If we have time to teach our students only one thing this school year, let it be critical literacy! There are few topics more crucial for students today than those that enable them to analyze information critically.
Gone are the days when trusted teacher- and peer-edited textbooks were the main providers of knowledge. So long to a time when most fake news existed at the checkout line in supermarket tabloids. These days, our students are flooded with information, and without the proper skill set for identifying fact from fiction, it will be difficult for them to determine legitimacy. Modern media come in many different formats, including print media (books, magazines, newspapers), television, movies, video games, music, cell phones, various kinds of software, and the Internet. Knowing how to read these media critically is the key to literacy and understanding for today’s learners and information consumers.
Critical literacy skills
Research suggests students spend about 30–40 minutes a day reading, but almost seven to eight hours a day consuming media. Understanding media and being able to analyze media messages critically are the skills required for being media literate. Media literacy is defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. According to the Center for Media Literacy, media literate youths and adults are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, and all other forms of media.
In our age of participatory culture, we should be treating our students like the type of prosumers (producers and consumers of information) we would like them to become. While putting our efforts into teaching students the craft, ethics, and responsibilities in producing media, we must also teach them to become skilled consumers of information, discerning fact from fiction at every turn or click of a hyperlink.
In order to survive their daily flood of information, students need a solid critical literacy toolkit. We can provide these tools in many ways. One way is to teach students to use the 5W’s for Critical Analysis, recommended by Donald Leu, Deborah Leu, and Julie Coiro in their 2004 book, Teaching With the Internet K–12. They suggest it is helpful for students to ask the following questions while consuming information: Who is saying/writing/creating this? What was their purpose of the particular media that was used? When did they say/write/create? Why did they say/write/create it? Where can we go to check for accuracy?
This ongoing cycle of five questions helps students decide whether the information is legitimate and whether it was produced to inform, influence, undermine, or sell something. Another useful set of strategies for critically analyzing information is Google’s Believe It or Not Search Techniques and Strategies. These lessons enable students to experiment with real and hoax sites while honing their analysis skills.
Critical multimodal skills
The prevalence and influence of modern media make critical literacy an essential skill. Visual messages can be quite strong and provide a great deal of information beyond words. I often think about how easily images can be enhanced with tools like Photoshop or computer-generated imagery (CGI). This blend of photography and video is so realistic that it is often impossible for the viewer to know if something they see is real or not real.
An excellent educator resource for visual meaning making was introduced by The Learning Network blog at The New York Times, titled What’s Going on in This Picture?. The blog focuses on photojournalism, visual literacy, and critical thinking by asking viewers to think about one interesting photograph a week. The photos appear without caption or heading, requiring readers to rely on information gathered from the image alone. Commenters use visual thinking strategies to identify the image through virtual discussion. Typical questions about the images include the following:
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
Later in the week, additional information and a backstory about the image is revealed.
Additional ideas for developing media and critical literacy skills can be found at The University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. The project, founded by Renee Hobbs, provides public programs, educational services, community outreach, and multimedia curriculum resources targeted to the needs of educators.
Call for action
Many are concerned about the mass media saturation of today’s students who will become tomorrow's adults. However, we can empower our students to critically negotiate the daily storm of information they receive. Placing greater emphasis on media literacy and, more specifically, on embedding critical literacy skills into our instruction is essential. It is our responsibility, as educators, to provide even our youngest learners with strategies for determining if information is fact or fiction.
Susan Luft, PhD, is an Elementary English Language Arts Coordinator for Scarsdale Public Schools, New York. She is also a member of Fordham University’s Digital Literacy Collaborative (FDLC) project. You can follow her on Twitter.
This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).