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November 5, 2010 Identifying Reliable Sources and Citing Them By Angela Bunyi
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    This may not sound like the most exciting topic for a post, but I can assure you that it is a critical one. If your students complete ANY research online at all, then you will be interested in how I collaborated with our librarian to teach my students to identify reliable resources and to properly credit them.

    After helping my 1st grade son create a poster for school last year that required online research, I know this information is applicable to grades 1–12. I have also included sources that help students create grade-appropriate citations. This post includes four lesson plans, photos of anchor charts, and reliable Internet sources geared for students. 




    What Colleges Are Saying: It's NOT Too Early . . .

    Consider these statistics from a recent article, "'Generation Plagiarism'?" in Scholastic's The New York Times Upfront:

    ~ In a recent study, 40% of college students admitted to plagiarizing in written assignments.

    ~ In a separate survey done as part of the same study, 47% of high school students admitted to copying and pasting from the Web.

    ~ Of those high school students, one third said they didn't consider it cheating.

    ~ Of 196 plagiarism cases at the University of California, Davis, most involved students who intentionally copied although they knew it was wrong.

    According to the article, many students don't see what the big deal is. In fact, the only time I can ever remember a student asking me the dreaded question "Why do we have to learn this, anyway?" was during this unit. Rather than get upset, I understood. By that point, I had witnessed students' inability to discern reliable sources from unreliable sources in a mini-crash course designed by the librarian and me. After completing our unit (which took a week), I believe that even 1st grade is not too early to require students to begin citing sources. There are sites that help students to cite work and provide assistance by grade level. Don't allow your students to get into the habit of just printing out information from a Web site, or of cutting and pasting it into another document without proper credit.

    Interested? Or more importantly, do you already see signs of copying — or cutting and pasting — Internet information into school projects? If so, we may be fostering a habit of not critiquing our sources for reliability and not crediting information.

    Listed below are the specific lessons the librarian and I designed for my class. Each lesson meets a targeted skill under our 5th grade standards. Luckily the lessons will also guide us towards our first independent project, creating a Civil War Museum. Perhaps it will help you with your next class project as well.

    Reliable Sources and Proper Citation Mini-Course

    Created in Collaboration With Our School Librarian

    According to the results of our ThinkLink testing, my students have a poor understanding of how to choose reliable sources and create citations. I received this information while creating the rubric for the Civil War project. My focus immediately turned to putting the most weight on the ability to identify reliable sources and cite findings. I met with our librarian and shared the learning standards we were addressing in reading and social studies, and then we created three lessons for our class. The impact of these lessons was pretty profound, and has already led to some healthy changes. 

    Important Note: Our librarian follows a collaboration model that allows her to work around our schedule and with our specific needs. This model allowed me to schedule the first lesson on a Thursday and the remaining lessons on a Monday and Wednesday. Post any questions you may have about this new model at our school.

    Lesson 1: Use This, Not That

    Materials: Printed directions, envelopes, laptops or access to computers, BrainPOP video

    Time: 40–45 minutes

    Step 1: Let the Unguided Research Begin! (20 minutes)

    We broke my class up into two groups and put them on opposite sides of the library. Then we gave the students one of two envelopes, depending on their group. The only instructions or guidance they received was inside the envelopes. The instructions were as follows:

    Group A

    You are to research the following learning standards pertaining to the Civil War. . . . you may use this section of the library and this carefully selected list of reliable sources found by the librarian. Record the information gathered.

    Group B

    You are to research the following learning standards pertaining to the Civil War. . . . you may only use Google. Record the information gathered. 

    I was confident that group B would be frustrated with this restricted assignment. However, within two minutes all but one student were on Wikipedia; the other student was on They didn't ask any questions, and a quick check on how they found their source revealed that they had typed a question such as "What were some of the Civil War battles?" into the search engine bar and then chose one of the top two pages suggested by Google.

    A quick trip over to group A was a completely different story. Students browsed the shelves for books, looked at professional-looking pages that were easy to navigate and geared for elementary students, and stopped me to say, "Mrs. Bunyi, look at this!"

    Step 2: Class Discussion (20 minutes)

    With the help of our librarian, our class met back together and talked about our quick assignment. We asked group A about the layout of their pages, accessibility of content, and so forth. Students spoke positively about the primary documents and the plethora of rich documents and information.

    With group B, we discussed how they found their way onto Wikipedia, how it lacked the user friendly features, and the quality of the URLs and author credits. We compared sites using a SMART Board and recorded our findings on chart paper (photo above). Key questions included "What does reliable mean?" and "How can you check reliability?"

    Lesson 2: Reliability Specialists

    Time: 1 hour

    Materials: Evaluating Web Sites for Reliability (SMART Board, zip file)

    Sites for the lesson:

    CivilWar@Smithsonian site

    Civil War Wikipedia site

    Directions: Begin with a brief review of the previous lesson with a slide show on a SMART Board, the BrainPOP video, and anchor chart notes.

    Give students a specialist assignment to review the CivilWar@Smithsonian and a Civil War Wikipedia page. Questions are recorded and turned in for a grade.

