Teach Media Literacy (AKA primary source analysis) in Your Social Studies Classroom

By Cynthia Resor posted 09-14-2019 01:56:34 PM


Media literacy, the ability to analyze the content and understand the purpose of media, is the modern label for age-old skills often called critical analysis. Other common names for this essential skill include historical primary source analysis and close reading. Seeking answers to key questions before making conclusions or decisions is at the core. Who created the message? What are the views and goals of the creator? Why is the message convincing? What does the creator gain? What do I gain or lose if I believe it? Where can I find more information?

Since ancient times, people have shared information. But with the printing press (15th century), print media more became accessible to more people and literacy rates began to rise. By the 19th century, technological, economic, and social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution created a boom in new forms of printed media - newspapers, magazines, and inexpensive books. In the 20th century, broadcast media (radio, movies, television) became prominent. Today, a new media revolution is transforming our daily lives. Old print and broadcast media are fading or evolving to compete with modern forms of electronic communication - emails, smartphones, social media, and the internet. The products and messages of all of these forms of media, historical and modern, try to capture our attention and sway our opinions.  The media have changed, but media strategies to sell, persuade, inform, and entertain often remain the same.

October 21-25, 2019 is Media Literacy Week.  Consider how you can incorporate teaching, learning, and practicing media literacy skills in your social studies classroom. Feature texts and images from historical forms of media in history classes and ask students to compare the audiences, messages, and strategies for persuasion to modern forms of electronic media. For example, almanacs were a household resource for information, long before the internet became our “go-to” source. For centuries, people turned to the almanac for information and entertainment. Just like newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the internet, this free or low-cost resource was paid for with advertising. Almanacs usually included many forms of advertising alongside and inside the articles, essays, recipes, charts and calendars; a pre-internet form of content marketing. For more about historical almanacs, see Almanacs: Information before the Internet.

Media literacy lessons can be incorporated into every classroom regularly. In civics and political science classes, evaluate political advertising and how social media sway public opinion. In geography, ask your students how mental maps of distant places are influenced by media attention. In economics, examine the effects of positive or negative media coverage on financial markets. In a psychology or sociology class, discuss studies demonstrating the effects (negative and positive) of social media on children. In philosophy, analyze the ethics of media and advertising. During research projects, ask students to analyze the value of different types of internet resources. Compare and evaluate various types of sites - from blogs to internet encyclopedias to the websites of for-profit and non-profit institutions.

For more resources: https://medialiteracyweek.us/resources/event-lesson-ideas/  and https://sheg.stanford.edu/civic-online-reasoning

For more about the history of daily life, historical primary sources, and instructional activities by this author:

1840 American Anti-Slavery Almanac
American Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1840. Full text available on Archive.org
1 comment



05-03-2020 07:53:06 PM

Media literacy strikes me as an essential skill for living in today's world considering that media is everywhere. I agree that using social studies to teach media literacy is something that should be in every classroom, but I wonder how easy the concepts of the past will connect with students when we consider just how different our relationship to media has become in the modern age.