Reading, Technology, and Inquiry-based Learning Through Literature-Rich WebQuests

Berhane Teclehaimanot
Annette Lamb

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The use of technology in teaching and learning can help bring reading alive for children and young adults. This article focuses on how a technology-rich environment can facilitate the reading experience and help students meet challenging standards while addressing essential questions that bring meaning to learning. Through the use of Internet-based WebQuests, students engage in problem solving, information processing, and collaboration. When these WebQuests are literature based, books become the focal point for reading-centered learning activities. The article describes creation of original WebQuests, but also explores how teachers can locate, evaluate, adapt, and integrate existing resources.

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Introduction | Literature-Based WebQuests | Exploring WebQuests | Creating WebQuests | Literature-Rich Ideas | Eight Strategies | Conclusion | References

Some students come to school ready to read and with a wealth of life experiences, while others lack even basic communication skills. Over the past decade, the “digital divide” has contributed to this disparity: While some students have blossomed through access to technology, others whose families or schools cannot afford computers and technical resources have missed opportunities for global connections and new learning experiences.

In many countries, new emphases on meeting government-mandated teaching and learning standards have increased the need to provide children with as many learning opportunities as possible. In the United States, the No Child Left Behind legislation has made it even more critical that educators provide a rich learning environment to address the needs and interests of all children. Building reading-centered, technology-rich learning experiences is an excellent place to start. According to Coiro (2003, online document), for example, “Internet-based comprehension tasks...present new purposes for reading, more critical thought processes during reading, and new examples of authentic responses after reading.”

Technology can help bring reading alive for reluctant readers and for those with limited life experiences. For some children, a book such as The Diary of Anne Frank comes alive through the power of the words themselves. For others, seeing photographs of Anne Frank and the settings in which her diary unfolds expands the reading experience and makes it more concrete and easily understood. Undertaking an Internet-based activity such as The Diary of Anne Frank...In Search of Truth can help children draw the reading and resources together within meaningful, inquiry-based activities.

This article focuses on how a technology-rich learning environment can facilitate the reading experience and help students address essential questions that bring meaning to learning, thereby contributing to their ability to meet challenging standards. In order to learn, children and young adults need to find meaning in their class readings and assignments. In designing assignments, teachers need to ask themselves

For example, if students are reading a book about the “orphan trains” that relocated thousands of American children in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they might focus on the following questions:

McKenzie (2001, online document) states that answers to essential questions can’t be found; they must be invented. Students must find meaning to create insight. Technology-rich activities such as interacting online with survivors of the orphan train experience, writing an editorial for a Web-based journal, or creating a video-based public service announcements focusing on what we learn from history are examples of innovative classroom assignments that help students address essential questions.

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Focus on Literature-Based WebQuests

A WebQuest is an inquiry-based approach to learning that helps students explore essential questions. WebQuests provide an authentic, technology-rich environment for problem solving, information processing, and collaboration. This approach, developed in the mid-1990s by Bernie Dodge of San Diego State University, involves students in tasks that make good use of Internet-based resources.

Literature-based WebQuests center the experience on reading by using books as the focal point for activities. Tasks might involve children in exploration of the theme, characters, plot, or setting of the book being studied.

Because students in any one class may have a range of skills, teachers are often concerned about how to address the reading needs of all class members. Students become frustrated when they are stuck in stagnant ability groups. The use of literature circles and whole-class WebQuest activities can alleviate this problem. Although children may read different books, they are able to participate in a shared experience based on the thematic focus of the WebQuest.

For example, in a study of the orphan trains, many books at different reading levels could be used, including A Family Apart and others in the Orphan Train Adventures series by Joan Lowery Nixon; Orphan at My Door by Jean Little; Orphan Train Rider by Andrea Warren; Rodzina by Karen Cushman; and Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting. In addition, teachers can add online reading experiences to their reading programs. With the orphan train topic, students could read historical accounts from primary resources available on the Internet. For example, they might read a newspaper article from 1886 about the arrival of an orphan train in Kansas or a short photo-rich autobiography by a survivor.

