Media Literacy in K-12 Settings

In 1999 (Kubey and Baker) Education Week published an op-ed piece describing the current state of media literacy in state's K-12 teaching standards. Briefly, elements of media literacy were found in standards for English/Language Arts, Social Studies and Health. The original Ed Week op Ed can be found here [1]

Theory and Practice of Media Literacy

A resource for scholars and others interested in media literacy. This document was originally developed by graduate students enrolled in BTMM 589, "Theory and Practice of Media Literacy Education" which was taught by Professor Renee Hobbs in the Fall of 2006 at Temple University's School of Communication and Theater. Students enrolled in the course in the Fall of 2007 continue to develop, modify and expand the site, contributing their own understanding of the course readings and critical analysis.

Linked Pages of Interest
1. Media literacy
2. Why is Media Literacy Important
3. Intellectual Traditions in Media Literacy
4. Media Literacy in K-12 Settings
5. Great Debates in Media Literacy
6. What does Media Literacy look like in Non-School Settings
7. Research on Media Literacy

US State Teaching Standards


A state-by-state breakdown of verbiage found in these standards can be found here: [2]

Instructional Methods


The unique contribution of media education is that it defines itself through “conceptual understandings” of relationships, as they apply to diverse mediums of communication.

Media education is unique because it does not rely on a canon or an established text. This allows the field to be up-to-date and responsive to students’ interests and needs, as well as the rapidly changing technologies and tools within the field.

In reality, there is a diverse set of practices being deployed in the field. David Buckingham, in an attempt to frame these practices and define the field, identifies four key concepts, which offer a systematic and comprehensive approach to media education: Production, Language, Representation and Audience (Buckingham, 2003).

These concepts are meant as a point of entry when discussing any medium. They are intended as a springboard to consider the larger social and political context of media education. Their natural interconnectedness allows for development of diverse curricular practices based on a variety of teaching styles, areas of expertise and pedagogical approaches. These concepts apply both to creative and analytical activities.

These concepts inform many of the instructional methods applied in Media Education today.

Media Production. Buckingham (2003) stresses that media education must include learning not only about media analysis, but experiencing hands-on media production. Media production includes any activity where media is produced and created by students (usually working in teams). After student productions are complete, they are typically presented to the class, school, or community and discussed or evaluated. Buckingham (2003) notes that media production is "not an end in itself" but "must be accompanied by systematic reflection and self-evaluation" (p. 84). It is important, then, for teachers to include time to discuss and analyze student media creations. However, Buckingham (2003) stops short in terms of aiming for a larger purpose for media production as a form of social change, which is an agenda that Goodman (2003) emphasizes. Although production can teach students applied skills and put them in the role of producer, perhaps teachers should include media production assignments that serve to emphasize issues of social justice and social change. Mike: Buckingham claims that for media education, "production is not an end in itself" (p. 84), emphasizing the goal of critical participation rather than just participation. It is important for media educators to decide exactly what criticalparticipation means for their classes: critical action (challenging social norms and injustice), critical awareness (an awareness of the range of choices and interpretations, their sources in personal experience and social discourse, and the possible consequences of action), or something else. It seems that Buckingham stops short of condoning critical social action because of the likelihood (borne out in his classroom observations) that the teacher will decide what counts as justice and worthy social change, or that the students will choose their causes based on uncritically examined ideologies. These concerns should give media educators and learners pause, and should inform their process and practice of media production, but should not discourage motivated educators and learners from incorporating social action as a goal for media production.

Scaffolding. Many teachers incorporate the instructional technique of 'scaffolding' as part of their pedagogical approach to teaching critical thinking. Scaffolding frequently involves the use of a structural heuristic (five critical questions or other organizing devices) to frame analytic work; it also often makes use of peer collaboration on textual analysis activities. By creating sustained, socially engaged learning environments, educators have found improvements in students' ability to critically analyze, and in some demonstrated cases, in their reading comprehension and writing skills.

Close Reading. Media literacy is an integral part of the educational process in the K-12 setting. Examining the structures of news stories for more than just content gives a new perspective to students who are not especially interested in news programming. In comparing two different takes on a story, comparing the viewer's points of views, or even comparing visuals - each student is able to garner an understanding of how news production can be scrutinized according to the five core concepts of media literacy. A technique referred to as close reading helps develop these analytical skills. This technique was applied to understanding poetry. The same poem would be read numerous times to understand audience, author's perspective, perception of the audience, etc. It also creates a more supportive learning environment as the students are learning from one another.

Students as experts. Teachers allow students to be experts in the mass media without trivializing pop culture or media consumption. This allows students to engage in constructive discussion in the classroom. The teacher isn't required to be an expert on specific aspects of popular culture. Instead, they give students the tools to critically analyze, reflect, and question the media (Hobbs, 2006). Goodman (2003) calls this a "learner-centered approach" (p. 56). Under a learner-centered methodology, the teacher is not responsible for reciting facts for students to memorize. Rather, he or she is responsible for creating the right conditions for students to flourish, often employing small group techniques in order for students to help each other out. Here, the students have an input in shaping the direction of the class.

Critical Dialogue. Media education, as Buckingham (2003) notes, requires decentralization as the teacher as an all-knowing expert with all of the answers. In contrast, teaching media education highlights the value of student knowledge that is seen as equally important as the teacher's knowledge. Buckingham's notion of critical dialogue is "what counts as a truly 'critical' perspective is not something that can simply be imposed through the exercise of teacherly authority. On the contrary, it is very much up for negotiation, both between teachers and students and among students themselves" (p. 85). Although critical dialogue is an ideal in media education, problems may be encountered with the destabilization and shift of power in the classroom. In critical dialogue teachers must give up their authoritative stance, and this can be uncomfortable, intimidating, and signal a lack of control for both teachers and students. Teachers may have difficulty giving up their power which can lead to questions and challenges by students. Students who are most comfortable in a traditional classroom where the teacher is seen as authority may feel anxious about this shift in power, and may not want to participate or contribute their knowledge in critical dialogue. However, Buckingham (2003) emphasizes that an effective classroom of media education requires teacher and student knowledge negotiated through critical dialogue. Mike: Teachers never really give up their power, even if they give students the initiative to direct their learning and value the media knowledge and skills students possess. In school systems, teachers must assess student progress and communicate it to parents. In community programs, facilitators often have control over equipment and must enforce certain rules about content and safety in order to remain in good standing with the community. In short, educators are always in a position of power over learners. While the idea of shifting some aspects of authority and control to the learner may indeed be essential for media education, it may be just as important to be explicit about the power relations in the learning environment. Perhaps it would be more fruitful for the educator to pull back the curtain and talk about her or his position in the power dynamic, explaining choices in terms of responsibility to the community, to the safety of students, to the wisdom of experience, etc. While the goal should be to maximize student power, empowerment, agency and engagement, perhaps the exercise of discussing the power dynamics is a more useful way to both share respect and shift power, and ultimately learn how to see and navigate power, than simply advocating "giving power to students." This way, the educator's expertise need not be belittled, but rather can be used strategically with students' interests and knowledge in the context of the students' earned respect, not assumed respect, to facilitate more efficient and effective learning.

Empowerment and the "Aha-Moment." Thoman and Jolls (2005) described Paulo Freire's "Empowerment Spiral" as an ideal method for teaching media literacy. This is the system in which students search out and discover answers to questions on their own, which allows them to better reflect on the value of the information and provides an opportunity to interactively show what they have learned. Students first perform an activity that brings the proposed question into the light, sometimes called the “ah-ha moment”. Once they identify an issue, they analyze it using the “five key questions”. After they tackle the questions, the students reflect on the moral, political, social, religious and ethical implications of the text and the process of producing the text. Finally, students create a text using the conventions they have learned while dissecting their viewed text. This allows them to share what they’ve learned and better understand the production process of the text. This working methodology exemplifies Friere's philosophy of the dialectical relationship between dialogue, reflection and action. Leo Masterman (Teaching the Media, 1985) was one of the earlier scholars to foreground the relevance of Friere's pedagogy in relation to media education. Masterman believes that the primary objective is not simply critical awareness and understanding, it is critical autonomy. In his view, the real test of media education remains the degree to which students exercise a critical transfer of their investigative skills to new situations.

