Basic research skills for EFL students

Charlie Canning, Konan Women's University


Quick guide

  • Keywords:Research, Internet, journal, database
  • Learner English level:Low-intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity:University to adult
  • Preparation time:1 hour
  • Activity time:One 90-minute class period and one 90-minute library tour
  • Materials:Computers with Internet access


Most university students in the developed world today have never used a typewriter and may never have to. Although it may be a stretch to say that they have also never used a library, basic research skills are in short supply. Often what we get when we ask our students to do research is a quotation from Wikipedia cut and pasted on a blank page. But good research means more than that. The following activity is designed to teach university students some basic research skills, making use of common resources found in most libraries.


Step 1:As a class, decide on a research topic. Some examples of topics can be found in the Appendix. Instruct your students to type a keyword into a search engine (such as Google or Yahoo), and click the “search” button.

Step 2:Next, have the students limit the amount of information they receive by adding the abbreviation “EFL” to the keyword or keywords.

Step 3:Have the students print out an interesting article.

Step 4:Have the students look for a book in the library by doing a search on the online catalogue system (OPAC at most libraries). The library computer will provide a list of the materials that are available on the students’ subjectsand willalso note the location of the materials within the library.

Step 5:If the students cannot find what they are looking for in their library, have them look for a book in a neighboring library by using something called the Union Catalog of Foreign Books (Shinshu Yosho Sougo Mokuroku). If your library has something called Webcat, and most libraries do, your students will be able to search the collections of hundreds of other libraries throughout Japan. Because Webcat functions just like your library’s online catalogue (OPAC), all the students have to do is type in a keyword of the subject or the title or the author’s last name, and they will be given a list of books and journals available in libraries from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

Step 6:Have the students go to the reference desk and arrange to borrow a book at a city, prefectural, national, or university library through interlibrary loan (Sougo Riyou). For information about this service and the fees involved, they should consult their librarian.

Step 7:Have the students look for a Japanese translation of a book written in English or another foreign language by consulting the Shoseki Somokuroku <>.

Step 8:Have the students find a journal or magazine article in English by using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. This information used to be published in book form every year. Now, however, it can be accessed online through your library’s homepage or the Reader’s Guide link <>.

To locate journal or magazine articles in Japanese, students can consult the Zasshi Kiji Sakuin, which is now available online using a library service called Nichigai Magazine Plus. If the students cannot find the journal that they are looking for in their own library, have them use a reference book called the Gakujutsu Zasshi Sougo Mokuroku to find out which libraries have the journal they are looking for.(This information may also be available online through the NACSIS link of your library’s homepage).

Step 9:Students can arrange to borrow a journal written in English or Japanese from a neighboring library by repeating Step 6.

Step 10:Have the students try using ProQuest and other library databases (see Appendix).


While search engines like Google and online encyclopedias like Wikipedia can save your students a lot of time when doing research, the Internet is still no substitute for the traditional and expanded source materials available in a library. Basic research skills for EFL students include knowing how to use keywords,how to use strategies for limiting information, how to use online catalogues and interlibrary loan systems, how to find journal, magazine, and newspaper articles, and how to usethe relevant databases available in their library. Until we teach our students how to do some basic research, we shouldn’t expect very much in their papers, presentations, and reports.


Canning, C. & Kitani, H. (2009). From the research paper to the graduation thesis: Researching and writing for university and graduate school. Manuscript submitted for publication.




ProQuest is an electronic database of thousands of journals, magazines, and newspapers that is easy to use. All the students have to do is type in a keyword or words and click on the “search” button. Depending on what databases they’ve selected (the standard package for university libraries comes with the Academic Research Library, ProQuest Medical Library, ProQuest Newspapers [The New York Times and USA Today] and U.S. National Newspaper Abstracts databases), the database will do a search through its archives and provide a list of source materials. If students want, they can even pre-select for things like the date of issue, citations that include only the full text of documents (rather than abstracts), and only scholarly journals.

Other library databases

As ProQuest is a database of American and Canadian sources, it may not have all of the information that your students are looking for. If a student is writing a paper on a topic like “Japanese food in Australia,” for example, they might want to use a database called FirstSearch. This database includes North American, European, and Australian sources.

Japanese databases

Even if your students are writing a paper in English, they may want to do some research in Japanese. In that case, they should familiarize themselves with the databases that are widely available in Japan like GeNii, CiNii, and JapanKnowledge.

Exercise for using ProQuest

To see how ProQuest works, let’s take an  example. Last year, a student wrote a very good paper about Yoshihiro Hattori and gun control.(Hattori, you’ll recall, was the Japanese foreign exchange student who was tragically killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,while on his way to a Halloween party). The student began by typing in the name “Yoshihiro Hattori” and came up with a list of 44 documents. This list included full-text articles, abstracts, and citations of articles about or by Yoshihiro Hattori. To narrow the list further, she typed in the words, “Yoshihiro Hattori and gun control.” This time, she was given a list of just five documents. Finally, she tried the same search again (“Yoshihiro Hattori and gun control”) but this time checked the box for “Full text documents only.” This last search provided her with three newspaper articles and one journal article, two of which she used to write her thesis.

Go to your school library or a public library that subscribes to ProQuest and do a search using the following sets of key words:

  • Fast food and slow food
  • Influences on teen smoking
  • September 11th and terrorism
  • English as a global language

Note: You may have to experiment with the key words and try several different possibilities including some of the topics that ProQuest will suggest.

Next, fill in the missing information with the answers from your search using ProQuest.

The keywords ___________________________ gave me a list of _________ documents for all databases. When I narrowed the list by checking the box for “Full text documents only,” I was given a list of ____________ documents.

Then select two of the articles to read later.

After looking at the list of documents, I decided to read the journal article called, “__________________________________________” and the newspaper article called, “__________________________________________.”

Research assignment

Choose a topic to research. If you’ve already decided on the topic for your research paper, you can use that. Otherwise, any topic will be fine. Narrow the topic down to something specific so that you will not have too much material. Example: “Japanese Culture” is too general. “The Doll Festival” (Hina Matsuri) would be better because with this topic there will not be too much information for you to sort through and read. Then search for a book, journal, magazine, or newspaper article, or an Internet site related to your topic.

List of resources mentioned in tharticle

  • Union Catalog of Foreign Books (Shinshu Yosho Sougo Mokuroku).

To locate books in English available at other university and research libraries in Japan, use the NACSIS link on your library’s homepage.

  • Shoseki Somokuroku (Search Engine for Japanese Books) <>
  • Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1900-. <> (subscription required).
  • Zasshi Kiji Sakuin is now available online using a library service called Nichigai MagazinePlus <> (subscription may be required).
  • Gakujutsu Zasshi Sougo Mokuroku

To locate journals available at other university and research libraries in Japan, use the NACSIS link on your library’s homepage.

Library databases(subscription may be required)

  • ProQuest <>
  • FirstSearch. This database includes North American, European, and Australian sources. <>

Library databases in Japanese(subscription may be required)

  • GeNii (Scholarly and Academic Information Portal) <>
  • CiNii (Scholarly and Academic Information Navigator <>
  • JapanKnowledge <>

Helpful links

See the Nagoya University Library links page, “How to find information about printed publications” for many helpful links to resources available on the web.

For more complete information about traditional reference materials used before the popularization of the Internet, please see the following two guides:

  • Makino Y. &Saito M. (1994). A student guide to Japanese sources in the humanities. Ann Arbor, MI.: University of Michigan.
  • Webb, H. (1963). Research in Japanese sources: A guide. Ann Arbor, MI.: University of Michigan.