As students read the books and online resources, they generate questions. The Internet is a perfect tool for looking for answers. Rather than rushing to do a basic Web search, we encourage teachers to use thematic websites to locate quality online resources for their students to use. For example, the 42eXplore project contains quality Web-based resources for over 300 topics popular across subject area curricula at all levels. The 42eXplore page on orphan trains begins with a description of the topic and then provides links to several good websites that offer content at different reading levels. For example, Orphan Train: The New York—Missouri Connection from a school district in New York state contains resources, activities, and projects for many grade levels. The 42eXplore page also provides a list of suggested activities and WebQuests, links to websites by children for children and teaching materials, and a list of related words.

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Exploring WebQuests

Rather than creating a WebQuest from scratch, many teachers use resources already available online. Start by exploring literature-rich WebQuests that others have created. These projects can be simple or complex, but they share the same basic elements: an introduction, task, information resources, processes, learning advice, and evaluation. For example, the Find Frog and Toad! WebQuest (based on Arnold Lobel’s popular Frog and Toad series for young children) combines science and language study by asking students to become detectives and find out the differences between frogs and toads. Four easy-to-read websites are linked. Students create a Venn diagram and a “wanted” poster.

If you are looking for materials related to a popular book or topic, there is a good chance that someone has already created a WebQuest that fits your needs. The San Diego State University’s WebQuest portal offers a matrix of examples that is a good starting place for locating relevant WebQuests. For good literature-rich WebQuests and activities, check out

If you are not successful in locating a relevant WebQuest through one of these resources, try entering a phrase such as “orphan train WebQuest” or “animal study WebQuest” into your favorite search engine. Using this technique in a Google search yielded results including Riding the Orphan Train, a WebQuest that begins with a scene in New York City depicting a young child who has been caught stealing.

Evaluating WebQuests

When you are exploring WebQuests to meet your needs, you will find that some fit the definition of a WebQuest, while others are simply Web-enhanced lessons or chapter activities. As you begin to compare and contrast options, ask yourself these questions (from Eduscape’s Teacher Tap):

The WebQuest portal site offers a useful rubric for evaluating WebQuests.

Using WebQuests

Once you find a relevant WebQuest for your students, you will need to consider how it can best be used. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to locate a WebQuest that does not require many modifications. But, in all cases, careful planning and classroom management will increase the success of the project.

Use the following questions as you develop a classroom management plan for WebQuest integration:

It is also important to remember that WebQuests should be child centered. In other words, they should be written for students, in the language of students. Visual materials, text, and other components should be appealing, interesting, and at the reading level of the students who will be undertaking the WebQuest. What will students find interesting, motivating, or moving?

Project overview. It’s a good idea to start with an overview that introduces the WebQuest to the entire class or large group. If possible, use an oversize monitor or data projector to display the screens as you move page by page through the project. Provide background information, assignment sheets, and helpful hints.

For example, you might read aloud the introduction and task for the Lord of the Flies WebQuest based on William Golding’s book. In this WebQuest, students pretend that they’ve crash landed on a deserted island and must learn to survive.

Technology needs. Consider what technology is needed for the WebQuest activity to be successful. For example, it is effective to kick off the project with a large group activity using a data projector or large-screen monitor. Learning centers or computer clusters for small group use work well for some WebQuests. In cases where each student needs computer access, consider scheduling a session in the school computer lab or checking out laptops if your media center has these available.

Timesavers. Making the best use of instructional time is essential. This is particularly important in schools with limited technology access. Consider what elements of the WebQuest can be printed for quick access. Also consider if static webpages can be printed and read from paper. Reserve the Internet-connected computers for visiting websites that are dynamic, interactive, or constantly changing, and for e-mail exchanges and online discussions.

