Media Literacy - Beyond Reading and Writing


The explosion of information, ideas, and messages obtained from media, other than written text, is significant. Users must learn to use it wisely to be informed citizens. It is this wise use of multi-media that is expanding our understanding of what it means to be - literate. Many standards and learned societies have recognized this and expanded their ideas in their standard documents to include a variety of media. Two examples are cited in the boxes below. This article explores the expansion of textual literacy to include all other forms of media.

“People need to know more than core subjects. They need to know how to use their knowledge and skills – by thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analyzing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, making decisions... (They) need to become lifelong learners, updating their knowledge and skills continually and independently.”   Learning for the 21st Century, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills

“Conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems . . . gather, evaluate and synthesize data from a variety of sources (print and non print) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.”  
International Reading Association

The process

The ability to use information wisely, and the skills required to do so, are achieved when learners interact with all kinds of media to understand the messages contained in them and answer questions through a rigorous methodological procedure with ingenuity and critical thinking represented by - deep understanding, ingenious curiosity and epistemological curiosity. Such a process might include these steps:

Inquiry five steps

access appropriate information for a required situation;
analyze and evaluate what is found;
formulate questions to clarify the search;
summarize and integrate what is concluded and;
communicate it – clearly – to someone else.

Expanding literacy beyond printed text and writing is not new. It has been explored and delineated by various organizations. Two such organizations are the Center for Media Literacy and Media Literacy Now. Another resource has suggestions and examples for integrating media into the classroom.

Media Literacy Educational Philosophy

Based on information from the - Center for Media Literacy - on three intertwining concepts to empower learners.

1. Media literacy is education for life in a global media world.

For 500 years, since the invention of moveable type, we have valued the ability to read and write as the primary means of communicating and understanding history, cultural traditions, political and social philosophy and the news of the day. In more recent times, traditional literacy skills ensured that individuals could participate fully as engaged citizens and functioning adults in society. Today me must prepare young people for living and learning in a global culture that is increasingly connected through multi-media and influenced by powerful images, words and sounds.

2. The heart of media literacy is informed inquiry.

Through an empowerment spiral of a four-step ‘inquiry’ process of -
Awareness . . . Analysis . . . Reflection and . . .Action... that can empower learners with the abilities to:

3. Media literacy is an alternative to censoring, boycotting or blaming ‘the media.’

If we are deeply committed to freedom of expression, then media literacy is necessary to have citizens who think independently and critically analyze information from all media sources in a manner that enables them to make wise choices. In a society that is media literate there will not be partisan agendas or political points of view.

Implementation suggestions for young children

1. All media messages are constructed.

Focus question - Who created this message?

2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language using its own rules.

Focus question - What techniques are used to attract my attention?

3. Different people experience the same media message differently.

Focus question - How might different people understand this message differently?

4. Media have embedded value and points of view.

Focus question - What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

5. Most media are organized to gain profit and or power.

Focus question - Why was this message sent?

Implementation suggestions for Intermediate Learners

Media Category, Focus questions, and guiding questions

1 - Authorship - all media messages are constructed.

Focus question - Who constructed  this message?

Guiding Questions for Authorship:

What kind of “text” is it? What are the various elements (building blocks) that make up the whole?
How similar or different is it to others of the same genre?
Which technologies are used in its creation?
What choices were made that might have been made differently?
How many people did it take to create this message? What

2 - Format - media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.

Focus question - What techniques are used to attract my attention?

Guiding Questions for Format:

What do you notice… (about the way the message is constructed)?
• Colors? Shapes? Size?
• Sounds, Words? Silence?
• Props, sets, clothing?
• Movement?
• Composition? Lighting? Where is the camera? What is the viewpoint? How is the story told visually? What are people doing? Are there any symbols? Visual metaphors? What’s the emotional appeal? Persuasive devices used?
What makes it seem “real?”

3 - Content - Different people experience the same media message differently.

Focus question - How might different people understand this message differently?

Guiding Questions for Audience

Have you ever experienced anything like this in your life?
How close is this portrayal to your experience?
What did you learn from this media text?
What did you learn about yourself from experiencing the media text?
What did you learn from other people’s response?
From their experience of life?
How many other interpretations could there be? How could we hear
about them?
Are other viewpoints just as valid as mine?
How can you explain the different responses?

4 - Audience - Media have embedded values and points of view.

Focus question - What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

Guiding Questions for Content

What kinds of behaviors /consequences are depicted?
What type of person is the reader / watcher / listener invited to identify with?
What questions come to mind as you watch / read /listen?
What ideas or values are being “sold” to us in this message?
What political ideas are communicated in the message? Economic ideas?
What judgments or statements are made about how we treat other people?
What is the overall world view of the message?
What ideas or perspectives are left out? How would you find what’s missing?

5 - Purpose - Most media are organized to gain profit and/or power. 

Focus question - Why was this message sent?

Guiding Questions for Purpose

Who’s in control of the creation and transmission of this message? Why are they sending it? How do you know? Who are they sending it to? How do you know? What’s being sold in this message? What’s being told?
Who profits from this message? Who pays for it?
Who is served by or benefits from the message – the public? – private interests? – individuals? – institutions?
What economic decisions may have influenced the construction or transmission of this message?

