Susan Martens on Teaching Media Literacy

Susan Martens, on
Teaching Media Literacy

Teaching Media Literacy

An EQUIP by Susan Martens-Baker Nebraska Writing Project Technology Mini-Institute 2004

What is media literacy?

Susan MartensAccording to the Center for Media Literacy, media literacy "embraces the entire process of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and creating media. With media technology becoming so prevalent in homes, and with multi-media education more possible now with student access to computers and the Internet, 'media literacy' expands the basic concept of literacy (i.e. "reading" and "writing") to all forms of communication -- from television to T-shirts, from bill boards to multi-media environments."

>Why teach it?

Media literacy is actually part of Nebraska 's state standards:

  • R/W 4.1.3 By the end of the fourth grade, students will identify the basic facts and essential ideas in what they have read or viewed
  • R/W 8.1.7 By the end of the eighth grade, students will interpret the meaning of literary works, nonfiction , films, and media by using different analytic techniques .

According to South Dakota 's Communication Arts standards (which include very distinct references to media literacy), "In a highly technical and visual world, students must be able to select and sort useful information. As students learn about the distinctive characteristics of each medium, they understand how and why media productions and presentations are created. This prepares students to view the advertisements, movies, videos, websites, speakers, and television shows that surround them with an appreciative but discriminating eye."


How do we teach it?

The essence of media literacy is often cited as the ability to ask the "five key questions" developed by the CML:

  • "Who created the message?"
  • "What techniques are used to attract my attention?"
  • "What lifestyles, values, and points of view are presented in or omitted from the message?"
  • "Why was this message sent?"
  • "How might different people understand this message differently from me?

Many proponents of media literacy insist that, given our current media-saturated environment, education needs to shift away from promoting the accumulation of data and toward teaching students how to handle the data. Therefore, teaching media literacy is really just teaching critical thinking -- something we have all been doing all along. We just need to make sure that we are asking our students to look at all kinds of text, not just traditional print text.

Some of the successful media literacy activities I have tried:

  • analyzing popular TV shows for possible "under the radar" messages. My sophomores had a great time watching Saved by the Bell , a program set in a high school but aimed at an elementary/middle school audience. We looked at how high school was depicted and what kinds of misinformation and stereotypes that the show promoted.
  • dissecting a local news program, listing the stories covered and watching how the news seems to operate on a principle of "if it bleeds, it leads."
  • writing TV "treatments" for new shows with an eye for "target audience." We then role-played TV executives who made decisions about which shows would be chosen for production.
  • including "multimedia writing" as one of the standard modes or options for writing units or assignments. Some students become much more engaged in writing when they are allowed to create websites, comic strips, short films, living history exhibits, fashion shows, photo-essays, etc. as part of their writing assignments.
  • teaching film as a literary genre, examining directors as "writers," and looking at the way images tell stories. Students particularly enjoyed researching prominent American directors and making presentations about them.
  • creating spoof ads and infomercial parodies after learning about propaganda techniques and logical fallacies. See for examples. Check out the student infomercial for "Blast-a-mugger."
  • using the PBS Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool as a springboard for writing persuasive research papers about the effects of media on society. I require students to complete primary research on their topics, including observations of their media subject and surveys/interview with students and community members.


Where can we find out more?

Let's wander around a few of the websites that my students and I have used and then talk what we notice and what questions we have:
  • To start, check out the "spoof ads" in the "creative resistance" section If you want to help students analyze advertising, Adbusters is a great resource.
  • This is the website for
The Merchants of Cool
  • a great PBS documentary by media critic Douglas Rushkoff about the marketing of teen culture. You can watch clips from the documentary, look at teaching guides, and link to other media literacy sites.
  • This is the mother of all media literacy resources.


What are our questions, comments, and concerns?

How is media literacy currently being taught (or not) and assessed (or not) in Nebraska schools?

How do we teach media literacy while we are struggling to meet requirements for local proficiency levels and federal mandates?

What special opportunities or challenges does the Internet offer in terms of media literacy?

How does media literacy fit into the mission of the NeWP?

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