Recognizing what students already know. According to Buckingham (2003), educators should recognize what students already know about the topic they are learning and what they are bringing in to the classroom. In many cases, teachers can assume that “students already know something about the topics to be addressed, and that their knowledge is both valid in itself and a useful resource for further reflection (p. 69).” However, Buckingham acknowledges that students do not know everything. In some cases, thus, teachers can help students’ “passive” knowledge to “active” knowledge, by making what they “implicitly” know “explicit.” Buckingham also mentions the need of direct teaching with regard to the information students do not already know. However, it is questionable that teachers can adjust the pedagogy according to how much students know. While children and teenagers certainly share their own media culture, they show differences in terms of media consumption styles according to their race, gender, ethnic origins and economic conditions. Then, how can educators recognize what students already know if the class population is very diverse? In fact, it can be very challenging to create the class environment where everybody is engaged. It is because students who are not familiar with particular media texts can hardly understand the implicit meaning and context. In such a diverse environment, Buckingham’s notion of recognizing what students already know can be vague, not applicable. Mike: It is a valid to point out that diverse classes present difficult challenges. However, Buckingham's recommendation to value what students already know may be even more important for diverse classes, especially as we shift the emphasis from what to how they know. Students in a diverse class can easily be shown how meaning is constructed differently based on different experiences and social identities. The media educator must validate and value the knowledge that students bring to their media analyses and productions, in order to call attention to how they know, how they make meaning. When this is done in a spirit of inquiry that values a diversity of perspectives, students interests in each other and in new bodies of knowledge are often stimulated as they see that new knowledge creates new ways to make meaning. This experience of diversity can further fuel intellectual curiosity as students discover the possibilities for social participation and economic participation in new discourses as well as how participation itself can change the discourse. The point is not to know everyone's diverse body of knowledge in order to adjust pedagogy to add to it correctly, but to value diverse bodies of knowledge in order to learn how they shape meaning making for reception and production of media, culture, identities, and power.

Using a Deductive Approach. Introducing some media education curricula such as “Teaching the Simpsons” “Selling Youth” and “Photography and Identity,” Buckingham (2003) analyzes that the aims of these curricula are deductive rather than inductive. It is clearly seen when he mentions, “it is about students reaching their own conclusions from the evidence provided, rather than seeking to command their assent to a position that has been decided in advance" (p. 68).

Since deductive learning environments can be seen as student-centered atmosphere, Buckingham’s argument seems to be very convincing in that students should infer the conclusion from given data. Nevertheless, it is often very difficult for both teachers and students to create such student-centered learning environments. Because of teachers’ preconception, on the one hand, they can easily lead the class discussion to facilitate the right answers that they think are “right.” Even though teachers try to avoid the influence of their preconceptions on the class discussion, they might continue to ask questions until they hear responses they want to hear. Here, the legitimacy of teachers’ expressing their own opinions can be questioned. In this vein, we need to inquire the questions as follows: what are the positive and negative aspects of teachers expressing their opinions? In order for students’ learning experience to be deductive, should teachers not express their opinions when having the class discussions?

On the other hand, students’ knowledge and skills of providing expected answers could prevent them from being exposed to the deductive approach. When Buckingham (2003) had an interview with middle-class children, they framed their responses according to the interview context. The more students become experienced in educational settings, the less they express their honest thoughts and opinions, by providing desired responses. In other words, their conclusion may not be based on other evidence, but based on their sense of teachers’ expectations. Therefore, it is critical to explore how to create the class atmosphere where students can freely present their real conclusions supported by facts and evidence.

A Holistic Approach to Learning


Goodman, whose expertise is in urban education, notes that both within classrooms and in after school programs, a holistic approach to learning is important. Goodman notes:

A student's intellectual growth is deeply tangled up with his or her emotional and physical development. This is particularly the case with adolescents whose families and community support systems have been damaged for a very long time. While they may try to hide it from peers and adults, these teens bring their fragile state of mental health to school with them every day. Teachers who know their students well will notice how the alienation and hopelessness these students suffer from overwhelms their capacity for curiosity and study. They are too preoccupied and distracted to focus on the tasks at hand. So teaching media in the classroom, or any subject for that matter, must address student's cognitive and affective capacities. To separate the two would risk perpetuating the underdevelopment of their mind and spirits. (Goodman, 2003, p. 62)

According to Goodman, a holistic approach to learning would bridge the gap between the materials students study in school, and the real life issues that deeply affect them outside of school.

