The Internet is the dominant text of our generation. Millions of individuals globally use it to read, write, communicate, and participate with others. Yet, in an online space that regularly serves up spin, fake news, and shades of fiction, it’s easier than ever to consume falsehoods and spout them as fact. That’s why critical media literacy must be an integral part of students’ learning experience.
As children increasingly consume and utilize media and digital, social texts it is important to recognize that literacy does not occur in a silo, but is enriched by social, political, cultural, and other contexts. Texts are written and presented from a specific standpoint and contain a particular ideological and ontological focus. For the most part, there is no way to read, write, view, or speak a text from an impartial, or neutral position. As a result, children need to be taught that these contexts and contingencies exist within texts, and be challenged to respond to texts in a critical manner.
Children must be taught to question a text and interrogate it to understand who created the text, controls the power, determines these power structures, and is not heard in the text. In critical literacy, teachers and children are to ask questions “about language and power, about people and lifestyle, about morality and ethics, about who is advantaged by the way things are, and who is disadvantaged” (Comber, 2001, p. 271).
What is critical media literacy?
Critical media literacy was originally defined by Kellner & Share (2006). They define it as the following:
Critical media literacy is an educational response that expands the notion of literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies. It deepens the potential of literacy education to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power. Along with this mainstream analysis, alternative media production empowers students to create their own messages that can challenge media texts and narratives.
Put simply, critical media literacy has readers interrogating text to examine and challenge the dominant power structures that audiences work to make meaning between the dominant, oppositional, & negotiated readings of media.
Educators must identify instructional opportunities to accommodate shifts in literacy and text, and help prepare students to interrogate these texts in their own literate practices. There is an opportunity to use multimodal content and media with young learners to help them understand connections and critique other forms of text as they read and synthesize across multiple modes of communication. In this process, educators and students engage in critical literacy, and critical media literacy. Educators and students can develop a perspective of being a healthy skeptic as they collaboratively read the word and read the world as they inspect the texts that are utilized in different spaces.
One possible way is to teach students is to have students develop a criteria to interrogate texts as they identify and question the credibility (or truthfulness) and relevancy (usefulness) of information presented online. In this, we generally identify three types of online information: weaker sincere sites, stronger sincere sites, and hoax websites. This is currently very difficult to achieve as readers are bombarded in digital spaces by a million shades of truth as they consume media.
Provide readers with a list of websites with varying levels of credibility and relevance. Ask them to rank order the sources from the most useful and truthful, to the least truthful and useful. The key is to have this analysis lead to further questioning and discussion with students. The following sites are good examples, focused on the topic of asthma.
As you bring the class together to discuss the results, the focus is less about the rank order of the websites, and more about the criteria they used to make these determinations. Students and groups of participants can be asked to provide an overview of each of the websites and identify markers or cues that impacted their evaluation of the credibility and relevance of the website. The following prompts are good, open-ended starters to guide this discussion.
- Which author is the most knowledgeable person about asthma?
- Which website uses strong words, phrases, and images to influence readers?
- Which website has the most reliable details to support the argument that chihuahuas can cure asthma?
- Where do you look on a website to find out when it was written?
- What is the reason this website was published?
- Given this website’s “About” page, what is the expertise of the author of this site?
- Which website has the most up to date information?
- Which website uses the best details to support the claim about causes of asthma?
- Which website uses information from the most reliable source?
- Where do you click to learn more about an author?
- What is the author’s main argument?
- Which website would be the best to answer the question: What is asthma?
- Who is the main audience of this website?
- Which website has pictures and video to help inform the audience?
- Which section of the website should you read to learn about asthma flare-ups?
- Which website uses information from the least reliable source?
Ironically, students spend inordinate amounts of time on computers and smartphones; however, our schools make little or no effort to teach them how to use those tools in a literate and useful way. Within these contexts, these challenges are even more pressing as the Internet becomes an increasingly common source of information. A perfect storm has erupted around the ways in which networked publics consume and critique information online.
In considering the demands and challenges of integrating literacy instruction in the twenty-first century, there is an increased demand to consider the contextual elements of literacy and the languages surrounding them. As we recontextualize literacy in instruction, educators also need to value the texts and experiences students bring from home, family, and community. This integration of traditional out of school literacies and texts acknowledges the popular and beloved books and other media that students utilize in literacy practices outside of school as well as the importance of social learning in which text interpretation is a group rather than individual practice.
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