A Peer Reviewed Journal - ISSN 1499-819X

Volume 5, Number 2

February 4, 2003

© 2002 - 2003 Julie Creasey and EGallery

EGallery grants reproduction rights for noncommercial educational purposes with the provision that full acknowledgment of the source is noted on each copy.


A Case for Media Literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Curriculum

A Semester 2 Independent Inquiry

By Julie Creasey

For Cledwyn Haydn - Jones


In today’s media-saturated world, a new form of literacy has been conceptualized called media literacy. The Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies is strategically positioned to teach students media literacy in an effort to develop analytical skills and an understanding of how various types of media inform and shape our lives. This paper examines the nature of media literacy, the objectives of media literacy education, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of including media literacy in Alberta Elementary Social Studies.


Photographs, paintings, television, magazines, movies, web sites, letters, newspapers, brochures, radio shows, video games, and music all represent a multi-media collage of information and meaning making in our culture. How do these different types of media fit into our lives? We experience a range of media forms daily, but what do we notice about these? In everyday life, media can have a chameleon affect. It can easily slip by as a transparent vehicle of society or culture through which we access information and create meaning but do consciously notice its role. This is not to say that media completely escapes our scrutiny. There is popular discourse about media effects, such as discussions about the effect of television violence on children and other viewers. Still, there are many more opportunities to teach people to critically assess media. One of these opportunities is educating students to question media representations in society by gaining skills in media literacy. This paper aims to build a case for including media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Curriculum. Specifically, this paper examines what media literacy is, the objectives of media literacy education, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of the inclusion of media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies.

To provide a context for media literacy in the Alberta curriculum, one needs to understand that media literacy is currently a part of the Alberta Program of Studies in the pilot English 10-20-30 curriculum. Media literacy elements are also present in the ICT Program of Studies (Alberta Learning, 2000) general learning outcomes. For example:

F4 Students will become discerning consumers of mass media and electronic information.

C3 Students will critically assess information accessed through the use of a variety of technologies.

P3 Students will communicate through multimedia. (Alberta Learning, 2000, p. 4)

In addition, media literacy is being considered as part of the new Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies. A Consultation Draft currently under review places media literacy under communication skills that students will develop via the proposed Social Studies Program of Studies.


Before beginning to build a case for including media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Curriculum, it is important to start by defining some key terms. Firstly, I will provide an explanation of how the word media is used in this paper, because the word is often used in different ways. I use an all-encompassing definition of media—which corresponds with the plural form of medium defined in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as “the means by which something is communicated” (Barber, 1998, p. 900). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary also notes that “[a]lthough considerable opposition has been expressed to the use of media as a mass noun with a singular verb, e.g. the media is on our side, this usage is fairly well established” (Barber, 1998, p.899). I view this dictionary definition as an inclusive understanding of media—all the means by which something is communicated—in a similar way that I view the meaning of technology. My understanding of technology includes all “tools” that society creates or uses. So, for example, communications technology would include cave paintings, manuscripts and the world wide web. This meaning differs from the consumer-based usage of the word technology to mean the latest electronic “tools”. In a similar way, the word media is often used specifically to mean mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, etc), but in terms of this study, I understand the word “media” in media literacy as an all encompassing definition referring to all means through which something is communicated. Although media literacy most often involves studying mass media, it is not limited to this focus. Other examples of media that are studied include photographs, letters, and paintings.


There are different terms to describe the study of media. Media education, media literacy, information literacy, and media studies are some examples. Media literacy seems to be the most commonly used term in Canada and the United States. While there is no single agreed upon definition, I believe there are at least three components to media literacy: (1) working with multiple symbol systems (media), (2) critical analysis and understanding, and (3) using media to create representations. The following are some examples of varying scholars’ and educators’ definitions of media literacy.

Media literacy refers to composing, comprehending, interpreting, analyzing, and appreciating the language and texts of the multiple symbol systems of both print and nonprint media.” Everything from radio, magazines, virtual reality, to books “are all texts to be experienced, appreciated, and analyzed and created by students (Cox, 1999, p. 451).

Media literacy, broadly defined, includes print-based text and non-print text, expanding the notion of text to include visual images. The tools and technologies of the 21st century will require increasingly more sophisticated applications of technology and will require a broader knowledge base for understanding the interconnections among the disciplines using those technologies. The goal of literacy will be for readers to be proficient in working with multiple sign systems, to be critical viewers, but also to be proficient in using media representations to represent opinions as well as facts (Mulcahy-Ernt, 2000, p. 147).

The fundamental objective of media literacy is critical autonomy in relationship to the media. Emphases in media literacy training range widely, including informed citizenship, aesthetic appreciation and expression, social advocacy, self-esteem, and consumer competence (Aufderheide, 1997, p. 79).

In addition to the above definitions, the consultation version of the Alberta Social Studies Kindergarten to Grade 9 Program of Studies currently under review describes media literacy as it relates to Social Studies.

Media literacy skills in Social Studies involve students accessing, interpreting, analyzing and evaluating forms of mass media texts such as news media, television, Internet and advertising, that focus on social studies content. Media literacy in social studies explores concepts in mass media texts, such as identifying key messages, and multiple points of view that are being communicated; detecting bias in the process of power, authority and decision making when creating media texts; and examining the responsibilities of citizens to respond to media texts (Alberta Learning, 2002, p. 10).


