How educators can talk with students about media literacy

By Kerry Gallagher

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 12.23.42 PMJust over a decade ago a common understanding of the word “literacy” included only the abilities to read and write text. Today, literacy encompasses the abilities to interpret and create media that includes text, but also art, audio, video, animation, and the rest of the infinite possibilities available in a digital age.

Our children face a greater challenge than we did when seeking to become literate. We need a united effort to help them become mindful consumers and producers of media of all kinds.

Inspired by a movement in its tenth year in Canada, November 2-6 is the first annual Media Literacy Week in the United States. This week can help educators, parents, researchers, and technology industry leaders come together with our children to talk about how they can better access, understand, use, and contribute in our media rich world. The National Association for Media Literacy Education has provided a clear definition of media literacy for participants to use as a guide:

Media literacy def

How can teachers help their students with all of these literacy skills? There are resources and tools available for free online that have worked for me and my students in each of these areas. You pick the content – from history to science to music – but let students come up with the questions they are looking to answer. Here’s one way to approach media literacy in your class.

First, give your students a question they care about. Or better yet, encourage them to build their own questions. When children are looking for answers they really want, they are more invested. They will be ready to dive into all parts of media literacy to get the answers and share what they’ve learned.


Screen ShotWith access to the internet and devices, teachers can find free high quality up-to-date resources that can help their students learn about nearly any topic. These are usually referred to as Open Education Resources, or OER. OERs include primary and scholarly text sources, podcasts, videos, lesson plan ideas, interactive modules and more. Even the White House and Department of Education launched #GoOpen in October in an effort to connect schools, teachers, and students with these resources. I have a few of my own favorites, but OERs are available in all subject areas, for all grade levels, and are often aligned to Common Core and even state curriculum standards.  The benefit of using OERs is that teachers can pick and choose the elements that fit their students’ needs instead of feeling constrained by a premade set of resources.

What if you want your students to have the skills to find their own online resources? My students have honed their search skills using a game called Google a Day. Each day Google posts questions that users are challenged to answer by using their search engine skills. Tips and strategies are built right into the experience. A points system motivates students to refine their search skills each time they play. My students end up playing outside of class just because they find it challenging and fun. I’ve actually heard teachers tell students they were not allowed to use Google for research. Rather than make this unreasonable rule, why not teach kids how to use search engines properly?


Once students find high quality information, the next step in media literacy is to analyze. Does the information provided by the media help answer that student’s question? For instance, if a student is researching the impact of the Dred Scott Decision on civil rights, but the resources she is analyzing are about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the student will not find the information she needs to answer her research question. As a history teacher, my favorite tool for analysis of resources is from the Library of Congress. Their Primary Source Analysis Tool is… well… designed for primary sources. But the questions that are a part of the Teachers’ Guides are the types of questions we want our students to start posing as a habit when they encounter media of all kinds, not just media that is historical in nature. For instance, for photographs: What do you notice first? How are the people and objects positioned or arranged? What is the physical setting? Even music is considered by the LOC: What do you notice about how it sounds? What does the cover tell you about the music?

Media is complicated, but breaking down analysis into questions with simple language can help our students think beyond first impressions. Their searches may yield results, but they need to know which of those results are valuable. The analysis of historical media can tell us something about how we should analyse the media that we see in pop culture as well.


Once students find the information they need, they have to determine whether their source is reliable and worthy of being cited. Teaching them these evaluation skills can be fun. There are a few sites, like All About Explorers and one website dedicated to saving the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, that look superficially legitimate, but are designed for students to investigate deeper for authenticity, reliability, and accuracy. With a few clicks, students will find false and even silly claims that will make them laugh while also teaching them a lesson about website evaluation. Soon they will want to know who created the silly website and you can show them how to dig deeper. I like Stanford History Education Group’s sourcing questions as a guide for evaluation. My students got in the habit of using these questions every time they did research.

Want to know even more about the history of a website’s development? Show your students the Wayback Machine. It is a digital archive with snapshots of websites from throughout their history. What did YouTube look like in 2005? Just enter the URL and click Go. If we teach our students to be smart about sources of information they find online for school, they will be better equipped to evaluate all media they encounter.


The next step is to help students learn how to take what they’ve learned and put it in a form that others can learn from. Organizing their ideas and crafting a clear message will take some time and some drafting. Along the way they will need plenty of feedback.

For this step, one of the most important skills is writing a clear thesis statement. The thesis statement is what their entire creation will seek to prove. Catlin Tucker, teacher and author, has one of the best strategies I’ve seen for getting students motivated to work on this skill. She calls it the Thesis Statement Throwdown. It is an activity that gets kids working collaboratively, talking as they write, and analyzing one another’s work. There is also lots of movement in the classroom, and kids are motivated to write the best thesis statement possible.

Once they’ve got a great thesis statement, students will still have to write. It might be an essay, a script for a podcast or skit, a storyboard for a video, or a plan for a presentation. Having students do this writing using a collaborative tool like Google Docs is helpful. The teacher can look back through the revision history to see the students’ writing as it develops. Students and teacher can comment back and forth as they work through revisions together. Communicating in this way with a student throughout this process, rather than just handing them a paper with a bunch of red markings in the margins, helps both the learner and the teacher get to know one another better. It will truly serve as a personalized learning experience.


The creation stage is where students can really use their imaginations. Education technology tools have made it possible for my students to share their learning with creations like movie trailers, infographics, blackout poetry books, tourism advertisements, QR code scavenger hunts, radio commercials, and more. All of these creations were for history classes, but there is no reason a student couldn’t make an infographic to explain a math concept or a tourism advertisement in the language of the location. Teachers can coach students through this creation process by asking them questions about what the audience should experience when encountering the creation. Then, together, teacher and students can determine how best to use the tools available to create something that will accomplish that goal.

In my experience, giving students a chance to publish their final creations gives them even more motivation to make something great. But publishing school work is not for every child. Be sure to talk to your students and their families about how they want to share their creations. I’ve found that when we give our students a chance to share their ideas and concerns, they tend to come to the decisions that are right for them.

This week, the first Media Literacy Week in the United States, is an opportunity for teachers to talk with students about what literacy really means. It is also an opportunity for our students to ask great questions, find fascinating answers, look carefully at what they find, and share their learning with amazing creations. Let’s not let this opportunity pass, and let’s not let these conversations stop after this week.

Kerry Gallagher is a Technology Integration Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., a 1:1 iPad school serving 1500 students grades 6-12. She taught middle and high school history in Bring Your Own Device schools for 13 years. Prior to taking on a full-time technology integration role, Kerry was best known for her paperless collaborative classroom model which thrived on project-based learning. She is co-author of ConnectSafely’s The Educators’ Guide to Social Media and recently joined us as our part-time Director of K-12 Education