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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

What's News?

Students' attraction to news and entertainment media can fuel comprehension and critical thinking.

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We hear the complaint everywhere: Teachers lament that their students lack the requisite knowledge, skills, or disposition to read the materials placed before them. Educators are frustrated by an increasing number of students who cannot make sense of texts appropriate for their grade level. Many students don't even seem to care that their comprehension is poor. Yet the ability to read with understanding is essential to thriving in the information age and learning across a lifespan. How can educators prepare students to meet this challenge?
One strategy is to broaden students' in-school reading to include analysis of real-world texts from various news media. Analyzing news media is part of a learning approach known as media literacy, which helps students access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages using media in various forms (see "A Primer on Media Literacy"). Media literacy has been central to the curriculum in the United Kingdom since the 1980s. The move to a national curriculum in England and Wales in the late 1980s expanded opportunities for older high school students to explore media issues. By 2000, more than 18,000 students in the United Kingdom were sitting for "A" level exams in Media Studies, Film Studies, and Communication Studies, and 5,000 students were being tested on media knowledge within the vocational education curriculum. Since 1998, there has been a distinct media literacy component to the language arts curriculum for 14- to 16-year-old students (Hart & Hicks, 2000).
In U.S. schools too, teachers recognize television, movies, magazines, newspapers, and online multimedia as resources that can deepen reading comprehension and critical thinking. Rather than viewing printed texts and electronic media as competing with each other, educators create synergy between these two forms as a way to bring literacy skills to students entering the 21st century.
Exploring news media broadens reading instruction by giving students access to culturally important domains of knowledge and a way to pursue intellectual and personal goals. As Paul Folkemer, a longtime media literacy advocate and assistant superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, New York, commented, News media offer a dynamic set of messages that help students see the challenges, delights, controversies, new discoveries, and sheer wonder of the everyday world.

Media and Language Arts

After years of viewing news media and popular culture as the enemies of literacy, teachers at Concord High School in New Hampshire have decided to instead use students' interest in media to strengthen reading comprehension and skills in literary analysis and writing. In 1998, the school board added a yearlong required course in communications/media for 11th grade students to its English/Language Arts curriculum. Concord was one of the first school districts in the United States to include media literacy extensively in its secondary-level language arts curriculum.
Concord English teacher Joanne McGlynn, for example, regularly guides her English 11 class in critically analyzing news articles. Beyond focusing on facts and vocabulary, students also reflect on the photo and headline that accompany the story: What feelings does the photo evoke? How does the visual composition and framing of the image communicate a point of view? What does the editor's choice of headline communicate? McGlynn helps students analyze who is telling the story and identify signs of bias.
For example, after reading the first two paragraphs of an article, students predict what information or opinions the writer will emphasize in the paragraphs to follow, and what kinds of people will be quoted. They imagine the situations depicted in the article, sometimes drawing a timeline to visualize the sequence of events. Lively discussion ensues as students voice their opinions and provide additional information. McGlynn often concludes the lesson by asking students to generate a question that the news article did not address and urging them to explore other news outlets to learn more about the story.
English 11 students at Concord High analyze not only the language and images of traditional literary forms like novels and short stories but also those of television shows, print and television journalism, movies, advertising, artifacts of popular culture, political communications, Web sites, online chat rooms, and other nontraditional texts. Students critically examine news media by comparing coverage of a news event across multiple print and electronic sources. They explore how persuasion and propaganda operate. They study rhetorical techniques, analyzing choice of words and imagery and the sequence in which information is presented. Teachers prompt students to look at whose perspectives mainstream news stories most emphasize—and whose they most ignore.

Active, Relevant Reading

  • Who is sending this message, and what is the author's purpose?
  • What techniques attract and hold attention?
  • What points of view are represented in this message?
  • How might different people interpret this message differently?
  • What is omitted from this message?
To understand the concept of bias more deeply, last spring students in English 11 created a list of all the stories broadcast in one evening on New Hampshire's only local channel, WMUR-Channel 9. After writing summaries of the news stories, students replayed the video and looked at the choices that broadcasters had made in the news script. They documented emotional language, vivid phrases, metaphors, and other attention-getting words, discussing which news stories used the most emotionally intense language and why. Students counted the number of minutes devoted to hard news, international news, local news, crime stories, and features. They were surprised by how much time the broadcast devoted to "happy talk" between on-air news personalities.
Concord's English teachers rarely hear students ask, "Why are we learning this?" because students recognize that news coverage of events and issues matters to the quality of life in their community. They enjoy asking critical questions about the news media. "We learned that reading is an active process," one 11th grade student told me recently when I visited the school: Reading and understanding the news, analyzing how people insert their point of view in messages, selecting and finding relevant information—these are skills that I will be using the rest of my life.

