Media Literacy is 21st Century Literacy

By Timothy P.  Shea1

Our world is becoming increasingly visual and digital: YouTube, video games, social media, and movies are available at the swipe of a finger.  It can be overwhelming to make sense of it all, especially if you are a child. As both teachers and parents, we must learn ways to help children navigate, understand, and compose in these developing narratives so they are both age-appropriate and meaningfully engaging. I understand the tension between wanting my children to experience the fun of the digital world while being cautious of the potential dangers of too much exposure too soon. It is for this reason that I have spent time researching and working alongside educators to find thoughtful ways to find this balance while also wrestling with these same tensions as a dad, too.

My own journey into the world of media literacy began in Papua New Guinea when I taught English at Ukarumpa International School and had to learn ways to integrate film literacy in order to meet international curriculum requirements. Through trial and error (and lots of movie watching) my department developed a plan to do so thoughtfully. This inquiry then led me to pursue graduate work where my research examined the connection between film literacy and print literacy and where I then continued this inquiry into the ways I prepared English teachers at Millersville University of PA.

I am currently teaching at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya where I am developing a media literacy curriculum that addresses these tensions. It is from this research and experience that I’d like to share what I have learned with the hope that it could also help you think more critically about ways you reflect on and teach media literacy.

Media literacy is an essential skill in the 21st Century. Specifically, it helps children do the following:

  • Become smart, analytical consumers
  • Note different perspectives and develop empathy in the process.
  • Create media texts responsibly.
  • Understand an author’s purpose as seen in their style, medium, and content.
  • Learn to communicate in a range of ways and purposes
  • Learn principles for building a strong, digital learning community.

Listed below is a collection of ideas that both teachers and parents can use to engage with our children, helping them to think more critically and to tell their stories using media texts.

Movies & Television:

 For younger children, reinforce real-world lessons as you watch TV and movies. Make connections between the positive actions you observe and real life. Make sure they understand what they’re watching. Little kids don’t always follow how screen media relates to the real world. Point out connections to the real world (familiar people, activities), and ask questions to check that kids are making sense of what they see. Discuss the differences between fantasy and reality as well as the things we can learn from understanding both.

For older children, talk about how TV shows and movies are made. You can discuss camera angles, lighting techniques, props, and even close-ups and long shots. Then discuss why a director would make those choices. This questioning helps kids understand that different methods are used to tell a story, provoke different reactions, and sometimes manipulate audiences.

For teens, discuss ethical dilemmas. The teen years are when kids begin to figure out their own sets of principles to live by. Using characters who struggle with right and wrong from movies and TV can really get them to think through those issues for themselves. Talk about the marketing of movies and TV. Explore how production houses use different methods, including viral videos, celebrity appearances on late-night shows, online quizzes, and teasers, to promote their shows.

For all students, discuss literary elements that are evident and ask how the filmmaker shows those elements on screen. Discuss the role of editing in the storytelling of a film much like you would a written work. Compare film genres and discuss the ways a film reflects or reacts against the society in which it was created. Discuss how the themes of a movie reflect (or not) a biblical worldview and why.

Advertisements (still and moving):

For younger children, teach them to recognize commercials. Begin by getting kids to understand the idea behind ads. When viewing an ad/commercial, ask questions:

What is this about? How do you know that? What do you like about it? What is it telling you? How does it make you feel?

For older kids, encourage deeper thinking about advertisements. Point out when favorite characters are used to sell products, and ask kids if they’re more likely to want something if, say, Marvel Comic characters are on the packaging. Ask whether they think a food commercial is about healthy food or junk food; ask for examples to support their opinions. Ask whether they think products work the same in real life as they do on commercials. You may even want to discuss basic logical fallacies depending on your child.

For teens, dive into media-literacy questions to get them thinking for themselves. You don’t want teens just accepting everything they see. Ask questions: Who made this? How can you tell? Why did they make it? Why do you think that? What is the creator’s point of view? How do you know? Who is the audience? How do you think this would go over with different audiences?