Another important component in understanding media literacy is expanding the meaning of traditional literacy. “Like an ever changing kaleidoscope, modern literacy involves diverse combinations of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, moving, thinking, and representing strategies and skills” (Watts Pailliotet, Semali, Rodenberg, Giles & Macaul, 2000, p. 211). As in reading and writing, students must understand printed forms and symbols, in media literacy students must understand the forms and symbols of various media, such as visuals, recorded voices, and writing. Different media like “electronic media have literacy requirements in much the same way that reading does. Any medium requires practice and feedback to be able to decode its meaning” (Adams & Hamm, 1989, p. 138). This newer conception of literacy is “rooted in the literacy traditions of oral/aural, visual, and alphabetic modalities”, but the realm of literacy is expanded to include the reading and comprehension of a variety of media, including print (Semali, 2000, p. 278). Scholars maintain that “we use textual information, varied strategies, and our background knowledge of verbal, and audio messages to construct meaning while viewing, just as we rely on context clues and previous print experiences for determining words and concepts while reading” (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 209). Literacy strategies of “conscious recalling, retelling, remembering, connecting, extending, and evaluating” are critical components to traditional literacy and to the expanded concept of media literacy (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 210).

When creating an extended view of literacy, media literacy proponents stress the need to change the traditional meaning of “text”. As Patricia Mulcahy-Ernt suggests, “This expanded definition of literacy impacts curricular goals in the teaching and learning of language and literature and challenges traditional thinking about ‘text’” (2000, p. 132). So what does text become? Carole Cox, who teaches and writes about media literacy in Language Arts, believes that “text” evolves to include “spoken language, graphics, and technological communications” (1999, p. 452). J. Lynn McBrien also explains, “We need to understand the word text as an encompassing term involving the many ways in which we communicate. These days the varieties of technological communications are probably ‘read’ more frequently than print texts” (1999, p. 76). Because we have so many types of media available to communicate meaning, “when we talk about media texts, we refer to conventions or simply a variety of meaning-making devices such as words, images, pictures, sounds, music, and multimedia combinations” (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 210). There are texts that can be “read” in all types of media.

Many texts are worthy of critical study . . . including textbooks, literature, magazines, online ‘zines,’ and comic books; oral texts; student clothing, possessions, and social affiliations; television, film, and video; radio and music; advertising; toys and games; news broadcasts and newspapers; electronic texts like computer programs and the Internet; art; student-generated texts employing diverse media; life experiences and narratives; daily interactions; cultural and social events; and combinations of media (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p.210).

While the borders of conventional literacy are changing, the importance of comprehension remains. Sneed, Wulfemeyer, Riffe, and Van Ommeren stress that “understanding the symbols, information, ideas, values, and messages that emerge from the mass media” are as vital to media literacy as to “understand[ing] the meaning of the printed word” (1990, ¶ 10). Part of becoming media literate, then, is developing skills that lead to comprehending different types of texts.

As with traditional literacy, reading is only part of the equation. Comprehension is equally important: What good is the ability to read if we cannot understand the word? Students must learn to interpret and understand media messages to make responsible decisions about their media choices (McBrien, 1999, p. 76).

With this broadened definition of literacy, what can become confusing are the variety of new literacies that are being named and discussed, such as computer literacy, information literacy, television literacy, visual literacy and more. For example, the Consultation Draft of the proposed Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies separates communication skills into (1) Oral and textual literacy, (2) Visual literacy, and (3) Media literacy (Alberta Learning, 2002, p. 10). However, I believe that an expansive view of “media”, as previously discussed, should include all the types of new literacies that are being named. Essentially, they are all ways through which something is communicated—whether it is through computer software or a television screen. So, all the new types of literacies that are being discussed could all fit under one title of media literacy. Regardless that the terms can be confusing; media literacy basically means that a media literate person has skills in reading and comprehending a variety of texts in different media forms and, importantly, can produce texts in a variety of media forms.


While I have provided an explanation of the definition of media literacy, the meaning of term goes deeper than its definition. To gain a clearer understanding of media literacy, we can build on the definition by looking at some of the general principles of media literacy. Some of these principles are described by Len Masterman in A Rationale for Media Education. Masterman states that the basic principles of media education (media literacy) are:

  1. The central and unifying concept of media education is that of representation [media create a representation of reality].
  2. A central purpose of media education is to ‘denaturalize’ the media. Media education challenges the ‘naturalness’ of media images.
  3. Media education is primarily investigative. It does not seek to impose specific cultural values.
  4. Media education is organized around key concepts, which are analytical tools rather than an alternative content [not based on the content of specific media, but on ways to analyze the content of media].
  5. Media education is a lifelong process.
  6. Media education aims to foster not simply critical understanding, but critical autonomy [students learn to use critical analysis in their own lives].
  7. The effectiveness of media education may be evaluated by two principles: a. the ability of students to apply what they know (their critical ideas and principles) to new situations; and b. the amount of commitment, interest, and motivation displayed by students.
  8. Media education is topical and opportunistic. It seeks to illuminate the life-situations of the learners by harnessing the interest and enthusiasm generated by the media’s coverage of topical events (1997, pp. 40-43).

Masterman’s principles are based on media education in Britain, and are focused mostly on studying mass media, but they are general enough to apply to any media literacy educational program. Some other basic tenets of media literacy are provided by Patricia Aufderheide.

  • Media are constructed, and construct reality
  • Media have commercial implications
  • Media have ideological and political implications
  • Form and content are related in each medium, each of which has a unique aesthetic, codes, and conventions
  • Receivers negotiate meaning in media (1997, p. 80)

These beliefs recognize that media’s role in society that is not simply a vehicle for disseminating information, but that media communicate representations of society and operate within cultural ideologies. In turn, viewers and audiences interact and construct their meaning of what is communicated via different media. These multiple representations and interpretations, which operate on many levels, contribute to interest and fascination with media literacy.


As media education has been worked into curricula across Canada and in countries throughout the world, objectives and approaches to media literacy have evolved and changed. Masterman provides a European perspective to developments in media literacy. He explains that media education began with a “deep-rooted mistrust” of mass media, in which the media was regarded as a force that was thought to be ruining society (1997, p. 20). Teachers either sought to protect students by ignoring the media, or teachers “encourage[d] pupils to develop discrimination, fine judgment, and taste” by learning the differences between “high culture” and “low culture”, in which mass media was believed to fit in the latter (Masterman, 1997, p. 20-21). However, “in the 1960s, media, particularly film, was studied as an art” in the ‘Popular Arts Movement’ (Masterman, 1997, p. 22). According to Masterman, this was no longer a dichotomy of high and low culture, but an attempt to distinguish between good and bad media products (1997 p. 23). In the 1970s and 1980s, a cultural studies approach, especially via the field of semiotics and critical theory, became central to media education (Masterman, 1997, p. 28). This approach remains in media literacy today, however there is more focus on understanding audiences than there has been in the past (Masterman, 1997, p. 35).

It is important to further explore how the approach of cultural studies (see During (1999) The Cultural Studies Reader for coverage of contemporary issues in cultural studies) is interwoven into today’s media literacy. A cultural studies viewpoint regards media as a site of struggle where meanings are created and recreated as different representations of reality are presented and “read”. A cultural studies approach recognizes that “the media are symbolic systems; not simply reflections of a reality which must be accepted, but languages which need to be actively read, and interrogated” (Masterman, 1997, p. 28). Ladi Semali suggests that “the core issue of media literacy is that reality—our worldview—is socially constructed by media” (2000, p. 280). In fact, “many strategies for media literacy are drawn from the cultural studies discipline . . . and are concerned with institutions, representations, systems of beliefs, and communicative approaches” (Semali, 2000, p. 280).

Within cultural studies, one of the methods employed in media literacy is semiotics—the study of signs and symbols. This study of signs and symbols provides a framework for “literacy” in interpreting different media representations like magazine advertisements, television shows, brochures and more. In this interpretation of signs and symbols, media literacy employs the analysis of deconstruction. Deconstruction of texts involves breaking apart a text into its components to “recognize or reveal those techniques used to make up the media product” (McBrien, 1999, p. 79). McBrien gives the example of students learning that computer software is used to make photos of models look even skinnier than they already are.

They [students] can apply this knowledge when they look through fashion and beauty magazines and recognize that a photo of a model is unrealistic. In this way, students can look at the individual components in a media message to recognize how the tools create illusion of a real world (McBrien, 1999, p. 79).

Along the line of McBrien’s example of fashion models’ pictures being an illusion of a realistic female body, media studies are also closely aligned to critical theory. According to Stephen Littlejohn, in Theories of Human Communication, “critical approaches examine social conditions and uncover oppressive power arrangements” (1999, p. 225). There are many forms of critical theories—from Marxism to feminism—and it is impossible to generalize about all critical theorists. However, in terms of media literacy, critical theory plays a part via a cultural studies approach in which “the media are perceived as powerful tools of the dominant ideology. In addition, media have the potential of raising the consciousness of the population about issues of class, power, and domination” (Littlejohn, 1999, p. 234). Media literacy seeks to raise consciousness by teaching and learning how to critically interpret media constructions of reality.

Many scholars believe that this critical stance should lead teachers to encourage students toward social activism. Semali (2000) expressively presents this case.

Clearly, teaching critical media literacy must aspire to teach youth in our classrooms, particularly those impressionable groups or individuals in desperate search of an identity and a place in the adult world. Critical media literacy will bolster skills and knowledge they need to be able to consciously reflect on their interactions with the media. It will enable them to address injustices; become critical actors committed to combat problems of youth apathy, violence, substance abuse, rampant consumerism; and to generate a strong commitment to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation. Linking what students read/view with social concerns affirms what it means to be educated and to be media literate in a media-saturated milieu, in which information gathering and distribution processes thrive on the manipulation of seductive media spectacles (Semali, 2000, p. 287).

Semali is intense, and perhaps overambitious, but there is validity, practicality and empowerment in teaching students media literacy skills and providing them with experience in interpreting their world and becoming critically aware. Similarly, Watts Pailliotet et al. describe their goal in critical media literacy as a method

to further a critical stance from which students and educators engage in personal transformation and growth; that is, learning and thinking that result in increased literacy, as well as socially just, democratic, humane, and ethical actions in and out of the classroom (2000, p. 208).

According to Watts Pailliotet et al, media literacy is about engaging students “critically and thoughtfully with what they read in class, to ponder what they hear on the radio, and to recognize bias or misrepresentations on television or the Internet” (2000, p. 211). It’s about encouraging “students to thoughtfully challenge the authority of all texts through astute analysis and by articulating informed opinions” (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 211). It is important to note that teaching for social activism is not a requirement of media literacy but can be incorporated for those educators with such goals.

Finally, in this discussion about the approaches, theories and pedagogy of media literacy, it is important to mention that media literacy operates from a constructivist viewpoint that “learning is a process of constructing meaningful representations, of making sense of one's experiential world” (Murphy, 1997, ¶ 10). Discussion is a significant element to critical analysis, as students learn from each other. In class discussions, media literacy teachers must both encourage and respect students’ diverse responses to media (Masterman, 1997, p. 26).


There are many reasons why media literacy is a good fit with the Alberta Social Studies Program of Studies. Media literacy, with its underlying theories and pedagogy, fits into the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies as a broad learning objective. For example, media literacy is placed in the Consultation Draft of the Elementary Social Studies curriculum under general communication skills that students will learn. Therefore, media literacy in the Elementary Social Studies curriculum would be added not as a new topic of study, but as a means of teaching different Social Studies topics and overall themes. Some of the benefits to students may include developing transferable skills, gaining confidence in interpreting the world, and viewing social studies content as relevant, engaging and important. In addition, students can gain skills in researching and managing information from multiple sources.

Developing a spirit of inquiry is important to critically viewing the world. “In media literacy instruction teachers guide group dialog, using questioning strategies to encourage students to be reflective, recognize relationships among ideas, and think critically about how media represents reality” (Quesada & Lockwood Summers, 1998, p. 30). Renee Hobbs reminds us that “often, when social studies educators use magazine articles, newspaper clips, or video in the classroom, they place exclusive emphasis on the informative content of these messages,” but “one of the most important components of media literacy is its emphasis on asking questions about what you watch, see, and read” (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 18). So, media literacy in social studies is not just about learning the content in media, but learning how to question, "What makes this message believable (or not)?" (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 20). Students are given the opportunity to analyze media and then “decide whether they like or believe the presentation and its point of view” (McBrien, 1999, p. 77).

Tied to the aim of teaching critical thinking skills follows the idea that teachers can protect students by educating them about media. As McBrien believes, “the student who is educated about unsavory messages is the student who is safest from them and can assess and evaluate the messages for himself or herself” (1999, p. 76). When students gain critical thinking skills

they are empowered to take control of their reactions and to recognize the effects that media messages have on their own emotions, desires, and beliefs. They do not need to be sheltered from sexist or violent messages because they can interpret the manipulations for themselves (McBrien, 1999, p. 79).

Including media literacy in the social studies curriculum gives students the opportunity to learn many more transferable skills. Some of these skills are associated with the ability to decode or deconstruct information. As Dennis Adams and Mary Hamm suggest, “Decoding visual stimuli and learning from visual images requires practice. Seeing an image does not automatically ensure learning from it” (1989, p. 13). For example, “the ability to interpret the action and messages on a video display terminal requires going beyond the surface to understanding the deep structure of the medium (Adams and Hamm, 1989, p. 19). One tool for deconstructing texts and uncovering the deep structure is a framework developed by Watts Pailliotet called deep viewing. There are six components to deep viewing of a text.

  1. Action/sequence: What happens? When and for how long?
  2. Semes [1] /forms: What objects are seen? What are their characteristics?
  3. Actors/words: What is said and by whom? How is it said and heard?
  4. Closeness/distance: What types of movements occur?
  5. Culture/context: To whom might this video/Web site be targeted? What symbols do you notice? What do they mean to you? What might they mean to others?
  6. Effects/process: What is seen? What is missing? What is the quality? (Watts Pailliotet et al. 2000, p. 211).

Deconstructing texts in this way provides students with a framework to break down what they are reading or viewing.

Media literacy also provides students with other mental “tools of thought” (Adams and Hamm, 1989 p. 19). These tools of thought include “abilities to synthesize, analyze, evaluate, and argue—to engage ideas actively and write substantively about them,” they also include “the ability to imagine and value points of view different from one's own—then to strengthen, refine, enlarge, or reshape ideas in light of other perspectives” (Watts Pailliotet et al., 2000, p. 216). Other tools of analysis that students may become familiar with through media literacy are “denotation and connotation, genre, selection, nonverbal communication, media language, naturalism and realism, audience institution, construction, mediation, representation, code/encoding/decoding, audience, segmentation, narrative structure, sources, ideology, anchorage, rhetoric, discourse, and subjectivity” (Masterman, 1997, pp. 41-42). By grade six, many elementary students may just scratch the surface of some of these techniques. However, media literacy can help students to further develop some of the complex skills and understandings mentioned above that could be elaborated and built upon in junior and senior high school.

The many skills that students learn through studying media literacy can also be seen in the objectives and goals of media literacy programs. For example, media literacy is part of the new Quebec curriculum and is included as one of five cross-curricular broad areas of learning. In elementary, students studying in Quebec experience media literacy through the following focuses of development:

  1. Awareness of the place and influence of media in his/her daily life and society.
  2. Understanding of the way media portray reality.
  3. Use of media-related materials and communication codes.
  4. Knowledge of and respect for individual and collective rights and responsibilities regarding the media (Quebec Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 49).

Lyn Lacy (2000) provides an example of a media literacy program in the United States. She describes the objectives of her Minneapolis elementary school media literacy teaching.

  • To raise students’ awareness of a need for balance in their uses of three forms of media resources: print, computers, and film/video
  • To identify what is alike and different among the three forms of media resources.
  • To understand the strengths and limitations of unique properties, conventions, and formal features of each form of media.
  • To differentiate among fantasy and reality; fact and opinion; unreal, realistic and real content in media resources.
  • To recognize various effects used by creators of media resources to entice us as consumers of information and entertainment.
  • To understand how all forms of media influence our feelings about and knowledge of ourselves, society, and relationships with others and to identify subtle as well as obvious messages in all forms of media.
  • To explore the implications of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of access to information and the responsibilities attendant to those freedoms (Lacy, 2000, p. 251).

Another example of student objectives in media literacy comes from schools in Texas where “media literacy is placed directly into social studies curriculum frameworks” (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 9).

Specific objectives for student performance include identifying ways that social scientists analyze limited evidence; locating and using primary and secondary sources, including media and news services, biographies, interviews, and artifacts; analyzing information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, comparing, contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations and predictions, and drawing inferences and conclusions (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 9).

Besides the great number of skills that students gain by studying media literacy, what makes media literacy a good fit for the Alberta Social Studies Curriculum? Media literacy can add to the social studies curriculum in a way that makes the content more relevant, engaging and interesting. According to Statistics Canada (2001), Canadian children age two to eleven watch an average of 14.2 hours of television per week. And in 2001, an average of 60.2% Canadian households had at least one regular Internet user. As educators, we know that children interact with and are engaged by media such as TV, CDs, video games, and the Internet, so why not capture this interest and direct it into meaningful learning? Media literacy “addresses kid culture, builds a bridge between school and society, and moves rapidly away from the traditional teacher-centered classroom where subject matter experts function as information dispensers” (Considine, 2000 p. 314). In terms of watching television, Mary Hepburn points out that

as young people watch, listen, and react to television over time, they are forming outlooks on society. The images and information they absorb shape their perspectives on history, geography, culture, economic matters, and social-civic living. Such topics are the content of social studies (Hepburn, 1999, p. 353).

Studying media and pop culture is relevant; it is relevant in that it is part of our daily life, and bringing this “reality” into social studies will serve to engage students. “Because so much educationally relevant material appears in the mass media, teachers are increasingly responding to the argument that they should use such material to make their teaching more interesting, relevant and up-to-date” (Masterman, 1997, pp. 53-54).

Essentially, by using material in media literacy that is relevant to students, teachers are providing students with skills to negotiate their everyday experiences. As Arli Quesada and Sue Lockwood Summers state, “If we expect today's students to be able to construct knowledge applicable to their daily lives—which are filled with information coming at them in various forms of media—teachers need to learn how to use media to their advantage” (1998, p. 30). Children can learn the “conventions of video production—zooms, pans, tilts, fade outs and flashbacks. But distinguishing fact from fiction is more difficult” (Adams & Hamm, 1989, pp. 7-8). With the case of television, “[n]ews and information are usually immersed in advertising and opinion statements that can confuse the viewer,” and “[t]elevision has such visual power that many viewers do not question the reliability of what is shown or said or implied” (Hepburn, 1999, p. 353). Semali adds, “My goal is to enable students to understand how our emotions, positive and negative, are influenced by the content of media programs and to be aware of what in the programs causes such feelings” (2000, p. 279). Media literacy can enter this life world of students and make a connection to the information era by providing a forum for students to discuss their everyday experiences in a media rich world. It has been said before; “Video, audio, Web, and image texts are pervasive. Students must learn to read these messages analytically and critically to be well educated and literate in our media-saturated society” (McBrien, 1999, p. 79).

More specifically, in terms of the social studies curriculum, media literacy’s content and aims can help meet some of the challenges of elementary social studies teachers. Below Jeff Passe outlines some of these concerns.

  1. The need to provide perspective—as the opportunities for independent interpretation of events increase, challenges also arise. One serious issue is the exposure of children to topics that may confuse or disturb them.
  2. The need for positive experiences with democracy—with so much information available through so many different media, there is constant competition for the public’s attention. The result is sensationalism and quick snippets of news that deprive citizens of the in-depth discussions of serious news that are needed to make policy decisions.
  3. The need to promote decision-making skills to cope with technological changes. Some of the decision-making skills that have become more important in our technologically changing world can be developed in elementary social studies classrooms. They include: gauging the reliability of sources; analyzing causes; developing alternative solutions; predicting consequences of alternative solutions; comparing alternative accounts of the same event; examining media reports for inaccuracy, slanted portrayals, and credibility of sources; and recognizing and respecting objectivity” (1994, pp.7-8).

Above all of the reasons cited in favor of teaching media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies curriculum, one of the most compelling reasons that media studies is important to social studies concerns the role that the media plays in providing information to citizens. The current Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies stresses the importance of citizenship, stating that “Social Studies is a school subject that assists students to acquire the basic knowledge, skills and positive attitudes needed to be responsible citizens and contributing members of society” (Alberta Learning, 1990, p. A.1). The Program of Studies emphasizes that

[r]esponsible citizenship is the ultimate goal of social studies. Basic to this goal is the development of critical thinking. The “responsible citizen” is one who is knowledgeable, purposeful and makes responsible choices. Responsible citizenship includes:

  • understanding the role, rights and responsibilities of a citizen in a democratic society and a citizen in the global community.
  • participating constructively in the democratic process by making rational decisions
  • respecting the dignity and worth of self and others (Alberta Learning, 1990, p. B. 1).

