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Rethinking Source Evaluation for a Digital Age

By Kristine E. Pytash and Beth Walsh-Moorman
 | Dec 14, 2018

 originalAttribute=A recent study by MIT scholars found that fake information is 70% more likely to be retweeted than facts. Online sources can offer half-truths, manipulate data, or advance a political or social agenda in ways that look completely impartial to the reader. Moreover, Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) studied 8,000 student responses that required evaluation of information from social media (including advertisements, photo sharing sites, and news stories) and found that students in middle school through college showed an alarming lack of critical thinking skills. In an executive summary of the report, SHEG stated, “Our digital natives may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are duped.”  

SHEG has identified “lateral reading” as a way to teach the strategic thinking employed by fact-checkers. When given an online article for evaluation, McGraw and his colleagues found that “fact checkers do not spend time observing the source itself; rather, they read “laterally, hopping off an unfamiliar site almost immediately, opening new tabs.... They left a site in order to learn more about it” (see more in their 2017 American Educator article). In one study, fact-checkers were able to quickly note that an article about minimum wage was sponsored by a public relations firm for service  industries.

So how can classroom teachers help students read laterally? We suggest that this skill can be easily embedded in classroom instruction. For instance, Katie, a high school teacher, includes lateral reading when teaching Nick Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton). While she has students evaluate Carr’s argument, she added a formative step: At each new reading, students worked in groups to identify what sources Carr used in his argument. Then, the groups would break off and research those sources, often finding original texts and reading other references to them. Throughout the unit, students read and watched clips of 2001: A Space Odyssey, look at a 2001 Canadian study of  hyperlinks, and read reference materials about Descarte—all to determine how accurate Carr uses the work of others to back up his own claims.

“The process of lateral reading made the reading process more of an active conversation with the author,” said Katie. For instance, one student found a source behind a pay wall and told the class, “(If) I can’t read his sources without paying for them, I wonder what the sources really said. What if they said more than what he quoted?”

Using lateral reading as part of argument evaluation shifted the burden from the teacher to the students. Importantly, lateral reading can be used for any informational text. Elementary students can do their own research about before Nikola Tesla before reading Elizabeth Rusch’s Electrical Wizard (Candlewick). By middle school, teachers can ask students to evaluate an editorial about a recent event by first reading coverage of that event and then researching the news organization itself. In high school, authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Sebastian Junger can be excerpted or read in full before lateral reading.

The social aspect of the lesson strengthens the students’ ability to question the texts they read. Students’ lateral reading results can be summarized and shared through a Padlet or class blog. After the reading, students can use Poll Anywhere to rate the argument. Class discussions can focus on how sources were manipulated. Katie chose to have her students write a traditional essay, however, students can use Piktochart or other infographic apps to address the question, how effective was this argument?

Preparing students for an information- and misinformation-rich society is a challenge that will take time. Strategies such as lateral reading will not stop the spread of falsehoods, but they could make our students more aware.

Kristine E. Pytash is an associate professor in Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University where she co-directs the Integrated Language Arts program.

Beth Walsh-Moorman is an assistant professor of literacy at Lake Erie College in Painesville, OH. Her research interests include adolescent and new literacy practices, multimodal composition and disciplinary literacy. Beth spent 20 years as a high school English teacher and is editor of the Ohio Journal of English Language Arts.

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