Tutorial: Refining Web Searches for ESL Topics

How to locate useful ESL information on the web. The table of contents below consists of live links, so you can easily jump around in the tutorial.

If we submit the simple web search ESL, all the search engines will give us huge numbers of results. Even spelling the query out with “English as a Second Language” doesn’t help: The lists of results are still monstrous.

So we need to learn a bit about how to refine (focus) such a search. The tutorial below will focus on searching for ESL-related items. But all of the techniques can be applied in any search you need to make. We’ll start with a few quite general observations, and then get down to the business of searching for ESL-related items. If you’re more or less familiar with searching on the web, skip the Generalities section (maybe scan it for any new ideas) and start at Tutorial (click on Tutorial in the live table of contents above).


Browsers and Search Engines

The most widely used (US) internet browsers are:

Chrome, Internet Exporer (IE, now Edge), Safari, Firefox

While there are many more search engines, the most widely used (US) search engines are:

Google, Bing, Yahoo, Duck Duck Go

Each of the search engines is available under each of the internet browsers [except??]

The different search engines will generally show you substantially different results for a query (because they work on different principles). If you use the same search engine (say Google) on different browsers, any given query should give you the same results on the different browsers.

How To Formulate Search Queries

Searches can be carried out by going to the main page a given search engine, and entering the search query there. But all of the browsers also allow you to enter a search query directly in the address bar on the browser panel (even if the page currently showing in the browser has nothing to do with the search query you want to start). To enter a query, type the words making up your query, separated by spaces. It’s often useful to type a space after your query to make sure the browser understands this is a query and not an address.

The various search engines will differ in the details of their treatment of your query. But broadly, they do the following:

  • Search engines traverse (“crawl”) the web in advance and analyze the pages they see, and store information indexing those pages in advance of dealing with any queries. Keep in mind that no search engine “understands” a web page the way we do. The engines assemble the list of words and phrases that occur on the page (together with info that can be gleaned from the HTML markup), and then build their indices.
  • When you submit a query, the engines use the stored index information to build a list of responses (pages) answering your query.
  • The engines apply various modifications to your query to improve the response, including such things as utilizing synonyms, correcting (perceived) spelling errors, and attempting to determine the broad target of your query (such as looking for local businesses and finding reviews of a movie).

Google’s How Search algorithms work is a pretty good general presentation which, although it’s about Google search, pretty much applies to all the search engines.

It’s generally good practice to use words with as specific meaning as possible, since that narrows your results. But be sure you haven’t chosen words that are too specific, since that would throw out some results that you might find desirable.

To some extent, the order of the words in your query matters. If you change the order of your query words, the results shown to you will be somewhat reordered, but logically, you ought get the same total results; but the order can affect the modfications mentioned above. It’s probably a good strategy to type the more general words of your query first (leftmost), and the more specific words following the general. Conceptually (if not operationally in the engine), this corresponds to starting with a large result and gradually narrowing it down.

Finally, just because you include a particular word in your query doesn’t mean that it will show up on a given result page. Sometimes, that’s a consquence of the engine thinking it will modify your query to “better serve you”, such as changing the word ‘ESL’ to the word ‘English’. But also, the engine does not necessarily see your query as requiring all of the words, i.e., that “funny valentine” is really “funny AND valentine”. If you work your way through higher numbered pages in the result list (say, page 10, …) you’ll see that the engine starts interpreting the query to mean “at least one of the following words”. So that “funny valentine” start being interpreted as:

Find pages which include one or both of the following words: “funny valentine”

If you want to force the engine to only return results including both words, you can use the (+) advanced technique described below.

Advanced Search

Each of the search engines supports “advanced” searching options. All four of the engines support advanced search option “operators” in queries. Make sure you don’t leave any spaces between an operator (like +,-) and the word it applies to. Here are the most useful operators:

  • Use double quotes to group a phrase into a single search term. For example,
    ESL “business writing”

    would be searched as

    ESL AND (business writing)

    instead of

    ESL AND business AND writing.

    If you perform the two queries, you’ll see that the results are different, and so are the numbers — ‘ESL business writing’ produces many more results.

  • Use ‘+’ to force the engine to make sure the word the word is included on each and every result page. So for example,
    ESL “business writing” +email

    demands that ’email’ occur on the result pages. Performing the queries on Google, ‘ESL business writing’ gets about 1,580,000 results, while ‘ESL “business writing” +email’ only gets about 52 results — a much shorter list to look through!