Structural Issues in Implementing Media Literacy in Secondary Education


There are some structural features of high schools that can facilitate media literacy. These include:

Block Scheduling. In some schools, block scheduling provides a conducive environment for media literacy. Longer class periods make it possible to engage in viewing and discussion activities, sustained writing, and collaborative projects. Teachers are likely to develop and use process-oriented strategies and have more contact with students. These activities can be difficult to implement in traditional 45-minute periods.
Heterogeneous Grouping. In many media education settings, educators pursue heterogeneous grouping, integrating students of different levels in academic classes. Heterogeneous grouping helps raise standards and academic skills as well as make students more appreciate the diverse range of talents and life experiences in their classrooms, schools, and communities.

Media Literacy Across the Curriculum


According to Buckingham (2003), media literacy can be incorporated into individual classes in K-12 settings. The following are examples of how media literacy can be included in traditional classes.

Foreign Languages. Buckingham (2003) states that students could study how media in the country of study play with verbal language; how media in foreign countries differ from media in the home country; how current events are conveyed through media in the country of study; how national identity is represented in media; and how the same media texts are marketed in different countries (p. 91).
Music. Buckingham notes that in music class, students could study how music editing is used in television and film; how music is used to create emotional reactions in various media; how music is marketed to audiences; how the music industry fits with other media industries; and how visual images are used to create brand images for musical performers (Buckingham, 2003, p. 91).
English. In English classes, students could study the publishing industry; various ways in which books are advertised and promoted; brand identities of writers; how print texts are adapted into various other media forms; how different media compare in terms of conveying narratives; non-fictional print and media texts; how authors present various social groups in their works; how audiences are targeted by book jackets and book displays; and audience reactions to various print and non-print media texts (Buckingham, 2003, p. 96).
New Media. Buckingham asserts that new media technologies "need to be integrated as objects of study alongside established media such as film, television and the press" (Buckingham, 2003, pp. 95-96.) However, media literacy instructors must be careful to use these new technologies for more than just teaching aids.
Vocational Training. Some media educators are opposed to vocational training, which they see as merely technical training that lacks critical analysis. Buckingham (2003) notes: "It is doubtful whether many so-called "vocational" courses actually do fulfill their promise to equip students with adequate schools for jobs, or whether they are recognized to do so by the industry" (p. 99).

"Social Studies" I am surprised there is no reference to history here. Perhaps Buckingham DID reference it, but it is not listed as a reference. I see many opportunities for educators to infuse media literacy in the "social studies" classroom... namely, media as institutions; the role of media in politics; the rise, history and influence of mass media; media's propaganda role; media's role in communicating news; and advertising (economics) to name a few.

Online Resources for Learning More

  • PODCASTS: Learn about Reel Vision[3], the Boston filmmaking group that works with young people (Episode 15)
  • ORGANIZATIONS: European Centre for Media Literacy [4] Alliance for a Media Literate America [5]
  • WEBSITES: Media Literacy Clearinghouse [6], a K-12 resource website for educators


  • Alliance for a Media Literate America. (2005). Operational policy: Corporate funding. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from
  • Alvarado, M. (1981). Television Studies and Pedagogy. Screen Education, 38, 191-206.
  • Buckingham, D. (2003). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Christ, W. G., & Potter, J. W. (1998). Media literacy, media education, and the academy. Journal of Communication, 48, 5-15.
  • Goodman, S. (2003). Teaching youth media: A critical guide to literacy, video production, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Heins, M., & Cho, C. (2003). Media literacy: An alternative to censorship. (2nd ed.). Free Expression Policy Project. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from
  • Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the media: Media literacy in high school English. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hobbs, R., & Frost, R. (1999). Instructional practices in media literacy education and their impact on students' learning. New Jersey Journal of Communication, 6(2), 123-148.
  • Kist, W. (2005). New literacy’s in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Masterman, L. (1980). Teaching about Television. London: Macmillon.
  • Masterman, L. (1985). "Teaching the Media." London: Comedia/Routledge.
  • Thoman, E., & Jolls, T. (2005). Media literacy education: Lessons from the center for media literacy. In G. Schwartz & P. U. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (Vol. 104, 2005, pp. 180 -205). Malden, MA: National Society for the Study of Education