“In a democracy it is essential for citizens to (a) have access to news and information and (b) be engaged in public concerns” (Hepburn, 1999, p. 352); media literacy in the Social Studies curriculum works toward meeting these requirements. Because the media provides citizens with crucial decision-making information, it is important that citizens have the skills to question sources, to analyze information, to respect diverse viewpoints and to recognize techniques of persuasion. In addition, being a knowledgeable and responsible citizen requires an awareness and understanding of current events—which are mediated through newspapers, television, radio and the Internet. It has been noted that especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, “[t]he military, political, and diplomatic events . . . have renewed an interest among many social studies educators to employ classroom discussion and learning activities that strengthen media literacy skills” (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 7). For these reasons, it is difficult to imagine a Social Studies curriculum, which stresses the need for responsible citizenship, without media literacy as a way to educate students about the effects of media on democracy and to provide them with the skills to critically scrutinize information related to societal issues. “Engaging with the media means, in the last analysis, that one is ready to engage with the society and community of which one is part” (Ferguson, 1999, p. 258).


When planning to teach media literacy, it is important to realize that students need time to learn the various mental “tools of thought” and techniques of analysis. A stand-alone lesson will not provide sufficient opportunity to gain media literacy skills. In addition, after students have had some time to experience analysis and critical thinking, it is important that they learn skills in creating their own media projects. In this way, they can use the knowledge they have gained from analyzing another’s work to creating their own. Basic skills in presentation can be discussed with students, such as recommendations for public speaking, creating brochures, or making collages. If the technology is available, a teacher may also choose to have students create video projects, take digital pictures, or learn how to use some computer software to create presentations. “Original construction empowers students to create their own messages. Using their knowledge of media tools and production, they can invent powerful media products either for their schools or their communities” (McBrien, 1999, p. 79).

When planning to incorporate media literacy into social studies, there are a great number of possibilities. Below are some examples of how media literacy can be used to address topics in the current Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies.

Grade Topic(s) Possible Inquiry Questions

Topic B: My Family
Topic C: Other Canadian Families

  • Analyze how families are represented in television shows.
  • Discuss “What type of media does my family use?”
Two Topic C: People in Canada
  • Analyze media representations of how communities meet their needs e.g. quality water supply or preserving traditions
Three Topics A, B, C all relating to communities
  • Analyze promotional material from various community groups/services.
  • Analyze media events that promote community organizations or activities. Discuss how these events help special communities.
  • Record oral histories from members of the community.
Four Topics A, B, C all relating to Alberta
  • What information do historical photographs provide about Alberta?
  • Analyze media representations of an Alberta lifestyle and Quebecois lifestyle and make comparisons.
Five Topic A: Canada: Its Geography and People
  • Examine media from environmental groups.
  • Create a media presentation about the environment.
  • Analyze news stories about environmental issues in Canada.
Six Topic A: Local Government
  • Examine an issue that is being dealt with by the local government and analyze how it is portrayed by different media e.g. transportation issues, contract negotiations

In addition, Appendix A provides a comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive, collection of ideas for creating lesson and unit plans. Most of the ideas provided are of a general nature, so they could be applied to many of the different topics in the K-6 curriculum.


So far, this paper has looked at many of the possible benefits of including media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies. It is also important to address some of the possible drawbacks to trying to incorporate media literacy into the curriculum. One possible barrier is that teachers may lack confidence to teach media literacy. Teachers may be concerned about whether they have enough knowledge about the subject or if they have the appropriate resources to teach it. Another worry of teachers might be that media literacy is yet another content component that must “be covered”.

There are solutions to these concerns. First, it is important to understand that teachers do not require a background in Communications or Media Studies to teach media literacy. We all use media everyday and teachers can draw on that knowledge to begin their instructional planning. There is a wide-range of media literacy information available—from lesson plans on web sites, to books about media studies, to books with lesson plans, to videos that help introduce media literacy to students. As well, there are many organizations that are interested in promoting children’s media literacy skills. In the spirit of life long learning, a teacher new to media literacy can take the opportunity to learn with his or her students. With media literacy, like the addition of and planning for any new curriculum objectives, “nothing will affect the quality of the teaching and learning which takes place . . . more than the clarity and precision of the teacher’s own objectives, and his/her ability to communicate these to the students” (Masterman, 1997, p. 19). Thoughtful planning and preparation is critical; fortunately, there are many fabulous resources to draw upon.

As for being an additional curriculum subject to be covered, media literacy does not have to be treated as new curriculum material. As mentioned, media literacy can be thought of as a perspective through which to cover existing curriculum material. Media literacy is also highly adaptable to curriculum integration, especially with the Alberta Elementary Language Arts Program of Studies and the ICT Program of Studies (Alberta Learning, 2000).

Another possible drawback of including media literacy in the K-6 curriculum is concern about controversial topics and the desire to protect students. Teachers and schools may be wary of discussing controversial or emotion-laden topics, especially with young children. McBrien explains, “Protectivism confounded us throughout the project. Even though teachers might be willing to use popular media examples, school policies or parents’ objections forced us to look for noncontroversial examples” (1999, p. 78). It is true that some issues may be too controversial to discuss in school with a young audience. But while parents, teachers and schools “may be able to shelter their children from reading printed texts of which they do not approve, they cannot prevent them from observing other media messages. Witness giant billboards of bikini-clad women holding cans of beer and TV commercials advertising violent new feature films” (McBrien, 1999, p. 78). Rather than try to protect students from unsavory messages, media literacy strives to give students the power, language and experience to make responsible decisions about the media they encounter. However, the material that media literacy teachers introduce to students must be age appropriate. This responsibility is tied into thoughtful planning and preparation; teachers must use good judgment when deciding what material to include. A certain level of controversy is acceptable, such as debates about economic development versus environmental protection. As with any subject, it takes practical wisdom to provide quality educational materials for students.

