Every day, students of all grade levels are inundated with an increasingly vast variety of media to consume, from news broadcasts and social media to advertising and movies—most of which is readily available through the internet at any time.

With so much content vying for their attention, it’s important that students learn how to make sense of it all. What kind of messages are being conveyed? How can they tell if what they’re seeing and hearing is fact or fiction?

That’s where media literacy comes in.

What Is Media?

To understand media literacy, we must first define media itself. Simply, media is any means of communication that reaches or influences large numbers of people.

Over the course of history, media has evolved alongside technology. What we now consider mass media can trace its roots back to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in the 1400s. This machine made it easier to produce printed material on a massive scale, allowing for information to quickly travel and boosting literacy rates throughout the world. Thanks to this invention, we have books, newspapers, journals, magazines, comics, and other print media.

Other forms of media have similar origins. Advancements in broadcast technology during the 19th and 20th centuries gave way to radio and television. In the 1990s, the introduction of the internet for public use fundamentally changed the way we share information, giving millions of people access to media at viral speed. Emails, social media, podcasts, video streaming, and webinars are common examples of digital media.

As we continue to create new media in an information-rich world, it’s imperative that students have the skills necessary to navigate and understand what’s presented to them.

What Are Media Literacy Skills?

We’ve all seen what happens when people don’t have media literacy skills. All it takes is one post on social media for misinformation to spread rapidly. Sometimes what’s being shared is innocuous, even if untrue, but in many cases, it’s dangerous. For instance, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, people spread all kinds of myths about the virus online. So much false information was shared that Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter took internal measures to mitigate misleading posts and point users in the direction of credible information.

But we can’t rely on social media companies to do all of the work. Becoming better informed, thoughtful, and skeptical participants in media starts with strong media literacy skills.

Media literacy refers to a person’s ability to identify, analyze, interpret, and create media messages. Those who are media literate understand how media can be used for positive, negative, or neutral purposes. They can identify why and how content is designed to elicit emotional responses or persuade an audience. They can make sure that the information they encounter is coming from reliable sources.

At its core, media literacy is all about critical thinking. It requires us, the audience, to actively engage with content instead of being passive consumers. The easiest way to do this is by asking questions about the content, regardless of media type. Some common ones to consider include:

  • Who made it?
  • Why did they make it?
  • When was it made?
  • Who paid for its production?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is it fact or opinion? Is it hard to tell?
  • What points of view are expressed? What points are missing?
  • How might different people interpret the message?
  • What persuasive techniques are used and why?
  • Is it trying to sell me a product or idea?

Media Literacy and Students

People of all ages benefit from media literacy, but students especially should learn how to apply these skills. With their minds still developing, kids and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to media messages. At these stages in life, students are beginning to shape their own characters and morals based on information and behaviors presented by external forces—their family, their friends, and media, to name a few.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids ages 8–12 spend around 4–6 hours a day on screens, and teenagers spend up to 9 hours. Screens include computers, phones, and television, among other devices. In that time, they’re streaming shows and movies, watching user-created content, playing online games, reading e-books, listening to music, and scrolling through social media. They’re probably making their own media and sharing it with others.

Media consumption itself isn’t necessarily an issue, but problems arise when students aren’t taught to ask questions about the things they encounter. There’s no doubt that during all that screen time, students are exposed to messages they don’t know how to process or filter. They might come across a clickbait piece thinking it’s credible, see an ad for a product that appears to do the impossible, or view a retouched photo of an influencer and believe it’s real.

Without media literacy skills, students may simply take these things at face value and, in turn, develop a warped view of reality. Internalizing harmful messages may lead students to experience bad thoughts about others and themselves. Multiple studies have shown that negative media messages have a detrimental effect on youth mental health, with rising rates of depression, body image issues, eating disorders, and instances of self-harm attributed to frequent social media use.