Student teams. Many WebQuests build small group activities into the project, with each group member assigned an individual role. For example, there may be a group goal or mission in addition to individual activities. Many teachers who use literature circles start with the roles familiar from that activity. The roles encourage students to focus on different cognitive perspectives related to their reading and draw on different intelligences. At first, the roles may be primarily directed at the reading. For example, for a given chapter, one student may write discussion questions, another visualizes the setting through art, while still another identifies new vocabulary or interesting passages. As these roles become a natural part of the circle, you may shift them so that they become more activity specific to the WebQuest.

Many WebQuests are designed with specific roles for students to play. In the literature-based WebQuest, Unfortunately, Mr. Snicket..., which focuses on the popular author Lemony Snicket, students take on the role of characters in The Bad Beginning. Asking students to take on a role of some kind is particularly helpful in differentiating a WebQuest to meet individual needs or to address learning styles. The roles can be static or can rotate through the project. Sometimes jigsaw activities or presentations are used to share ideas across groups. In the case of student teams, it’s important to consider both individual and team assessments.

Project headquarters. Many teachers find that creating a project headquarters in their classroom promotes reading and motivation. Designed as a learning center with tables, chairs, and computers, it might also include notebooks of materials, reading materials, clipboards, a decorated bulletin board of student materials, and real objects related to the topic or book being studied.

Student assessment. Multiple assessments are important in literature-based WebQuests. Both process and product assessments should be implemented for individuals and for groups. Checklists and rubrics are common tools for assessments of learning from WebQuest activities. For example, in a WebQuest based on Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, a rubric is provided for use in evaluation.

Adapting WebQuests

Sometimes, you may not be able to locate an existing WebQuest for a particular book, topic, or level. Rather than creating your own WebQuest from scratch, consider adapting a WebQuest. For example, Who Needs a Fairy Godmother, Anyway? A Cinderella WebQuest for Grades 1-2 could be adapted for different grade levels or fairy tales. Consider some of the following areas when adapting a WebQuest.

Making links. Sometimes the links provided in WebQuests are no longer active. (Many people call this “link rot.”) You can deal with this by identifying new links. In other cases, the resources linked in the original WebQuest may not be inactive, but may simply be ineffective in your teaching context. You might locate new resources at different reading levels, with new content, multiple perspectives, or different channels of communication, such as audio or video.

For example, in Tale Tale News, students are asked to create a tall tale based on a news article they find online. The links at this WebQuest include adult resources such as CNN, The New York Post, and The Sun. You might include additional links to content designed for readers with lower reading levels, such as Time for Kids and Yahooligans! News.

Elements. Mix and match the best elements from a number of WebQuests. Choose the best scenarios, links, processes, products, and assessment ideas from a variety of options. For example, there are many WebQuests available for Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet; you might like the introduction in one, the task in another, and the resources in a third option. The process packets provided in Survival! Lost in the Canadian Wilderness might be particularly appealing.

Level and focus. WebQuests can often be adapted for another level or purpose. You might change the grade level, standards focus, or motivation aspects. If the introduction is boring, enhance the scenario to add interest. If the books are too easy or too challenging, consider new resources. Think about modifying the learning outcomes or products. The WebQuest could also be revised to increase readability.

For example, many middle school teachers use WebQuests focusing on Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy and Midwife’s Apprentice when teaching about the Middle Ages. The central character in both books is a girl. Adapting one of these WebQuests to focus on Avi’s Crispin, which featuers a boy, might be a nice alternative.

Region. Some WebQuests are designed around a particular local historical event or natural area. For example, Hoosier Town Water Mystery is set in the U.S. state of Indiana, but it could be adapted for the study of water pollution issues in other locations. Sometimes a WebQuest can be enhanced for a different book or author focus.

Extend. Many WebQuests are designed in professional development workshops or university courses. As a result, some are incomplete or become dated; many lack detailed directions, assessments, or resources. In some cases, a WebQuest just needs breadth or depth.

Finally, many WebQuests are designed for a range of content areas; not all are literature based. Consider adding a reading component to a WebQuest that is primarily focused on another subject area, such as science or social studies. For example, there are many novels that could be added to the WebQuest The Wright Brothers: From Dayton to Kittyhawk.

If you choose to adapt a WebQuest, be sure to give credit to the resources you used. If you take content word for word from another source and you plan to post your project on the World Wide Web, you should get permission from the original developer. In most cases, an e-mail address is provided on the WebQuest. Most people are thrilled to hear that others are using their work.

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Creating WebQuests

Once you feel comfortable with using WebQuests, try creating your own. Some people choose to develop their own materials from scratch using Web development tools. Others prefer to start with resources and models available online, such as the WebQuest templates and design patterns at the WebQuest portal site. Others use services such as Filamentality.

Outcomes. Start by deciding what you want to accomplish with the WebQuest. Ask yourself

Then, consider whether a resource already exists to fit your needs. If not, then decide to create your own.

Introduction. Start with an introduction that’s interesting, motivating, relevant, and timely to set the stage for learning. This section should also provide background information. Consider something catchy such as a quotation, poem, or vignette. For example, Digging for Dinosaurs begins with a letter from a paleontologist. For WebQuests with a reading focus, consider starting with a book description, genre definition, photograph to establish the setting, or characters from the book. A WebQuest for The Islander opens with a summary of the book. The introduction for a WebQuest for The Outsiders includes a Robert Frost poem. Poetry Quest also begins with a poem, as does Welcome to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Over the Rainbow and Beyond starts by asking visitors to image they are Munchkins.

Task. The task is a critical element of the WebQuest. Choose a mission that is doable and interesting. It might include a series of questions to be explored, a summary to be created, a problem to be solved, a position to be debated, or something to create. The task should require thinking. In a literature-rich WebQuest, the task is often related to the characters, plot, theme, or setting of the book or story under study.

Rather than asking them to “write a report” or “answer these questions,” think of a creative ways students can be encouraged to express themselves. For example, could they create and videotape a skit based on a historical event or conduct an e-mail interview for a career exploration? Could they build a time capsule, design a society, hold a mock trial, persuade a group to build a museum, or design a theme park? In a WebQuest for My Brother Sam Is Dead, students work in teams to design a time capsule filled with documents, artifacts, and personal effects related to the American Revolutionary War. In Kid’s Court: Finding Justice in Fairy Tales, children conduct mock trials of characters in fairy tales. In The Little House on the Prairie: Explore the Places the Ingalls Lived readers are asked to create a museum.

The WebQuest Taskonomy: A Taxonomy of Tasks at the San Diego State University site contains many ideas for designing effective activities for WebQuests.

Information resources. Specific, appropriate resources are an essential element of an effective WebQuest. Web documents, experts available through the Internet, searchable databases, books, real objects, and original content are all materials that help extend a novel or other literature. In Nonfiction Rules! students use Web resources to explore nonfiction texts. Many WebQuests, such as Caterpillar Confusion, include both print and online resources.

Process. Students need quality materials to facilitate learning. These may include detailed activity descriptions, step-by-step instructions, timelines, and checklists. Resources such as assignments, questions, links to website resources, and descriptions of requirements are often posted in the WebQuest and made available in printed format. For young children, directions and links are often provided with graphic clues and icons. In Meeting in the Mitten, for example, kindergartners click on pictures of mittens to locate information about Jan Brett’s book The Mitten. In a WebQuest for Dragonwings by Laurence Yep, students are taken step by step through the process of creating their own newspaper, including the front page, feature story, political cartoons, and letters to the editor.

Learning advice. Beyond the directions needed to complete the activities, students often need additional advice. This may include a description of how information or notes should be organized, guiding questions, or directions to follow. Students can be given help or templates for creating timelines, concept maps, cause-effect diagrams, action plans, or other process-oriented activities. In Author Expert, for example, children choose an author of interest, use Kidspiration templates to organize ideas, and with the help of a “friendly letter” format, write a letter to that author.