When looking at ways to introduce different media literacy topics to younger students, there are many resources available. Children in kindergarten and the earlier elementary grades are able to participate in media literacy learning. Watts Pailliotet et al. “find even young elementary children can begin to identify and describe points of view, stereotypes, and bias they encounter in both popular media and textbooks” (2000, p. 210). With younger students it is more a case of introducing ideas about being aware of different media. For example, for kindergarten students awareness of media might mean differentiating between real and fantasy in a television show or even differentiating between television shows and commercials. The Quebec Curriculum states that in elementary school students become more aware of media and learn media literacy skills.

They learn to measure the time they spend consuming various media and compare it to the amount of time they devote to their other activities. They can distinguish between different media, discuss the content of messages conveyed and compare the goals of different media. They explore the elements of media language and become aware of the effects it has on them. They can distinguish between virtual situations, such as those presented in video games, and real situations. They learn to judge the place and role of the media in their lives and in society and become aware of their influence on their own values. In this way they learn to maintain contact with reality and develop their critical, ethical and aesthetic judgment (Quebec Ministry of Education, 2001, p. 48).


While there are possible negative factors to including media literacy in the Alberta Elementary Social Studies Program of Studies, I believe the benefits greatly outweigh any possible drawbacks. As has been discussed, media literacy has the potential to reach students through the spirit of inquiry and to help them develop skills—such as the ability to question through critical thinking, analyzing texts, synthesizing information, and evaluating information sources—skills that are important not only in school but in life. As McBrien (1999) found,

using media examples in print and on video, audio, and the Web, students now have the opportunity to recognize stereotypes, biases, multiple viewpoints, advertising devices, camera techniques, and photographic manipulation, all of which contribute to the overall effect to move, entertain, persuade, or manipulate a consumer (McBrien, 1999, p. 78).

It is both important and worthwhile to teach “students that ‘seeing is not believing’; especially when content is packaged for purposes other than information dissemination, [it] goes a long way in helping students become less vulnerable to such packaging” (Covington Jr., 1997, ¶ 19).

Media literacy also has the potential to make social studies more engaging and relevant to the information society in which we live. “Schools no longer can afford to treat the curriculum as if print were the main form of communication; indeed, schools must recognize that the advent of new information technologies means that visual, computer, and media literacy are necessary partners of print mastery” (Sneed, Wulfemeyer, Riffe, & Ommeren, 1990, ¶ 2). In terms of Social Studies, media literacy can open up debates in which students are involved in a public forum as active citizens who are becoming more informed about the issues in the world around them. “For teachers to provide such learning experiences requires us to let go of our fears about controlling classroom discourse” (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 34). Elementary social studies teachers cannot afford to act in fear and ignore the media through which citizens in a democracy gain information about their culture, society and government.


[1] Semes: Defined as "visual meaning units" (http://www.writinglife.org/eci546/nov14/deepview.htm)



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Alberta Learning. (2002). Social Studies Kindergarten to Grade 9 Program of Studies, Consultation Draft. Accessed February 2, 2003. http://www.learning.gov.ab.ca/k_12/curriculum/bySubject/social/default.asp

Adams, D. M. & Hamm, M. E. (1989). Media and Literacy: learning in an electronic age. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

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Center for Media Literacy. (n.d.). Online Catalogue of Teaching Resources. Accessed February 2, 2003. http://gpn.unl.edu/cml/

Considine, D. M. (2000). "Media Literacy as Evolution and Revolution: in the culture, climate, and context of American education". In A. Watts Pailliotet & P. B. Mosenthal (Eds.). Reconceptualizing Literacy in the Media Age, (pp. 299-327). Stamford, CT: Jai Press Inc.

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Appendix A:

Media Literacy Lesson Plan Ideas [go back]

1. Create a unit on humor. This unit could compare humor across cultures or investigate Canadian identity and humor. Possible resources include information on popular television programs, such as SCTV, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, or the Red Green Show. Other possible resources include political cartoons, television commercials, and Canadian movies.

2. Students can prepare a personal response, choosing from a variety media, to a museum exhibit, painting or photograph.

3. Students can learn about denotation and connotation and complete an analysis of an advertisement, photograph, website, newspaper article, etc.

4. Have a class debate about the possibility of objectivity in news reporting.

5. Have students write different versions of news story using the same facts, but from different perspectives. Compare the similarities and differences.

6. Along the same line, have students select a media example (advertisement, brochure, etc.)
and identify specific statements of fact and opinion or persuasive techniques. Then have them re-create these examples expressing a different point of view, changing the intended audience, altering the graphics, and so on, to explore how modifying one media element changes the information and therefore one's perceptions (Quesada & Lockwood Summers, 1998, p. 33).

