Bring Media Literacy Education Into Your Classroom
The Classroom

Bring Media Literacy Education Into Your Classroom

The Newsela Team
Jun 28, 2024

As an educator, you must adapt to the students and the times. The content of your lessons, lesson delivery methods, and edtech tools grow and change each year to meet students where they are. That means you have to teach them more than reading, writing, and math. You also have to cover skills to help them navigate the world. That’s where media literacy education comes in.

In this article, we’re looking at what media literacy is and how to help your students navigate this ever-evolving landscape of rules and best practices.

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to consume and think critically about content and messages presented in mass media to determine its purpose or credibility. It has three main components:

  • Decode messages: Understanding what a piece of media is trying to tell you and the context in which it’s told.

  • Evaluate the influence: Consider how those messages affect your thoughts, feelings, or behavior.

  • Create responsibility: Develop media ethically and responsibly. 

In media literacy education, teachers help students build the skills they need to evaluate messages in any piece of content they encounter. Media literacy evolves as media evolves. When a new social media outlet or app comes out, media literacy must adapt. For example, when AI became mainstream, media literacy lessons needed to be updated to include the new technology.

Who teaches media literacy to students?

Media and content exist in every area of a student’s life. It’s not the responsibility of just one teacher to provide media literacy lessons or education. Media literacy lessons are most effective when incorporated repeatedly into various areas of the curriculum and school day. Educators who can take an active role in introducing media literacy to students include:

What makes a good media literacy lesson?

According to Faith Rogow, founder of Insighters Education—a media literacy organization, there are certain hallmarks of quality media literacy lessons or discussions. The National Association for Media Literacy (MANLE) also has 10 core principles to guide media literacy instruction. Guidance from both sources overlaps and includes principles like:

  • Using media to grow skills: Media and content don’t just inform students, but also help them build critical thinking and literacy skills.

  • Inviting student questions: Students actively lead discussions about media and its purposes rather than just responding to teacher questions.

  • Focusing on all media: Lessons incorporate evaluating print and digital media of all types, topics, and purposes.

  • Incorporating diverse perspectives: Media should depict all sides of an issue and the views of all affected parties rather than giving a one-sided story.

  • Encouraging multi-source investigation: Students learn to use multiple sources to fact-check and get more information about a topic.

  • Justifying claims with proof: Teach students how to back up their claims and opinions with document-based evidence from reliable sources.

  • Reading or viewing to understand: Students should read, view, or experience content to understand its purpose rather than looking for a “correct” meaning.

  • Engaging with authenticity: Students should be able to investigate media objectively without trying to find the meaning a teacher or society wants them to get out of a piece of content.

  • Examining structure: Looking at how media is made and shared influences how we make meaning from it.

  • Spotlighting media creation: Encourage students to ask the same analysis questions when making media as they do when examining it to guide their choices.

The role of civics in media literacy lessons

Civics is the study of the rights and responsibilities of people who live in a society. This concept applies to social studies curriculum and government matters like voting. It also applies to creating and engaging with media because as a society we have responsibilities and duties to create and share factual, helpful information.

Media literacy can be an extension of civics courses, especially when used to evaluate primary and secondary sources, texts, videos, and other content. Digital citizenship is also a component of media literacy that is tied to civics. 

Digital citizenship focuses on how to interact with people and conduct yourself in digital spaces. The term digital citizenship implies that all internet and technology users are members or citizens of the same online community. Just like we cover citizenship in social studies classes to teach students how to interact with people in the real world, we teach digital citizenship to show them how to interact with people in online communities.

What are the challenges of media literacy education?

Teachers may encounter challenges from students when working through media literacy lessons. Some of them may include:

Student resistance

Students may be reluctant to learn media literacy. This may happen more often with middle and high school students. They may make excuses for why they don’t need to learn media literacy like, “It’s not that important,” “It doesn’t matter,” or “It doesn’t affect me.” It’s the teacher’s job to make them care.

This isn’t an easy task, but it’s possible. One of the easiest ways to do it is to share content they care about. Put that media or content at the center of your lessons. Talk about TikTok, Roblox, or Taylor Swift. Get them to debate and discuss topics that interest them. If they’re invested in the content it’s easier to show students how media literacy applies to their lives.

Third-person effect

The third-person effect is when someone thinks that the persuasive tactics used in mass media are more effective on others than they are on them. Middle and high school students may suffer from this effect most because they grew up with technology. They may think they’re savvier than their teachers or media creators and wouldn’t fall for persuasive tactics. Two pathways to show students they’re not immune to media persuasion: empathy and excitement. 

To teach a lesson about empathy in the media, discuss topics and content that convey both subtle and overt emotions. Ask students how they feel about each piece of media. If they feel any emotional reaction at all, that’s proof that the media is affecting them.

You can also pose scenarios about engaging with content that excites them, like seeing a social media ad to win concert tickets for their favorite artist’s show. They may be tempted to follow all the rules to enter the contest, no questions asked. If they’re willing to do anything to get what they want, then they’re also affected by media persuasion.

Skepticism or cynicism 

Focusing too much on media inaccuracies, persuasion, and fake news may lead some students to become skeptical or cynical about all the content they encounter. Media literacy isn’t supposed to teach them to doubt what they read but to question it. 

The difference is that someone skeptical or cynical about the media decides that things are fake news or aren’t valuable without doing any additional research. Those who question the media don’t discount every piece of content they encounter. They look for trusted, vetted, thorough, fact-checked sources instead. Stressing the importance of media ethics, integrity, and validating sources can help combat this challenge. 

Bias backlash

Media literacy education can get controversial. Especially when hot-button topics like politics, religion, or social justice circulate in the mass media. If you’re teaching media literacy at a time when these topics are front and center, students from underrepresented groups or on the less widely covered side of an issue may feel the lessons are biased.

Bias won’t be your intention, but depending on the information available to share and dissect with students it may feel that way. One way to combat this challenge is to make sure you’re showing as many viewpoints as possible when teaching media literacy lessons. Newsela’s Pro/Con texts cover plenty of issues from multiple perspectives and provide as close to an unbiased opinion as possible on each topic. 

Get more tips from media literacy experts

There is so much more to explore about media literacy. In our webinar “Cut Through the Noise: Teaching Students Media Literacy,” leaders from iCivics, journalists in the field, and school administrators discussed the importance of students building critical media literacy skills to serve them throughout their education and beyond.

You can stream the webinar on-demand to get even more insights and guidance on how to approach media literacy with your students at any grade level.

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