Help kids think critically about the media they consume and create.

Do your students love to take and edit photos to post on Instagram? Are they obsessed with watching (or maybe even becoming!) YouTube or TikTok celebs? Do you want to help your students learn how to spot a stereotype on a TV show? Or how to identify bias in a news article? If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider integrating media literacy education into your lessons.

Digital and media literacy expand traditional literacy to include new forms of reading, writing, and communicating. The National Association for Media Literacy Education defines media literacy as "the ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication" and says it "empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators, and active citizens." Though some believe media literacy and digital literacy are separate but complementary, they’re arguably one and the same. They both focus on skills that help students be critical media consumers and creators. And both are rooted in inquiry-based learning—asking questions about what we see, read, hear, and create.

Think of it this way: Students learn print literacy—how to read and write. But they should also learn multimedia literacy—how to "read and write" media messages in different forms, whether it's a photo, video, website, app, videogame, or anything else. The most powerful way for students to put these skills into practice is through both critiquing media they consume and analyzing media they create.

So, how should students learn to critique and analyze media? Most leaders in the digital and media literacy community use some version of five key questions. The questions below were developed by the Center for Media Literacy, and you can learn more about them here

1. Who created this message?

Help your students "pull back the curtain" and recognize that all media have an author and an agenda. All of the media we encounter and consume was constructed by someone with a particular vision, background, and agenda. 

  • Help students understand how they should question both the messages they see, as well the platforms on which messages are shared.

2. Which techniques are used to attract my attention?

Whether it’s a billboard or a book, a TV show or movie, a mobile app or an online ad, different forms of media have unique ways to get our attention and keep us engaged. Are they using an emotional plea? Humor? A celebrity? Of course, digital media are changing all the time, and constant of updates and rapid innovations are the name of the game. 

  • Help students recognize how new and innovative techniques capture our attention—sometimes without us even realizing.

3. How might different people interpret this message?

This question helps students consider how all of us bring our own individual backgrounds, values, and beliefs to how we interpret media messages. For any piece of media, there are often as many interpretations as there are viewers. Any time kids are interpreting a media message it’s important for them to consider how someone from a different background might interpret the same message in a very different way. 

  • Model for your students how to ask questions like: What about your background might influence your interpretation? Or, Who might be the target audience for this message?

4. Which lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented—or missing?

Just as we all bring our own backgrounds and values to how we interpret what we see, media messages themselves are embedded with values and points of view. Help students question and consider how certain perspectives or voices might be missing from a particular message. If voices or perspectives are missing, how does that affect the message being sent? 

  • Have students consider the impact of certain voices being left out, and ask them: What points of view would you like to see included, and why? You could even have a discussion here about how popular media can sometimes reinforce certain stereotypes, values, and points of view.

5. Why is this message being sent?

With this question, have students explore the purpose of the message. Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade, or could it be some combination of these? Also have students explore possible motives behind why certain messages have been sent. Was it to gain power, profit, or influence? For older students, examining the economic structures behind various media industries will come into play.

  • Have students determine the purpose of the message and motives for creating it.

As teachers, we can think about how to weave these five questions into our instruction, helping our students to think critically about media. A few scenarios could include lessons where students consuming news and current events, or any time we ask students to create multimedia projects. You could even use these questions to critique the textbooks and films you already use. Eventually, as we model this type of critical thinking for students, asking these questions themselves will become second nature to them.

For more information on bringing media literacy into your classroom visit these sites:

Also, be sure to check out digital citizenship lessons that cover a variety of media literacy topics.

Kelly Mendoza

Kelly Mendoza oversees education content and programs for Common Sense Education, including the Digital Citizenship Curriculum, Learning ratings and reviews, articles and newsletter. Her goal is to provide schools programs that support students to thrive as learners, leaders, and citizens in the digital age. She also has developed education resources and curricula for Lucas Learning, the Media Education Lab, and PBS' Frontline films Growing Up Online and Digital Nation. Kelly has a Ph.D. in media and communication from Temple University. Her daughter loves Harry Potter … and rock climbing.