Beyond Taglines and Headlines

Use these questions to help students develop critical literacy and historical thinking skills.

Before I read a news article shared on social media, I investigate the URL, do some fact-checking and read up on the author. Oh, and I can’t forget to double-check the publication date to make sure the article is current. It’s a time-consuming and slightly exhausting process. If this is time consuming for me, what is the likelihood that our students will also take the time as they scroll through their social media newsfeeds?

Helping students to read, understand and vet news sources seems to be more and more important as social media outweighs television news outlets as the main source for learning about what’s going on in the world. A 2016 study shows that most people (six out of 10) do not read a news article before re-sharing its link on social media. 

Critical literacy is essential to students’ ability to engage with media and develop the necessary skills to comprehend and cultivate informed opinions about what they read. This includes being able to deduce the author’s point of view, as well as identify gaps and silences in the text.

So how do you build students’ critical literacy skills?

In “Shifting Out of Neutral,” a feature story written for Teaching Tolerance magazine, history teacher Jonathan Gold calls for educators to acknowledge—and teach about—power and bias. He questions, “[Was] it ever possible to disentangle my own biased assumptions from my teaching? Is neutrality possible or even desirable?” Gold stresses the need for teachers to reveal their biases to students when tackling tough issues and to be transparent about how these biases interact with their moral assessment of history. We can extend this approach to how we teach students to consume media by pointing out that, no matter how “neutral” a source claims to be, power and bias inevitably influence how information is shared.

Explicitly teaching historical thinking skills and critical literacy is one way to help our students identify biased reporting, draw informed conclusions and sift through online media reporting on current events. More so, students need practice engaging actively with the news, challenging messages in the media and analyzing a variety of perspectives and sources.

Try these steps with your students.

  1. Determine a topic of relevance to your current classroom objectives or a current event.
  2. Find two to three recent news sources (preferably from varying points of view) reporting on the topic. Do some fact-checking to make sure they’re real sources.
  3. Read the articles with students.
  4. Then, use the following questions to engage students in critical analysis of the articles.
  • To analyze sources and evidence
    How does the author’s position, attitude, beliefs or point of view affect the validity of this source in relation to the topic?
  • To make connections
    How do the attitudes, beliefs or points of view of the author or speaker connect to history and to other sources?
  • For chronological reasoning
    How might the author and their message have been influenced by what was happening at the time this source was created?
  • To create and support an argument
    How might the author’s or speaker’s attitudes, beliefs or points of view affect the argument or claim they made? How does my positioning relative to the author, topic or speaker affect my critique of this source?

Critical literacy doesn’t end with positioning the author and purpose; students also benefit from identifying gaps and silences, understanding the relationships between texts (intertextuality) and evaluating textual context across a variety of sources. Find more questions to use with students in this handout.

These types of questions can help students weed out overly one-sided articles as they work to make strong analyses, be more careful consumers of media and work to establish what matters in a just and fair society. With modeling and practice, we can help our students move beyond the taglines and headlines.

Wicht is an independent education consultant and the former senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance. She resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota.