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Surfing for Solutions

Finding homework help on the Web can be daunting. The problem: Search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista often answer your query with a truckload of sites, many of them unrelated to your subject. The other day we were helping Megan, our first-grader, do a class project on penguins, and the search engine buried us with sites devoted to the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.

We knew there had to be a better way  -- and we found it: homework-help sites and search engines that offer academic assistance just for kids. Here is a guide to some of the best online study aids. (One caveat: These sites are free, but some carry G-rated advertisements; explain to your child that the ads help pay for the site.)

Using Search Engines
"Searching is the essential skill for using the Internet," says Al Doyle, a computer teacher at the Poly Prep School in Brooklyn, NY. The sensible first step is to begin with a search engine geared for children. Our favorite is Ask Jeeves For Kids, a great place to get quick information on a subject. With large print, simple wording, and a spell-checker, it's so kid-friendly that even a first-grader can manage it.

Unlike most search engines (such as Excite, Lycos, Infoseek, and Hotbot), which match the keywords in a search request to a database of words created by scanning countless web pages, Ask Jeeves matches your child's question to a list of questions created by the webmaster. Then your child clicks on a question and jumps to the site that can answer it. Megan typed in "What are penguins?" and the site instantly responded: "Please pick the best question: 'Where can I hear the penguin?' or 'Where can I find information on the penguin?' " We clicked on each one and discovered two superior sites: The first featured the emperor penguin and a sound file of the penguin's calls, and explained how to tell the difference between male and female calls. The second linked us to Pete and Barb's Penguin Page, an enthusiasts' site packed with 150 pages of information and 200 photographs.

For children in kindergarten through sixth grade, Doyle recommends Lycos Kids or Yahooligans. Lycos has an encyclopedia with content from Funk & Wagnalls and a School link that connects to homework help sites arranged by subject. Yahooligans, which is the children's version of Yahoo, offers links to sites that have been selected and screened for age appropriateness, safety, and quality. Each search yields a manageable number of high-quality hits.

Middle-school children who are ready for more advanced techniques will like the "metasearch" engines, such as Dogpile, which run the same query on many different search engines at once.

Online Teachers
If your child has a week or so to work on a project, he'll enjoy talking to librarians and tutors in cyberspace. The American Association of School Librarians runs a site called KidsConnect (go to ala.org/aasl and click on KidsConnect), which helps kids find answers at their local library as well as on the Web. Simply e-mail a question to AskKC@ala.org, and get a response within two school days. We heard back in 12 hours: KidsConnect's librarian encouraged us to check our school library card catalog for books on penguins (good idea!), and listed seven nonfiction and two easy-reader books. We also got links to seven websites suited to Megan's age (one that featured student-submitted penguin artwork).

For the many families hooked up to America Online, there's real live homework help to be found there, too. Teachers around the country are now volunteering to be "homework helpers" for the leading online service. One middle-school science teacher we know, Guy Devyatkin, loves helping students on AOL, and gets free access time in return for his work. AOL members who type in the keyword "homework" connect to the Ask-A-Teacher Forum and have the choice of going to an electronic library or selecting elementary, middle-school, high-school, or college assistance. Kids or their parents can then select from Look Up Answers, Post a Question, Live Teacher Help, or E-mail a Teacher. AOL forwards your e-mailed questions to teachers who specialize in that subject. "I answer anywhere from 8 to 20 letters a week," says Devyatkin, who checks his mail once or twice a day. "Students usually get a reply within 24 hours, but when the system is really overloaded, with more than 800 letters a day, it can take as long as 48 hours."

AOL also offers "classrooms" set up by subject and age in which students can get real-time assistance. They type in their questions and the teachers on duty answer them with an Instant Message for one-on-one chat-style help.

You may be asking: Since my child already has teachers in school, who needs online teachers? Most kids simply can't or won't pick up the phone in the evening to ask their regular teacher a question. And online teachers are especially good at helping students evaluate the quality of websites they might want to use for a report.

For reliable site reviews that kids can look up themselves, there's no better place than Encyclopedia Britannica's Internet Guide, which classifies and reviews thousands of sites. Britannica editors pan the Web for the best resources, which are then clearly and concisely described. The site offers a search engine as well as a category menu. (A navigation tip: To find academic assistance sites, select Education on the home page, then K-12 Education, then Student and Parent Resources.) The eBlast site, which is free, does not include access to Britannica Online, a $5-a-month subscription site that lets you search the encyclopedia plus Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Tricky Questions
If your child has a specific question about something she has already done some research on, the Kids' Almanac offers almanac, dictionary, and encyclopedia entries just right for 6- to 9-year-olds. The site's Homework Center has search tips and Frequently Asked Questions on various subjects. For middle and high-schoolers, No Sweat.com offers a service called Homework Central. The site's strength lies in its quick links  -- to useful, specific sites and to experts whom you can e-mail.

But beware Studyworld, a parent's nightmare with links to Monarch and Cliff Notes as well as a database of free student-submitted research papers. It offers a warning: "This site is very popular and your teachers are aware of its existence. If you are caught using one of these essays as if it were your own work, you will be expelled from your school." The site is good to facilitate a stern talk with your child about plagiarism, which also includes cutting and pasting information from websites without attribution.

A much better choice is Researchpaper.com, which helps kids write essays without doing the work for them. There's an Idea Directory that has dozens of possible paper topics within each subject, and relevant articles culled from Electric Library and NewsWorks. The Writing Center helps with style, organization, and presentation of reports, and a discussion area lets kids tell everyone about their favorite places to find information. Now who says the Web isn't good for homework?

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