebook or etextbook? Most ebook readers and programs do have a search tool. The reader can type some text and the device or program will search the entire text and produce a list of locations for that searched term. Often it can find even more than the reader thought as searching for the term "read" will also find other words like reader, reading, readablity, preread, unread, bread, bedspread, thread, and more. Of course there are also limitations for this kind of search. Consider what if the reader spells the search term incorrectly, then the desired information may not be found at all. Or what if they don't know what (specifically) they are searching for, they have an idea, but the book may not use the same terms. Another downside for this kind of search is that people often just use the first words that come to mind and don't really do the metacognative processing to come up with good search terms. Researchers looking at searching have found that about a third of people start with a search tool when look for things, but that they are often unsuccessful as they don't understand the abilities and limitations of search or had problems understanding the results - they often only search once or twice before giving up. Here is where as educators we need to help educate students about searching and finding information. 
Sometimes you are searching for new vocabulary, you want to see the definition or the word or to see the term in context. But, you don't want to have to read an entire chapter again (or maybe even for the first time), instead you want to go right to that information (this is also known as just in time learning). So lets consider that I'm searching for the definition of the word "mole" in my chemistry book. I click on the search tool and type in "mole" in the search box and over 100 matches for the word are found in moments. Now a quick look at the results shows I'm getting more than just moles as I've also got molecules and molecular that are hiding that definition that I'm looking for. One thing to note though is that the results do give me the word in some context, perhaps not full sentences, but I do get to see surrounding words. 
We need to make sure that students understand the possibilities and limitations of their searching. Just paging through text is not an efficient way to find information and is often unsuccessful. Using an index, a table of contents, or even a search tool doesn't ensure success, but if students understand the possibilities and structure they can be more successful. Researcher have found that most readers actually prefer using a search tool (possibly an effect of the Google world that they have grown up in), and are usually satisfied with the results of their searches, but we can help them search and find even better by helping them better structure and understand how the searching works. 


So we should help the student understand about how words are put together  To find what you need may just mean adding a space. Depending on the reader or program it may then understand that the word is needed in isolation, or it may still give extra words (this might not be bad as it would then show mole and moles). But if we help them understand that when a word is usually defined that it occurs in a sentence like "a mole is" then we can try for "a mole" or "moles are". A quick search for "a mole" only show three occurrences in this science etextbook, and the first instance is indeed the definition. 



We need to make sure that students understand the possibilities and limitations of their searching. Just paging through text is not an efficient way to find information and is often unsuccessful. Using an index, a table of contents, or even a search tool doesn't ensure success, but if students understand the possibilities and structure they can be more successful. Researcher have found that most readers actually prefer using a search tool (possibly an effect of the Google world that they have grown up in), and are usually satisfied with the results of their searches, but we can help them search and find even better by helping them better structure and understand how the searching works. 



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