    Referring to the ‘funny valentine’ example above, ‘funny valentine’ gets about 2,710,000 results, while ‘+funny +valentine’ only gets about 137 results!

  • Use ‘-‘ (hyphen/dash) (or ‘NOT’ on Bing) to exclude words. For example,
    ESL business writing -email

    throws out results containing the word ’email’.

In addition, Google and Yahoo have an “Advanced” search page where you can refine your search in various ways:

Google: https://www.google.com/advanced_search
Yahoo: https://search.yahoo.com/search/options

A Few General Tips

Let’s note that if/when you find some web pages that interest you, you don’t want to have to do the search over again in the future. You’ll want to (almost) always save your positive search results as bookmarks in the browser you are using. To keep your bookmarks from turning into a jumbled heap, make use of the browser facitilties to create folders to organize your bookmarks.

If you’re trying to use your mouse to select a word or phrase to use, it sometimes helps to perform the selection dragging your mouse from back to front. That way you can get both the end and beginning of the selection more precisely than dragging from front to back.

Also note that if ‘[PDF]’ is placed next to the result headline, besides reading that document online, you can download it to keep on your computer.

About those “number of results” you see on some of the engines’ results pages. If you jump to pages deep in the list (say, 20, 80, ….), you’ll see that the results listed begin to look less and less relevant to the query you think you’ve submitted. On the other hand, if you’ve typed a reasonable query, at least the first several pages, maybe page 1 to page 4 say, seem to contain results which might related to your understanding of your query. Though it’s surprising how often one or more “oddball” results show up on the first page, which seem to have little to do with what you want.

Also note that the first three engines not only place paid ads (as opposed to “natural” results) in a right-hand column, but also place paid ads at the top and bottom of the results listing. Occasionally these might have something you want, but mostly you’ll be interested in the information in the “natural” results. And you’ll see that the ads aren’t always good responses to your query, since they’ll typically only meet a couple of the terms you submit.

Finally, the search engines sometimes get fooled by aggregator sites. For example, you’ll often seen a search engine result pointing to Pinterest, but if you go there, all you see is a bunch of pictures of sites, where one of them might be a solution. But then you have to click through on that, and often that page isn’t a good solution to your query because the engine didn’t analyze that page directly.


We’ll lean towards using Google in the tutorial, but all the techniques apply to all of the search engines listed above.

Looking for Something about Grammar

As observed at the beginning, just searching for ‘ESL’ returns huge numbers of results on all of the engines. For fun, let’s compare the first 5 non-ad results for Google and Yahoo:


ESLGaming | The ESL Gaming Network
ESL (@ESL) · Twitter
ESL ReadingSmart | Web-based learning for ESL Students and …
Activities for ESL/EFL Students (English Study)
ESL – YouTube


ESL Federal Credit Union – Official Site
ESLGaming | The ESL Gaming Network
ESL: English as a Second Language – Free English learning …
America | ESL Play
ESL (@ESL) | Twitter

Fairly different, and you might have been surprised that ‘ESL’ is used for credit unions and for gaming. Obviously, ‘ESL’ is a very general term. Thus it will be ok to place it as the first (leftmost) term of one of queries, and then add other terms which narrow it down.

So let’s consider the query:

ESL grammar

Let’s again compare the first 5 non-ad results for Google and Yahoo: (Note that there definitely are interesting results beyond number 5, but we’re just doing some simple comparisons to see what the engines give us.)


Dave’s ESL Cafe: Free English Grammar Lessons
Self-Study English Grammar Quizzes (ESL, EFL)
English Grammar Quizzes – Easy (ESL, EFL)
Grammar exercises for learners of English as a second language
SL – English Grammar – Rong Chang


English Grammar: a complete guide
Self-Study English Grammar Quizzes (ESL, EFL)
Grammar | EnglishClub
Grammar for learners of English – A guide to learning English
ESL – English Grammar – rong-chang.com

The result lists are still a little different, but there’s some overlap, and all of the results are now about ESL and grammar.

