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News Literacy Is Essential. Here’s How to Make It Work for Students.

More and more, policymakers are recognizing the need to help students learn to navigate a chaotic media environment. There are three main elements to effectively implementing these mandates in classrooms.

Teenager with phone, computer and newspaper
It’s happening in Illinois and Delaware. And in Texas, New Jersey and California. These are among the states that have passed laws requiring some level of media literacy instruction in their schools. Altogether, at least 18 states have stepped up efforts to help students navigate public information, according to Media Literacy Now, a nonprofit that tracks and supports these efforts.

The increasing adoption of news literacy education is an acknowledgment that students need help understanding our chaotic media environment so they can become well-informed citizens with the skills to participate effectively and knowledgeably in our democracy at every level of government. Just because young people are digital natives doesn’t mean they can sort through and make sense of all the content that bombards them. One recent study shows that teens get more than 200 alerts a day on their phones — a constant and confusing mix of user-generated content, paid ads and maybe even some credible, fact-checked news.

As more states and school districts begin to require media literacy instruction, policymakers need to turn their attention to how to effectively implement these mandates in classrooms.

At our organization, the News Literacy Project, we help educators and districts plan and implement impactful media literacy instruction through a two-year fellowship program. Working closely with school leaders and classroom teachers, we’ve identified three main elements to making these requirements work: clear, holistic learning standards; quality, sustained professional development for educators; and data collection and recalibration to strengthen instruction along the way.

What’s at stake is ensuring these media literacy requirements lead to learning gains — or just become another education fad. In districts where the commitment is real, so is student learning. Take the North Salem Central School District, about 60 miles outside of New York City. There, school librarian Cynthia Sandler led students in creating Instagram reels that explored how to separate news from paid ads or opinion pieces, how to spot AI-generated images and how to fact-check claims using credible sources. Our independent evaluations show that students who complete news literacy lessons are more likely to recognize when a social media post does not present credible evidence.

To ensure that news literacy education is effective, education leaders need to make sure that they have clear standards and objectives defining the skills and habits they want students to learn and develop. These standards should span grades and subjects, because one-off lessons are rarely effective. Many state efforts so far include general outlines of expected outcomes, but call only for a “unit” of media literacy instruction, as Illinois does. By contrast, the bill passed in New Jersey centers on the school librarian and calls for continued professional development and monitoring. Standards and objectives are the first steps toward graduating more media-literate students.

How do we achieve those standards and objectives? By setting teachers up for success through high-quality, continuous professional learning. At the News Literacy Project, we’ve seen that a holistic approach works best. That means recruiting teachers across subjects, grades and leadership levels and leaning on their expertise to build support networks for each other.

This is the second critical element for effective news literacy instruction. In Utah, for example, the Canyons School District started off building the capacity of 110 middle and high school educators in social studies and English language arts, along with teacher-librarians and instructional coaches. The pilot went so well that more educators wanted to join, and the initiative grew last fall to include training for all secondary-level educators. Next year, the district will begin offering elementary school educators professional development in news literacy. This pipeline of training across subjects and grades is how to make student learning last — or make it “sticky,” in education jargon.

The third element of a successful media literacy requirement for schools requires data. Schools and districts need to decide how to measure whether their efforts are making an impact. Our classroom resources include baked-in pre- and post-assessments that consist of about 15 questions and take less than 30 minutes to complete. We also encourage districts to think about tracking how well their initiatives are implemented in schools, with all their competing priorities and limited resources. Whatever information gets collected, it should be used toward continuous improvement, reflecting on what works and tweaking what doesn’t.

Perhaps this sounds expensive. True, effective media literacy instruction won’t happen for free. But it’s also true that there are many free resources to help school leaders get started, and grants that can help support this work. We also find that many schools have found ways to build media literacy initiatives into existing structures, such as their regular professional development times.

When it comes to literacy programs for reading and writing, we know that students grow when two things happen: they have learning opportunities that build on each other, and they have strong teachers one year to the next. For news literacy, a district approach spanning multiple grade levels and subjects and led by skilled teachers ensures that learning lasts. That is how we will ensure that we’re graduating students who can resist misinformation and conspiracy theories, and who are empowered to make informed decisions in our democracy.

This week, Jan. 22-26, is News Literacy Week. Shaelynn Farnsworth is the senior director of education partnership strategy at the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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