The Next Step in Media Literacy: Decoding

I think school librarians agree media literacy is a foundational skill for students. Given the exponential growth of digital media, the pandemic-induced increase in screen time, and the less-than-benign motives behind a lot of online content, media literacy is having a moment.

What does it mean to be media literate? School librarians respond students should be able to locate, evaluate, and synthesis sources from multiple viewpoints, assess credibility and bias, and use evidence to support or discredit claims. But what do media-literate students do in classrooms and libraries? What habits of mind and practice do they adopt?

One key habit is lateral reading and reverse image searching of sources to judge their credibility and intent. Another habit students must employ is examining rhetoric, particularly the use of logical fallacies, to persuade or provoke readers. Students should inspect personal responses to content and be aware of their biases.

All of these habits are vital to critique media, but reading about a source or looking for hyperbolic language/images/music is not enough. Good researchers ask good questions. We need to teach our students to ask critical questions about media by decoding it.

Project Look Sharp

Project Look Sharp is a nonprofit based out of Ithaca College in New York State founded in 1996. The mission of Project Look Sharp is to ”help K-16 educators enhance students’ critical thinking, metacognition, and civic engagement through media literacy materials and professional development.” I confess I didn’t know about the organization until they approached my team about working on a grant together last year. Melissa Jacobs, director of the New York City Department of Education’s Library Services, suggested they work with our state professional organization, the School Library System Association (SLSA), on the grant. Awarded the grant over the summer, the group’s work starts now!

Many organizations – Common Sense Media, PBS, and the Stanford History Group, to name just a few – have wonderful media literacy resources. The difference with Project Look Sharp is the focus on the decoding process of media. Teachers don’t explain to students how to decode, but rather pose questions that guide students through critical analysis and self-reflection of media. For example, on a lesson about online scams, instead of explaining to students how to avoid them, the teacher facilitates responses to questions such as:

  • What word or words suggest that this might be a scam?
  • How might this type of scam benefit the producer?
  • What types of scams are most effective? Why do you think that?

For the first question, the teacher does not direct students to the answers on the source, but puts the responsibility for learning and insight to the students by probing for evidence:

  • Say more about that.
  • What makes you say that?
  • Does anyone have a different idea?

Media Decoding Resources

Any educator can sign up for a free account on Project Look Sharp to download their lessons, kits, and handouts. They give tips for online media decoding because it is not easy. When educators develop lessons using this constructivist pedagogy, they have to do the challenging work of selecting questions about a source to ensure students meet the learning objective.

The learning objective(s) determines the questions: what do you want students to learn and be able to do?

Allowing Students to Lead the Discussion

It can be difficult for educators to release control of the conversation to students, to not give the answer or direct students to the answer explicitly. It might be risky for students to express opinions or even insights openly around controversial topics or issues, especially as the decoding process encourages educators to not say, “These are the facts” or “That is false.” Students must come to their own resolutions and understanding for learning to be meaningful and true. Of course, if the discussion veers to potentially offensive or hurtful comments or opinions, the educator must stop the conversation to debunk stereotypes and racist thinking.

But in the end, by allowing students to discover the answers themselves, learning becomes more authentic and engaging for them.

Learning becomes empowering.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

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