By Connie Rivera

All of us have had the experience of asking a search engine for a resource we envision and seeing results that were not at all what we had in mind. Sometimes we find so much information we don’t know where to start. Knowing a few tricks can help you find the precise lesson inspiration you’re seeking. Students, too, can benefit from learning how to “speak” to a search engine.

Tips to Expand Your Search


  • Tilde – Use a tilde directly in front of a word in your search to return possibilities including synonyms for that word. For example, typing ~examples will deliver pages with the words problems and samples on them.
  • Root Word – In some search engines, entering the root word will broaden your results. For example, entering the word math may return results that include mathematicsmathematical, and maths.
  • Switch Search Engines – If you’re scanning page after page of results, try a new search and try another search engine. They all have differences and you might have more success with another search engine such as: (which doesn’t track you),, or

Tips to Narrow Your Search

quotation marks

  • Quotation Marks – Use quotation marks around exact phrases so the words are interpreted as the phrase you intend rather than individual words. For example, “benchmark fractions” will return more specific results than searching for benchmark and fractions separately.
  • Minus Operator – Use the minus sign directly in front of words you don’t want included in your search results. For example, if you want results including functions, but not linear functions, use –linear as part of your search terms.
  • Capitalization – In some search engines, capitalizing the first letter of a word that isn’t usually capitalized will help you find that word in titles instead of the text of your search results.
  • Specific Words and Jargon – Using words that are specific to the profession or current buzz words will narrow your search. For example, a search for math lessons is far too general. Switching to “conceptual understanding” evaluate expressions ~activity will return far fewer results. For even more specific results, you can add the Common Core reference number, 6.EE.2c.
  • Advanced Searches – Looking through the features of your search engine will show you advanced search features. Some ways to limit your search with advanced search features include:

  • File Type – Limit your search to a video or to an image. You may also consider searching only for .pdf files if you are looking for articles on a topic or only .doc or .docx files if you want a lesson plan that is easily modified within the document.
  • Licensing – Narrowing your search to images and resources that are open licensed means their creator is knowingly making them free to use and share. For example, I limited my search with this feature in order to collect images for this blog entry.
  • Site – Some sites have a huge wealth of information, but the with-in site search feature isn’t bringing you what you hoped. Try using a general search engine, but limiting your search. I’ve used this with a site such as Math Forum.
  • Ctrl F – This is my favorite search tip, probably because before I learned it existed, I wasted so much time scanning the long running search results I clicked on. Hold down the control key and tap the letter F.  At the top of your screen, a search box labeled FIND will pop up. Type in your search terms again so that you can find the words that led the search engine to bring you to the site in the first place. FIND will highlight them on the page for you so you can scroll and spot them easily.

To reverse a common phrase:  better search terms in; better search results out. Happy searching!

Connie Rivera is a teacher of adult basic skills and high school equivalency preparation. She is also a math consultant, providing math strategies and support to programs implementing the College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards for Adult Education. Connie is currently the President Elect of the Adult Numeracy Network (ANN), the adult affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

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