Next suppose we want to examine different approaches to ESL grammar. Let’s try the query

ESL grammar approaches

If you were to compare the number of results Google reports for the ‘ESL grammar’ query and ‘ESL grammar approaches’, you would see that the number gets much bigger for the latter query, instead of smaller as you might expect. That’s the result of the modifications the engine made to the words making up the query. There’s a good chance that the engine added in synonyms for the general word ‘approaches’, and that increased the number of solutions returned. Once again, let’s take a look at the first 5 non-ad results for Google and Yahoo:


Inductive and deductive grammar teaching: what is it, and does it work …
Teaching approaches: the grammar-translation method | Onestopenglish
Approaches and procedures for teaching grammar
Introduction to grammar & Approaches in teaching grammar
How to Teach Grammar in an ESL Class – ThoughtCo


Teaching approaches: functional approaches in EFL/ ESL …
ESL Approach – Reading Horizons
Common Core ELA Approaches For English Language Learners
CAELA: Tools: Program Development Tools: ESL Methods & Approaches
Language teaching methods – A guide to learning English

These result lists are quite different! But clearly most of the results appear to be reasonable answers for our query.

If we want to go further, say to look at a particular approach to grammar teaching, it may be useful to replace the quite general word ‘approach’ with the word ‘teaching’. So suppose we’d like to look at inductive approaches to teaching ESL grammar. Here’s a query:

ESL grammar teaching inductive

Now we get substantial overlaps between the first 5 non-ad results for Google and Yahoo:


Inductive and deductive grammar teaching: what is it, and does it work …
Teaching grammar inductively – English Agenda | British Council
Inductive vs. Deductive Grammar Teaching in the ESL … – Bridge TEFL
Inductive approach | TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC
Defining Induction on a Continuum | Foreign Language Teaching …


Inductive and deductive grammar teaching: what is it, and does it…
Teaching grammar inductively – English Agenda | British Council
Teaching grammar inductively | English Agenda
Inductive vs. Deductive Grammar Teaching in the ESL … – Bridge…
Inductive approach | TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC

Moreover, the titles of the results look promising. So it’s probably time to start drilling into the results, reading the summaries and going to read the linked pages. Here’s a hint: Use the “right-click on link” feature of most all systems to open the result page in a new browser tab, or a new browser page. That way, you can easily see how your refinement worked, and can also easily try alternative refinements. Sometimes you may see an interesting or useful word on a page you’ve drilled into, such as ‘comparative’ or ‘conditional’ on one of the result pages above. Then you can select that word (say, comparative), and add it to the end of your query (or one of the earlier, shorter queries), and go forward.

In the Generalities section above, we noted that you can:

Use double quotes to group a phrase into a single search term.

So suppose that our query ‘ESL grammar teaching inductive’ is giving us much of what we want, but that we also would like to get some lesson plans for that. We can add the quoted phrase “lesson plans”, like this:

ESL grammar teaching inductive “lesson plans”

Now our results will all be pages similar to those above, but will have the phrase “lesson plan” somewhere. Hopefully, as you drill in now, you’ll find useful plans. Of course, you’ll discover that on some pages, “lesson plan” just occurs in some sentence talking /about/ lesson plans, while on others it really announces lesson plans being provided.

Here’s another little tip. If you drill into a page and want to find where “lesson plan” occurs, use the browser page search facility. Pull down from Edit on the browser bar and either choose Find (on Firefox) or Find > Find… (on Chrome or Safar). This will open a single-line input field, at the bottom of the window on Firefox, or at the top on Chrome or Safari. Then type your target phrase “lesson plan” (without the quotes) into the field and hit return. The browser will tell you how many occurrences of the phrase (“lesson plan”) are there on the page, and will let you use the up/down arrows to advance from one occurrence to the next. Thus, in our case here, we could fairly quickly determine whether the result pages we’re drilling into actually contain a lesson plan.

More Queries: Skill, Grade Level, Content Focus, Etc.

You can create a huge range of ESL-oriented queries, only depending on what you need. Here are some examples:

ESL Reading for “primary grades”
ESL Reading for “high school”
ESL Reading for adults

ESL Reading for “primary grades” +”lesson plans”
ESL Reading for “high school” +”lesson plans”
ESL Reading for adults +”lesson plans”

ESL Writing for “primary grades”
ESL Writing for “high school”
ESL Writing for adults

ESL Writing for “primary grades” +”lesson plans”
ESL Writing for “high school” +”lesson plans”
ESL Writing for adults +”lesson plans”

ESL Reading for China
ESL Reading for Japan
ESL Reading for Philippines

ESL Reading for business
ESL Writing for business
ESL Reading for business +”lesson plans”
ESL Writing for business +”lesson plans”

ESL Reading for science
ESL Writing for science
ESL Reading for science +”lesson plans”
ESL Writing for science +”lesson plans”

You can replace Reading and Writing with Speaking and Listening and Grammar and Vocabulary. Business and science can be changed to other content topics, as can the places such as China. The possibilities are just endless!