7. Masterman suggests (1997, pp. 51-53)

  • The compilation of oral histories via the audiovisual media [students could interview members of their family or community members]
  • Study the part played by the media during elections
  • Learn techniques of persuasion in the media (e.g. in advertisements or politics)
  • Look at popular media representations of the culture, country, or nationality being studied

8. 101 Everyday Activities in Social Studies, Media, and Life Skills by The Metropolitan Toronto School Board (1996) provides the following ideas

  • Analyzing a specific television commercial
  • Analyze commercials being played during a specific show and try to figure out who the target audience is
  • Watch a movie and analyze who the good and bad characters were and how you could tell
  • Watch a television program and analyze what you learned that was good and bad
  • Make a television questionnaire and have the student interview family members and friends
  • Document incidents of violence in one television program
  • Analyze media coverage of one particular issue
  • Discuss TV and movie ratings

9. Material from The Missing Perspective: Curriculum Materials to Sensitize Students to the Significant Role that the Media and Labour Play in Canadian Society developed for grades 9-12 could be adapted to the upper elementary grades. Key media literacy concepts in this material are “perspective, bias, selection, propaganda, and structural bias” (1999, p. 1). This material provides the following ideas:

  • Analyze the parts of newspaper articles and how they may lead to structural bias (headline, byline, summary, lead, body). Analyze how parts of the article may affect the story.
  • Investigate the terms bias and propaganda. Give examples and have students try to identify.
  • Study the influence of media ownership.
  • Look at who has a voice in media and what is left and taken out of news stories.
  • Study the importance that selection plays in the meaning of news stories.

10. Giles, Macaul, and Rodenberg (2000, p. 163-168) recommend having students use three different types of sources to study the same product, idea or event. Students can use a Venn diagram to compare information from the three sources.

11. Adams and Hamm offer the following activity ideas (1989, p 37-39)

  • Evaluating a newscast
  • Visual poem: combining visual literacy and language arts (create poems with pictures and words, if resources permit, create a video poem)
  • Interpreting political cartoons
  • Introducing Metaphors- studying song lyrics
  • Describe a visual experience

12. "Help students distinguish between opinion and fact. Hepburn (1999) suggests the following: Tape a ten-minute segment of a TV talk show and review it in preparation for a classroom showing. Show it to students and have them pick out opinion statements versus apparently factual statements. Ask, If a statement is made on a news show, is it necessarily factual? Make students aware of signs of bias and stereotyping. Be sure to discuss how they can check out data that are presented as fact. Also note how facial expressions and voice can help to convince viewers that a personal opinion is a fact" (Hepburn, 1999, p. 355).

13. Ask students to write, present, or create a project on role models in the media (Hepburn, 1999, p. 356).

14. Hobbs (2001) offers this idea: "It's not difficult to imagine the instructional value and levels of student engagement in activities that emerge in learning about history, economics, or geography through creating a TV talk show, an advertisement, a pamphlet, a diary entry, a video news release, a letter to the editor, a radio interview, a series of photographs, a collage, a book cover for an imaginary new nonfiction book, a website, or a video documentary" (Hobbs, 2001, ¶ 33).

15. Quesada & Lockwood Summers (1998) provide the following ideas: "Have students match the content of various informational sources to practical research situations. If they are looking for up-to-the-minute data, are they more likely to find it in a daily newspaper, a monthly magazine, or on the World Wide Web? If they want a historical view, are they more likely to find it in a book, print encyclopedia, CD-ROM reference tool, video documentary, or on Web TV? Which sources provide local data? Which ones are more international in scope? And so forth. Addressing these questions will help students realize that for most research purposes it's not an either/or choice between print and electronic sources, but a combination--along with people-to-people exchanges, such as interviewing and e-mail--that can give them the most complete data" (1998, p. 30). "Further, have students select a controversial issue and bring in examples of prefiltered and unfiltered information about it from magazines, tabloids, videos, CD-ROMs, Web sites, and other sources to compare and discuss. With older students, you might choose to tackle difficult social issues such as homelessness or drug prevention. A safer route (especially with younger students) might be to take on less loaded but still controversial issues such as celebrities and heroes or foods and health. Sample questions to ask about the resources found during research might include:

  • Whose point of view is being expressed?
  • Is the author a noted expert in the field or a researcher who has acknowledged credibility?
  • Is the information fact or opinion--or a mixture of both?
  • Are examples or evidence given to support statements or conclusions made?
  • Is there a built-in bias due to a political, economic, or social agenda?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Are the vocabulary, tone, illustrations, and other media elements appropriate for the intended audience?
  • Is the data current or no longer valid?
  • Are there inconsistencies in the information presented?
  • What's not being told and why?
  • Can you identify any persuasive technique's being used?" (1998, pp. 31-33).

16. Provide students with criteria for evaluating web sites. Discuss the criteria and have students complete several web site evaluations. See the following 2Learn.ca website for a good example of web site evaluation form. Online: http://www.2learn.ca/evaluating/div1netscheck2.html

17. Watts Pailliotet et al. (2000) recommend that: "students create a media log. Students bridge literacy environments by viewing a media text at home. Our students applied the deep viewing strategy to television commercials and programs, video games, Web sites, videos, or comics, and they recorded observations in their viewing logs. We encouraged them to talk with their parents about favorite commercials and programming, then to record and share these insights in class" (p. 214).

18. Students may analyze the language of a new story, a work of art, a photograph, a letter, an advertisement, etc. Build on techniques of deconstruction, for example, metaphors, techniques of persuasion, bias, etc.

19. Cox (1999) suggests the following activities

  • Students can do photo essays
  • Study photojournalism
  • Discuss different sections of the newspaper
  • Experience good children’s films and literature

20. The New York Times website provides possible lessons for media studies, such as analyzing the use of propaganda in the war against terrorism and exploring 'the real deal' about reality-based TV shows. Most of these lesson plans would be for upper elementary grades. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/lessons/mediastudies.html

21. The Media Awareness Network is a Canadian organization that provides a number of quality lesson plans for teaching media literacy grades K-8. Some examples are: television’s representation of families or advertising and nutrition—understanding the affects of advertising on food choice. Online:


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