Skip to Content

Media Literacy

found in: language arts; social studies; preK-2; 3-5; 6-8; 9-12

Media literacy is an umbrella term covering a number of ideas about language use and communication. In advertising, politics, journalism, and daily life, language is used and misused. And as the widespread use of social media has demonstrated, imagery can be as enlightening and deceptive as language. Some ideas and associated skills have been taught in classrooms for years, and some are relatively new. What follows are resources to support K-12 media literacy education.


Advertisers use words and images to sell products. (Campaign managers sell their products, political candidates.) In the case of new products, providing information may suffice, but when similar products are available from many manufacturers, advertisers aim to distinguish one brand from another. Sometimes the differences are real. Sometimes they are illusions.

(K-12) In 1976, Hugh Rank won the NCTE’s George Orwell Award for his Intensify/Downplay Schema.  to help the public understand communication, persuasion, and propaganda. Persuaders intensify by using repetition, association, and composition. They downplay by using omission, diversion, and confusion. The simplicity of Rank’s schema’s makes it a good classroom tool to analyze all forms of persuasive communication. Students can bring in print ads for analysis.

(Professional Development) Rank’s complete The Pitch: A Simple 1-2-3-4-5 Way To Understand The Basic Pattern Of Persuasion In Advertising, 2nd Edition 1991 ( PDF, 2.2MB, 162 pgs.) provides 12 chapters with additional information and exercises that can be adapted for K-12. A printable Schema appears on pp. 23-24 and is followed by questions to ask about advertising. Some of the material may be dated, for example, Chapters One’s ad slogan quiz, but new ones can be substituted.


The techniques of advertising are used in politics and government, especially during election campaigns, but also when constituent support for proposed programs is necessary. At its worst, governmental language can become Orwellian or intentionally misleading.

(6-12) Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”  criticizes bad writing habits such as the use of cliche, verbosity, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. Anyone familiar with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style will find that this essay covers much of the same ground. It includes examples of each fault.

The Elements of Style, now in its 4th Edition, is a classic guide to clear writing. It is a student guide and charitably assumes that the lack of clarity in student writing is an error. Its brevity (105 pages) and many examples are a plus, as are the sections on commonly misused words and expressions and glossary.

(9-12) “The Principles of Newspeak” is the appendix to Orwell’s 1984 and imagines a time when those in power consciously modify language to serve its ends. Some of the examples will seem comical, “uncold” for warm but “war is peace” is not. We are not living in an age in which language has been turned on its head, but there are many instances when emotional distance is achieved with euphemism.

Spokespersons for the military are known for euphemism. All The Euphemism We Use For “War” catalogs words and phrases that have been used so frequently they have become cliché and are seldom questioned. Contrast this language with Mark Twain’s The War Prayer. The military is not the only user of euphemism. Anyone who has been downsized or laid off or RIFed knows he or she no longer has a job.


(Professional Development, 9-12) George Lakoff’s Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (2004, 2014) looks at the language of political debate and contrasts the ways in which conservatives and progressives talk about issues. Frames are mental structures that shape the way we view the world. In the video George Lakoff: Don't Think of an Elephant (59:35) Lakoff says that conservatives have been more successful than progressives in achieving their goals because of how they frame public discourse. An early example in the video contrasts the frames of “lobbying reform” with “congressional corruption”. He argues that “lobbying reform” frames lobbying as the problem rather than faulting members of congress for their betrayal of public trust. See: Warren Proposes Sweeping Crackdown On Lobbying.

Framing is characteristic of the human brain. See: Idea Framing, Metaphors, and Your Brain (5:11) For the complete video, See: George Lakoff on The Political Mind (1:05:30) The video is accompanied by a labeled menu that lets viewers choose sections of interest. And in a 2014 Washington Post article, How To Reframe The Education Reform Debate, the author urges supporters of public education to reframe the debate to center their own values of shared responsibility and empathy.

Evaluating Resources

Project Look Sharp’s 12 Basic Ways to Integrate Media Literacy and Critical Thinking into Any Curriculum ( PDF, 446 KB, 20 pgs.)  (K-12) Suggests activities for each step.

A Checklist for Evaluating Information Found on the Internet  ( PDF, 164 KB, 2 pgs.) (K-12) A printable checklist ordered who, what, where, and why.

Evaluating Resources (K-12) 6 considerations in evaluating resources: authority, purpose, publication & format, relevance, date of publication, and documentation.

Fact Checking

Evaluating the source of a claim to establish its credibility has been a traditional way to approach media and information literacy, but research and a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, How to Teach Information Literacy in an Era of Lies, suggest that a more productive approach to information literacy is to encourage students to become fact-checkers, to focus on the claim made rather than on its source. (Professional Development)

The 2017 research from the Stanford History Education Group, Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,  Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew found in a study of 10 Ph.D. historians, 10 professional fact checkers, and 25 Stanford University undergraduates that as they evaluated live websites and searched information on social and political issues “fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.” The study distinguishes vertical and lateral reading: staying on a website to evaluate its reliability or leaving it to judge the credibility of the original site. (Professional Development)

In their discussion, Wineburg and McGrew attribute the fact-checker’s success to “taking bearings” and “lateral reading.” Taking bearings helped the fact-checkers determine partisan interests of a group’s website. Lateral reading let the fact-checkers use other Internet resources to learn more about a site and its claims. Fact-checkers relied on knowledge of sources and political biases, how search results are organized, and how search engine optimizers push some sites in front of more authoritative sites. Right clicking to open new tabs to facilitate comparison rather the stacking pages, keyword searching, and putting terms within quotation marks to set them as a unit were other skills the fact-checkers used. The discussion includes more fact-checker practices.

Yet another link in the Chronicle article provides a video and transcript of dana boyd’s, You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?,  a critical take on the way media literacy has been taught. She argues that students must be able to do more than assess sources and claims. They must assess themselves as well.

How to Fact Check The Atlantic describes an editor’s fact checking routine for a print article on ISIS.

Students should use one or more of The 10 Best Fact Checking Sites (5-12) whenever a story raises suspicions and especially if it appeals too strongly to their own prejudices.

Turn Students into Fact-Finding Web Detectives  features 20 downloadable tips and tools resources for K-5 teachers and students, including Google image searching, reverse image searching, fact-finding skills, and more.

Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News  is an updated NY Times lesson for grades 6-12 with information, activities, examples of fakes news stories, and a case study in how fake news spreads.

And don’t forget:

Who Stands Between Fake News and Students? Educators

Media and Technology Resources for Educators

Media Education Lab

Project Look Sharp

Killing Us Softly (Video)


Media Literacy Archives


Average User Rating (0 users)

3 stars
of 5.

Your Rating