Social Media

Too often, social media is seen as a waste of time that promotes fake values and so it’s not worthy of serious study. But what if we  flipped that narrative and got students to think about how they could use these digital platforms to build community through civil discourse and to develop critical thinking skills? Social media can be used to teach research, rhetoric, and narrative, as well as to demonstrate responsible digital citizenship, including balance and mindfulness. Since most social media platforms have an age limit of allowed use, these principles would mainly apply to teens. Also, not all schools allow students to use social media in class so there are alternatives which are usually approved for classroom use.

Here are some ways social media (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook) can be used in the classroom:

  • Start class with a Twitter prompt which includes 2-3 questions related to the reading and requires the use of the class hashtag. Then start the class with THEIR questions and get a feel for their understanding of the text and theme instantly.
  • Track student work over the course of the year. Take pictures of the progression of a student project or track their learning.
  • Use it to post homework. Ask them to write about the significance of a posted photo — perhaps a map, person, or document.
  • Share classroom news with parents and faculty.
  • Create out-of-class study groups using specific hashtags. Give the group a question and ask each member to contribute to the hashtag.
  • Flip the classroom by posing questions and asking the students to contribute. Students will be ready to discuss the questions in class.
  • Create a tweet as a literary or historical character. Give the students a topic and asks them to tweet as the character would.
  • Use Instagram to create their stories through images and language.
  • Have students create their own memes related to a literary/historical theme.
  • Students research a “hashtag movement” (i.e. #blacklivesmatter, #metoo) and discover the multiple perspectives of that topic which then leads to a research project.
  • Students annotate an image, identifying key elements.
  • Use Twitter to take a poll using a certain hashtag related to a class theme.

I know that trying something like this can be a bit intimidating but the payoffs will be worth it when your students appreciate your efforts and even use their own expertise to assist you!

Feel free to contact me if you would like to collaborate on specific ways to integrate media literacy in your teaching. Maybe some of our students could also collaborate digitally!

No matter where we are in the world, it is imperative that we prepare our students to enter into the ubiquitous digital arena with confidence and skill as they build stronger communities and communicate across diverse and always evolving media.

Recommended Books:

Frey, Nancy and Fisher, Douglas. Teaching Visual Literacy: Using Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Anime, Cartoons, and More to Develop Comprehension and Thinking Skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008.

Golden, John. Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.

Golden, John. Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and other Nonfiction Texts. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.

Hobbs, Renee. Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2011.

Hobbs, Renee. Discovering Media Literacy: Teaching Digital Media and Popular Culture in Elementary School. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2013.

Hobbs, Renee. Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English. New York: Teacher College Press, 2006.

Hobbs, Renee. Create to Learn: Introduction to Digital LiteracyHoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2018.

Madison, Ed. Newsworthy―Cultivating Critical Thinkers, Readers, and Writers in Language Arts Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015.

Teasley, Alan. Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996. 

Recommended Websites:

Advertising lessons for kids, grades 5 – 6:

Rating Media for Kids:

Using Film in the Classroom:

News Literacy:

Media Literacy in Schools:

National Association for Media Literacy Education:

Common Sense Media:

Teach With Movies:

Media Education Lab: 

  1. For the past 32 years, Timothy Shea has been a teacher, teaching everything from preschool through graduate school in four countries and three states. He was a teacher with SIL for 13 years where he taught in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and where he developed a love for exploring stories through film and media texts. This love led to his earning a Ph.D. in English Education from The University of Virginia where his research examined the role of media literacy in developing print literacy with a population of gifted adolescents. He was an Associate Professor of English at Millersville University for nine years where he taught courses in film, writing, and education and where he directed graduate, international, and drama-based pedagogy programs. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife and 3 children and where he is an Instructional Coach and teaches English at Rosslyn Academy.