On the other hand, when students know how to analyze media messages, they learn that all media, even the most basic and seemingly pointless, directly impacts the way they view the world. With this information, students can lessen the impact of harmful messages they may come across. Questioning media messages, even ones they agree with, will teach them to evaluate issues from multiple sides before forming opinions.

Teaching Media Literacy in the English Language Arts Classroom

While media literacy can be integrated into all subject areas, English language arts is uniquely suited for teaching these skills. After all, as an English teacher, you’re an expert in getting students to think critically about the things they read!

Chances are, you’re probably already incorporating a variety of media into class activities alongside traditional resources like textbooks and paperbacks. Maybe you’re watching film adaptations of literary works or reading articles about current events. As your students interact with media, remind them to ask questions about the things they observe. How does the medium (video, news article, etc.) affect the way they interpret the message? Is the content objective, or can they identify bias in the way it’s presented?

Media literacy lessons go hand-in-hand with research units. Before students begin searching for information about a research topic, consider having a discussion about the importance of evaluating credible sources. PBS LearningMedia offers a free downloadable lesson plan on identifying high-quality sites that’s appropriate for grades 6 and above.

Prestwick House Resources for Teaching Media Literacy

At Prestwick House, we have a number of ELA resources for teaching the critical thinking skills required for media literacy. The following materials can easily be incorporated into any creative writing, journalism, AP Language, or general language arts course.

Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion encourages students to apply logical thinking and look past manipulative strategies used in the media they see every day. In this workbook, students will learn how to identify and analyze various persuasive techniques used in propaganda, including the bandwagon, pinpointing the enemy, card stacking, and the false dilemma. Historical examples of propaganda throughout the book help students understand the real-world impact these types of messages have.

Reading & Analyzing Nonfiction: Slant, Spin, & Bias explores the concept of author’s purpose to explain that all nonfiction is never completely objective. Through direct instruction, models, exercises, and writing assignments, this workbook will help students learn to recognize biased writing and avoid falling for flimsy arguments.

Multiple Critical Perspectives, part of our Literature Teaching Guides series, gives your students new opportunities to examine literary works from a variety of angles. Each title-specific guide introduces your students to three critical theories and includes activities to examine the work you are studying from each perspective.

Need shorter lessons? Visit the English Teacher’s Free Library! You’ll find several free downloadable lesson plans perfect for building media literacy skills, including:

Teaching students about media literacy is one of the most effective ways to show them the importance of critical thinking—and to help them make informed decisions in a highly-connected world.


“Identifying High-Quality Sites Lesson Plan.” PBS LearningMedia, Common Sense Education, 15 Feb. 2021, https://whyy.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nmlit17-ela-idhqsites/lesson-plan-identifying-high-quality-sites/.

“Key Questions.” NAMLE, The National Association for Media Literacy Education, 7 June 2021, https://namle.net/resources/key-questions-for-analyzing-media/.

“Media Definition & Meaning.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/media.

“Media Literacy Fundamentals.” MediaSmarts, MediaSmarts, 19 Jan. 2017, https://mediasmarts.ca/digital-media-literacy/general-information/digital-media-literacy-fundamentals/media-literacy-fundamentals.

Nesi, Jacqueline. “The Impact of Social Media on Youth Mental Health.” North Carolina Medical Journal, vol. 81, no. 2, Mar. 2020, pp. 116–121., https://doi.org/10.18043/ncm.81.2.116.

“Old Media vs. New Media: What's Best for Your Business?” NDMU Online, Notre Dame of Maryland University, 6 Dec. 2021, https://online.ndm.edu/news/communication/old-media-vs-new-media/.

Ramirez, Denise. “Infodemic: Media Literacy in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Media Literacy Now | Advocating for Media Literacy Education, Media Literacy Now, Inc, 23 June 2020, https://medialiteracynow.org/infodemic-media-literacy-in-the-times-of-coronavirus/.

“Screen Time and Children.” The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Co, Facts for Families, Feb. 2020, https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx.

Vinney, Cynthia. “What Is Media Literacy?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 12 Jan. 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-media-literacy-5214468.