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Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL): Search Syntax (EBSCO & ProQuest)

Keyword Searching - General Tips

Good searching technique is simple, but it does require some flexible thinking ...

  1. When you're preparing to search, write down your topic.
  2. Break up your topic into its component concepts. These might be a category of people (students, adult learners), a language, a context (classroom, academic writing), an age level or education level, a condition (beginning learners, anxiety, stress), or a treatment (discipline, argumentation, CALI).
  3. For each concept, write down synonyms for that concept. These might be words or phrases that are common knowledge or that you have discovered through reading and listening.
  4. Construct your search using logical set thinking and Boolean operators. That is, (Concept 1 synonym OR Concept 1 synonym) AND (Concept 2 synonym OR Concept 2 synonym) AND (Concept 3)
  5. Paste that search string into each database you choose, or you can use the database's Advanced Search template to paste each concept cluster into a separate search line.

Remember! Always write down your search planning. As you encounter new synonyms through your search results, "OR" them into your concept clusters. Saving your search planning will help you to return to your search right before your deadline - so you can see if anything new has been published. Also, It will document your work if you are asked to explain how you found what you cite.

A handy MS Word Keyword Search Worksheet is available for you to download:

Search Syntax used in ProQuest Datababses

Default and keyword search

The All fields option looks for search terms in all fields—including any available abstract or full text.

Two or more terms entered are combined with AND


Searches regular plurals automatically.  You can change this in preferences.


Use quotes:  "curriculum development"

Truncation / Wildcards

* use an asterisk at the beginning, end, or in the middle of a search term. Replaces up to 10 characters. Each truncated word can return up to 500 word variations

identit* gets identity or identities

used to replace a single character, either insider or at the right end of a world.

organi?ation, e?l


near/n or N/n   searches two terms, in any order, within 0 to n number of words from each other.  Replace ‘n’ with a number. Used alone, near defaults to near/4.  When you shorten NEAR to N, you must provide a number.  

adult near/3 learner

pre/n or P/n  - searches for documents that contain a search term appearing a specified number of words before a second term.

novice pre/2 teacher

Field searching

Use either the pulldown menus to select fields or specify them in your search: 

ti,ab,su(online) searches for online in the title, abstract, and subject fields.


Brings back results with the letters in the parents in capitals 


Search Syntax Used in EBSCO Databases

Default and Keyword Search

The default fields searched vary between EBSCOhost databases but most include: all authors, all subjects, all keywords, all title information (including source title) and all abstracts.

In many EBSCO databases, the default search is set to a phrase.  If two or more words are entered on the same line, they are searched as near to each other.  You can change the search mode option.


When a singular word is searched, the plural and possessive forms are also searched. If the word is enclosed in quotation marks, plural and possessive forms will not be searched.  

When a plural is searched, the singular version will be searched. If the plural is spelled differently, (e.g. child, children), a search is not expanded unless the "Apply additional terms to query" expander is checked.


Use quotes:   "teacher evaluation" 

When Boolean operators are included in a phrase search enclosed in quotations marks, the operator is treated as a stop word. When this is the case, any single word will be searched in its place.

Truncation / Wildcards:  

* enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an asterisk (* may also be used between words to match any word.)

cultur*  finds culture, cultures, cultural, culturally

? replaces a single character,

Use # for variant spellings - colo#r finds color and colour. When using the hash (#) wildcard, plurals and possessives of that term are not searched.


Near Operator (N) - Nn finds the words zero to n words of each other, in any order.  

digital N3 literacy

Within Operator (W) - Wn finds the words zero to n words of each other, in the order given.

adult W3 learners

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