    Specialist Assignments:

    Content Specialist

    1. Does the site cover the topic comprehensively?

    2. Can you understand what is being said? Is it written above or below your level of understanding?

    3. What is unique about the site? Does it offer something others do not?

    4. Are there links to other sites about the topic?

    5. Does it give the date the information was created? The date the material was last revised?

    6. Would you get better information in a book? An encyclopedia?

    7. Would you include this site in a bibliography?

    Usability/Design Specialist

    1. Is the site user friendly?

    2. Is there a well-labeled table of contents?

    3. Do all the design elements (graphics, art, buttons, etc.) enhance the message of the site?

    4. Are there any errors in spelling or grammar?

    5. Do the pages appear to be clean and uncluttered?

    6. Do the links on this site work?

    7. Would you include this site in a bibliography?

    Bias/Purpose Specialist

    1. Why was this site created? (to persuade, to educate) Is it a commercial (.com), government (.gov), academic (.edu), or non-profit Web site (.org)?

    2. Is there any bias? Is only one side of the argument presented? Is it trying to persuade you to change your opinion?

    3. Can you tell the facts from opinions?

    4. Would you include this site in a bibliography?

    Authority/Credibility Specialist

    1. Who is responsible for this site?

    2. What are his or her credentials?

    3. Have the authors documented their own sources?

    4. What is the domain name? Does it end in .com, .gov, .edu, .org, or .net?

    5. Who else links to the site? You can perform a link check in Google by entering "link:webaddress" in the search box. Is it linked to other reliable sites?

    6. Would you include this site in a bibliography?

    Lesson 3: Citing Your Sources

    In between lesson two and three, I already noticed a change in how the class viewed information. For example, we were reading a newspaper article in class that stated a date for the invention of the cotton gin. A student pulled out our notes, showed another date, and stated that my notes came from a reliable source. Another student chimed in that we could verify that information if we looked at another resource to make sure. What a great feeling. I knew we were ready to give credit when we researched online for our project.

    Time: 40–45 minutes

    Materials: URLs (provided below), a BrainPOP video on citations, and Citing Sources (SMART Board, zip file)


    Students view the BrainPOP video that includes instructions on how to cite interviews, magazines, and Internet sources. It also addresses how to cite Internet pages without an author and sources with multiple authors. I highly recommend it.

    The remainder of the class is dedicated to modeling and demonstrating online citation links. And how times have changed! Sites such as World Book require a username and password, but are well worth it, considering that they tend to have citation machines. You simply choose your grade level (starting at 1st grade), click on the type of resource (e.g., TV commercial, magazine, Internet, book), and plug in the requested information, and the machine provides MLA copy-and-paste citations. I bet many adults wish resources like this had been around when they were in school.

    Don't have access to World Book? No problem. Many of the resources listed below provide proper citations that can be copied and pasted. Fact Monster, for example, has a small speech bubble that says "Cite," and the Tennessee Electronic Library has a link to a citation for each page.

    Reliable Online Sources Geared for Students


    The reliable sources found by our librarian (above) include KidsClick! which is a Web search engine for kids by librarians; Fact Monster, which includes an online almanac, dictionary, encyclopedia, and homework help; the Tennessee Electronic Library (click on "All TEL Databases," or "KidsInfoBits"), World Almanac for Kids, and World Book Encyclopedia Online.


    Lesson 4: Bring the University to Your Classroom

    Luckily, we have Middle Tennessee State University literally across the street from our school. The president's wife also teaches 3rd grade. Many of our parents teach at the university. One of our 5th grade parents teaches a course on plagiarism and is set to speak with our class about this growing problem and how we can help, beginning at the elementary level.

    I recommend that you contact your local university to see if a professor could visit your room to talk about their experiences dealing with this growing problem.

    Applying What We Learned:

    How You Can Check for Reliability and Cite Sources

    For the next three weeks we will be applying our newly learned research guidelines to create a Civil War Museum. I am confident that our librarian has helped guide our students toward future and current researching success.


    The rubric used for this project includes room for self-evaluation and teacher-evaluation. The heaviest weight is placed on reliable sources and citations and proof of interest.

    Download Civil_war rubric (Word)

    Download Civil_war rubric (PDF)

    How Do You Verify That a Source Is Reliable?

    1. You can check cross-check the information and find it in more than one place.

    2. You can find the copyright and know when it was last updated.

    3. You know who created the site, and preferably, the author's credentials.

    4. Look at the domain. Is it a .org site or a .com site, with ads, for example?

    5. Are you comfortable citing this source in your bibliography?

    6. Does the layout and format present the information in a professional manner?

    7. Is the site easy to navigate and user friendly? If not, it might not be the best place for gathering information (e.g., The Library of Congress is great, but hard for elementary students to navigate).

    8. Is there any evidence of bias on the site?

    Citing Work Is As Easy As Copy and Paste (Ironically)

    I have included the citations for this post I got using World Book. As I said above, it's easy because you just plug in, copy, and paste. Here is a screen capture of the process I went through. I have included the three formats that were provided to me. 

    The other, free, site mentioned by a reader is Citation Machine.


    Gabriel, Trip . "'Generation Plagiarism'?" The New York Times Upfront 25 Oct. 2010: 6–7. Print.
    Gabriel, T. (2010, October, 25 ). 'generation plagiarism'? The new york times upfront, 6–7.
    Gabriel, T 2010, ''Generation Plagiarism'?', The New York Times Upfront, 25 October, pp. 6–7.

    To Learn More About Our Classroom

    ~ Visit our class home page


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Susan Cheyney