Results: Sharper Skills

During the 1998–1999 school year, my colleague Richard Frost and I examined how incorporating media literacy into the English curriculum affected Concord students' reading comprehension and writing skills. We compared all 293 11th grade students at Concord High School with a demographically matched sample of 89 11th graders from a high school where students had received no instruction in critically analyzing media. We measured reading comprehension by having students compose a written summary of an article from Time magazine, awarding points for correctly including main ideas. We measured writing skills by examining the quantity of writing that students produced and the number of spelling and grammar errors they made, and awarded each student a score between 1 and 5 on the basis of a holistic assessment of clarity and coherence. We also measured students' viewing skills by having them summarize and respond to questions about a TV news segment on the impact of a hurricane. We examined listening skills by having students listen to a news commentary prepared by National Public Radio. For all of these, we asked students to summarize main ideas and to identify the author's purpose, target audience, rhetorical techniques, and point of view.
Compared with the control group, the Concord students showed significant gains in reading and viewing comprehension, writing skills, and the ability to pinpoint purpose, point of view, and rhetorical techniques. The mean reading comprehension score for the Concord students was 2.92, compared with the control group's mean of 2.01. The mean score for viewing comprehension was 2.85 for Concord students, compared with 2.25 for the control group.
In a 2003 study, Frost and I found that Concord students' reading and writing skills were stronger than those of students who had been exposed to a traditional literature-based English curriculum without news literacy (Hobbs & Frost, 2003).

Multimodality and Motivation

Why is media literacy effective in promoting reading comprehension? First, strong readers are self-motivated and read actively, monitoring their comprehension by questioning, reviewing, and rereading. Teachers can foster this active stance through the use of multimedia activities that encourage reflection and questioning. In addition, multimodality is a key feature of reading in the 21st century. Many texts—such as Web sites, educational multimedia, newspapers and magazines, and broadcast documentaries—routinely combine verbal, visual, and auditory forms of expression. Such messages mix both media and genres.
Finally, teachers have long known that students are highly motivated and engaged by visual and electronic texts. Most students perceive newspapers, magazines, TV, movies, and Web sites as relevant to their lives. When teachers incorporate news and entertainment media skillfully into reading instruction, students see that understanding these texts matters—that reading is not just a hoop to jump through en route to high school graduation.
An increasing number of commercial print and electronic news media are available to integrate into instruction, including Time for Kids, Channel One News, Weekly Reader, CNN Student News, Teen People, and the Scholastic/New York Times magazine UpFront. These media are designed to motivate readers to make the effort required for comprehension. Last fall, a new television show called Kids News, hosted by a diverse team of young people reporting from a professional news set, premiered on 150 stations nationwide. Teachers can download the Kids News scripts to use in their classrooms. Skillful media use and script-reading activities can also support the acquisition of English language skills, particularly among second-language learners (Warschauer & Meskill, 2000).
Media literacy is a key asset in a democracy as well as a bridge to reading comprehension. J. Lynn McBrien (2005) asserts that "students in a democracy must learn how and why news stories are produced in order to think consciously and critically about information" (p. 31). As educators seek fresh ways to help adolescent readers strengthen their skills, media literacy should continue to be included in the package.

A Primer on Media Literacy

A Primer on Media Literacy

Media literacy is an expanded conceptualization of literacy that encompasses the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of forms.

  • Access skills. The ability to decode and comprehend messages as well as the knowledge of how to find and select messages to meet specific needs.

  • Analysis skills. The ability to recognize the author's purpose, point of view, and strategy for appealing to a target audience using appropriate conventions, genres, and forms. Analysis skills also include the ability to recognize the political, economic, historical, and social contexts in which messages circulate.

  • Evaluation skills. The ability to judge a message's quality, authenticity, accuracy, and relevance. Evaluation skills rely on the ability to determine a message's value and worth in relation to other messages from different sources.

  • Creation skills. The ability to brainstorm ideas and compose messages for such purposes as informing, persuading, and entertaining, using a wide range of media tools.



Hart, A., & Hicks, A. (2002). Teaching media in the English curriculum. Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Hobbs, R., & Frost, R. (2003). The acquisition of media-literacy skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 330–355.

McBrien, J. L. (2005). Uninformed in the information age: Why media necessitate critical thinking education. In G. Schwarz & P. U. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (pp. 18–34). 104th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education.

Warschauer, M., & Meskill, C. (2000). Technology and second language teaching and learning. In J. Rosenthal (Ed.), Handbook of undergraduate second language education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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