Evaluation. Student assessment often involves contracts, checklists, or rubrics that relate directly to the processes and products outlined in the WebQuest. In some cases, students are even involved in developing their own assessment tools, such as quiz questions or checklists. In Designing Hermit’s New Home, students read a book about hermit crabs and write a play. The products are evaluated using a rubric.

Conclusion. Many WebQuests contain a culminating activity to bring the project to a close. The conclusion may also remind learners about what they’ve learned and encourage them to extend beyond the experience.

Other elements. Some WebQuests contain elements beyond the basics. For example, student roles can be a key component in WebQuests. This may simply involve breaking the group into smaller groups, or it may involve different assignments such as writer, artist, and director. In Study Insects with Eric Carle, for example, students choose to learn about crickets, beetles, fireflies, caterpillars, or ladybugs.

In addition, most WebQuests provide a teacher resource page with information about standards, lessons, and other resources.

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Literature-Rich Ideas

Although a WebQuest can be designed for any subject, literature-rich WebQuests are particularly interesting because they use technology to bring reading alive for students. From sounds and photographs to movies and primary source documents, the Internet is filled with exciting materials that can provide insight into the theme, plot, setting, or characters of books for children and young adults.

Characters. What type of clothing was worn during World War I? What festivals would the Korean characters celebrate? What does an Irish accent sound like? These are the types of questions that students often ask when reading a novel. The Internet provides quick and easy access to resources that can help students learn more about the time and place where the characters live. By using a WebQuest to guide students to these resources, they can gain insights into the experiences, frustrations, and relationships of the characters.

In The Culture of War: A Closer Look at Women During the Time of Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, for example, students explore the life of the women living during the period of the American Civil War. From The Door in the Wall and the Middle Ages students can learn about life in that time period.

Theme and plot. What happened before the book took place? What would have happened if this historical event had turned out differently? What might have caused the conflict or ended it? What are the legal and moral issues involved? What’s the science of the topic? Could the events presented in this book really happen? These are the types of questions students ask about the theme and plot of books. Students enjoy learning about the science of science fiction novels and discussing the social issues raised in realistic fiction. The Internet can provide facts and information to address students’ questions. Through WebQuests, students can also investigate how a change in characters or setting might change the outcome of an event or problem.

In The Journey Continues students learn about Ancient Greek culture and create a sequel to The Odyssey.

Settings. Some students in a class may have seen beaches, mountains, cities, or farms, while others may never have left their own community. WebQuests such as one for Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting can help students visualize the settings of books through photographs and drawings. Computer technology can also help students create their own vision of settings with paint software or other programs for illustrating and creating graphics, and through computer-generated modeling.

Genres. From science fiction to realistic fiction, WebQuests are a great companion for all types of literature. Historical fiction WebQuests such as Fact or Fiction: An Analysis of Historical Fiction Literature by Elizabeth George Speare and Fact or Fiction (focusing on Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Zia) provide students with the opportunity to compare fact and fiction related to real events. Realistic fiction WebQuests such as The Real Stuff help students understand the genre of realistic fiction. WebQuests can also help students identify information about events that happened at the same time or in the same place as those described in the literature. Online resources can guide students to the information needed to build timelines and maps, or even to speculate on the future.

Some WebQuests combine genres and subject areas to provide an interdisciplinary approach to reading and learning. For example, in a WebQuest based on The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, students engage in activities related to reading, writing, and science.

Authors. Many WebQuests focus on author studies, asking students to explore the life of an author, examine specific genres, or compare books by the same author. For example, the Patricia Polacco WebQuest highlights for students the many books by this author.

Connections. WebQuests can focus on a single work or on multiple books with the same theme or topic, or by the same author. Multicultural Cinderella Folk Tales, for example, explores different versions of the same familiar story. Many teachers prefer these sorts of WebQuests, because they rely on a range of materials that can meet students’ individual reading levels and interests. The individual activities can then be brought together using a literature circle approach.

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Eight Strategies

With so many options, some teachers may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of combining reading and technology. The following eight strategies will help keep the process simple and maintain a focus on teaching and learning.

Paper. Remember the power of paper. Although technology is a motivating and effective tool, sometimes paper provides a simple solution. Books are still the most portable reading material. Using printed versions of support materials such as guides, word lists, worksheets, organizers, rubrics, and webpages can often be much more efficient than relying on computer-based materials. For example, the WebQuest Teddy Bears and Bears in Literature contains a number of resources that can be printed for young children.

Pictures. Pictures are also very powerful. A majority of your students are probably visual learners. Photographs, clip art, graphics, drawings, book covers, illustrations, and student-produced art are all tools to promote understanding for students whose learning is enriched by visual representations. For example, in a WebQuest based on Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, book cover art and historical photographs bring the novel’s time period alive for students.

Interaction. Collaborative projects, e-pals, online experiments, and online book reviews are just a few examples of the ways Internet can be used to promote interaction. Some WebQuests ask students to interact with peers, experts, or community members through e-mail. In a WebQuest based on the novel The
by Paul Zindel
, for example, eighth graders correspond with retirees in the community.

Differentiation. WebQuests can be designed to involve all children in reading, regardless of ability level. Through book assignments, varied roles, and website choices, learners can be challenged at and just above their level. Choice is an important part of differentiation. In Literary WebQuest: The Nature Poets, for example, older learners can choose to focus on Emerson, Whitman, or Thoreau.

Learner centered. Keep in mind that WebQuests should be written for students, not as teacher lesson plans. Swimmy and the Deep Blue Sea is a good example of an appropriately written WebQuest for six- to eight-year-olds. When you focus on student motivation, reading level, and quality directions, your WebQuests will help children and young adults become independent readers and learners.

Controversy. Students become engaged in activities that require them to critique, debate, and discuss — such as those presented in Book Burning: It’s Not Just Science Fiction, a WebQuest on the topic of censorship. By providing multiple perspectives and information about current issues and interesting trends, higher order thinking skills are more easily developed.

Transformations. Application is an important part of reading. Students need to work with the information they read by discussing, debating, or demonstrating applications of it. They might present their ideas, videotape a skit, or build a product. This transformation of ideas enriches the learning process.

Meaningfulness. Students become engaged in activities that are authentic, such as those that present real-world scenarios, experiments, applications, and sharing.

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WebQuests can engage children and young adults in technology-enhanced, inquiry-based learning. By using literature as the focal point for meaningful activities, students learn to connect books with other resources, including websites, video, and communication tools. In addition, learners begin to see the relationships among language arts, math, science, social studies, and other content areas. Literature-rich WebQuests provide teachers with an effective method of promoting inquiry-based learning, organizing resources, and managing classrooms.

The addition of other teaching strategies and techniques such as literature circles and thematic materials enhance this learning environment. As teachers seek ways to motivate readers, address individual differences, and promote information fluency, literature-rich WebQuests can be valuable technology tools.

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Coiro, J. (2003, February). Reading comprehension on the Internet: Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies [Exploring Literacy on the Internet department]. The Reading Teacher, 56(6). Available:

McKenzie, J. (2001). From trivial pursuit to essential questions and standards-based learning. From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal, 10(5). Available:

About the Authors

portrait of Berhane Teclehaimanot
Berhane Teclehaimanot (e-mail) is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction and director of the Carver Teacher Education Center at the University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, USA. He is also the principal investigator for Teacher’s Info-Port to Technology (TIPT), a project funded by a Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
portrait of Annette Lamb
Annette Lamb (e-mail) is a professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI), where she teaches online graduate courses for librarians and educators. As president of Lamb Learning Group, she also conducts professional development workshops and presentations focusing on ways that technology can be effectively integrated in the classroom. Her website, Eduscapes, includes a wide range of resources for educators.

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Citation: Teclehaimanot, B., & Lamb, A. (2004, March/April). Reading, technology, and inquiry-based learning through literature-rich WebQuests. Reading Online, 7(4). Available: /index.html

Reading Online,
Posted March 2004
© 2004 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232