Questions for deeper inquiry

As students become more skilled in media literacy, more complex analysis is possible. The following outline is another way of asking questions in order to explore the connections and interconnections between the content, form, purpose and effects of a media message. The numbers at the end of each question indicate which Key Question it expands.

1. Messages and Values — exploring the content of a media message.

These questions help us understand how the symbol system of a message influences its interpretation by different people; how the symbols that are selected for a message tap into our existing attitudes, knowledge and understanding of the world.
1. What makes this message seem realistic or unrealistic? (#2)
2. How does this message fit with your lived experience of the world? (#3)
3. How are various social groups represented? (#4)
4. What social or ideological messages are a part of the message’s subtext? (#4)
5. What kinds of behaviors and what kinds of consequences are depicted? (#4)
6. What type of person is the reader invited to identify with? (#4)
7. What is omitted from the message? (#4)
8. Whose point of view is presented? (#4)

2. Codes and Conventions — exploring the form of the message.

The following kinds of questions help us appreciate the “constructedness” of messages, how ideas and concepts
are created, expressed and “packaged” for specific audiences.
1. What is the message genre? ( #1)
2. What techniques are used to attract my attention? (#2)
3. What conventions of storytelling are used in this message? (#2)
4. What types of visual and/or verbal symbolism are used to construct the message? (#2)
5. What kinds of persuasive or emotional appeals are used in this message? (#2)
6. What technologies were used to construct this message? (#1)
7. How is this message similar and different from others with similar content? (#1)

3. Producers and Consumers — exploring the purpose and effects.

These type of questions help us see the multiple decisions that are made from beginning to end as the message is
created and distributed plus the multiple interpretations that are created in the audience as they watch, see or listen:
1. Who created this message? (#1)
2. What is the producer’s purpose? (#5)
3. Who is the target audience? (#5)
4. How have economic decisions influenced the construction of this message? (#5)
5. What reasons might an individual have for being interested in this message? (#3)
6. How do different individuals respond emotionally to this message? (#3)
7. How might different individuals interpret this message differently? (#3)

Strategies or propaganda techniques to entice action

Humor - Funny or crazy images.
Macho - Strong, tough, powerful – usually males. May display weapons or be pictured in dangerous situations. Cowboys.
Friends - Groups of people enjoying each other or doing things. Buddies, pals and friends.
Family - Mother, father, children or close groups. May be intergenerational group.
Fun - Everyone is happy – smiling and laughing. Often images of people enjoying activities.
Nature - Settings outdoors at the beech, ocean, in the mountains, desert, snow, with flowers, animals, wind, rain, sunshine ... and may or may not include people.
Sexy - Emphatic display of physical attributes similar to those of models, usually female; may include tight or revealing clothing and flirtatious behavior or sensuous body language or movements.
Cartoon - People or animals imaged as drawing, caricature, or animation, often humorous.
Celebrity -  Someone most people recognize – athlete, musician, politician, movie star...
Wealth - Expensive and elegant places and things. Estates, lavish apartments, houses, shiny sleek new cars, bling, designer clothes, …
Bandwagon - Images of many people engaging in the product or idea that is being promoted. The idea that everyone is doing it and you don't want to be the only one not included in the fun or among the out crowd.
Exigency - The idea that the offer is limited, act now, time is running out...
Transfer - Including a know desired or person, idea, or object next to the idea or product being sold or pushed. A movie star, athlete, sleek fast car...
Testimonial - A person with expertise of skill speaks in favor of a product or idea.
Emotional words or images - Images of homeless or hungry children are shown when asking for donations to feed the hungry around the world. Words and phrases used to convince people not to smoke or drink and drive.

Core Principles of Literacy

Derived from - “Just Think” ideas on - media literacy education

  1. Being or becoming literate requires active inquiry and critical thinking about all messages we receive and create. This includes asking questions about all messages in all media in all settings to analyze purposes and consequences which recognize such things as:

Instructional suggestions

2. Being or becoming literate requires abilities beyond reading and writing to include all forms of media in any possible setting. It recognizes that all people express and communicate ideas through multiple forms of media production and welcomes this broad range of media - including popular media and beyond.

Instructional suggestions

3. Being or becoming literate builds and reinforces skills necessary for learners of all ages. Multi literacy integrates across all curricular areas and levels, which affords greater opportunities for repeated practice to develop skills to analyze and express ideas that encourage healthy productive lives.

Instructional suggestions

4. Being or becoming literate develops informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for democratic society. Where literate people are respectful and supportive of diverse points of view and values, where they promote interest in current events and independently produced media essential to healthy productive lives.

Instructional suggestions

5. Being or becoming literate recognizes that media are a part of culture and function as agents of socialization. It results in a shared responsibility among members of the community to facilitate mutual understanding of the impact of media on individuals and on society.

Instructional suggestions

6. Being or becoming literate affirms that people use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages, reflect on the meaning of those messages, how those meanings relate to their values and clarify their perspectives on a healthy and productive life.

Instructional suggestions


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes