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Virginia Journal of Education

The Changing Face of Literacy

Students need our help to develop the skills to understand today's barrage of media messages.

By Renee Hobbs

Walking down the corridors of a suburban middle school, the distinctive sound of a television commercial stands out against the more traditional patter of classroom noises: Yo! Are you hip to these? Are you in the know? Cause here's where Eggo Minis are made to go-- In Yo' Mouth! Who needs a plate? In Yo' Mouth! Cause they're made to fit your face! In Yo' Mouth! They're mega-yum. In Yo' Mouth! The taste is pure fun!

Inside, a teacher is leading a discussion about the ad. "Who's the target audience?" he asks.

"Boys our age," responds a student. "They only showed boys."

"And the music— it was like rap music, sung by boys," chimes in another. "It's sung in a kind of aggressive way. And the words, 'In Yo' Mouth'— that reminds me of 'In Yo' Face!'"

"What's a synonym for 'In Yo' Face?'" asks the teacher, feigning ignorance. The class erupts in laughter, and a chorus of replies follows. The teacher flips open the thesaurus and adds some additional words: defiance, bravado, dare.

He then changes the pace. "Everybody take five minutes and write down one or two reasons why the producer chose this phrase for the Eggo Mini Waffles campaign." Notebooks fly open and students get quickly down to writing. This is clearly something they have been doing regularly in this class. After five minutes, he asks students to read their ideas aloud. Six hands are in the air.

A dark-haired girl begins to read. "The producer wants to show that eating Lego Mini Waffles is a way of showing independence, being defiant."

"The producer wants kids to think it's cool to eat breakfast on the run, not with a plate, not sitting down," reads another student.

"The producer might want to link Lego Mini Waffles with the attitude of 'In Yo' Face!' because that daring attitude is so popular with kids nowadays," says another boy.

After a few more such interpretations, the teacher wraps up. "So sometimes commercials can use people's feelings— like defiance— to link to their products. For your critical viewing project tonight at home, I'd like you to look for a commercial that uses bravado — especially kids defying adults. If you find one, be prepared to describe it to us tomorrow."

Then, he switches gears to "Flowers for Algernon," the short story they're reading, and notes Charly's growing defiance towards his new friends. The whole media literacy enterprise, clearly a regular part of this middle school English classroom routine, has taken about 10 minutes.

Media Literacy in K-12 Education
More and more educators are beginning to help students acquire the skills they need to manage in a media-saturated environment, recognizing that in its broadest sense, literacy must include the ability to skillfully “read” and “write” in a wide range of message forms. Leaders in the media literacy movement define media literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms.” It includes reading and writing, speaking and listening, critical viewing, and the ability to create messages using a wide range of technologies, including cameras and computers. Media literacy is not a new subject area and it is not just about television; it is literacy for the information age.

Some educators see media literacy as a tool to build links between the classroom and the culture, so that students will see how themes and issues resonate in popular culture as they do in the study of literature, history or social studies. Some see it as a citizenship survival skill, necessary to be a thoughtful consumer and an effective citizen in a media-driven age. Some see it as a kind of protection for children against the dangers of the excesses of television, and as an antidote to manipulation and propaganda.

Others see media literacy as a new kind of English education, helping students appreciate and analyze ads, sitcoms and films with the same tools used to study poetry, short story and the novel. Still others see it as a way to give children the opportunity to tell their own stories and better understand the power of those who shape the stories of our culture and our times.

But there are other visions of media literacy, narrower and more problematic. Some see it as an option for underachieving students whose interest can be piqued by TV and nothing else. Some see it as a kind of vocational education, where kids can learn to “make” TV. Some see it as a chance to play with sophisticated electronic tools, like character generators, video toasters and wave-form monitors. Some think media literacy is just about making "good choices" about what to watch or read. And many simply think the curriculum is already too crowded and teachers already too overburdened to make room for media literacy.

Media Production and Media Analysis
Student generated production is becoming more and more a part of American schools, particularly at the secondary level. High school students make their own music videos, create commercials for their own school plays, make satirical "Saturday Night Live" skits, deliver critiques of the new principal on their computers, and hand in class assignments (and college entrance essays) on video. And, of course, student production in journalism and the performing arts has long been an important part of secondary education.

In a culture which values technology as the mark of progress and the completion of professional quality media programs as a sign of success, "doing stuff" with computers and video is sometimes touted as cutting-edge education. However, student-based media production activities do not necessarily build media literacy skills. Sometimes, adult preoccupation with media technology and ego investment in media messages interferes with a child's actual engagement in the complex process of learning to create meaningful messages.

It's not surprising that in an educational environment which often values product over process, media production classes (in both print and video) become playgrounds for creative grownups who make all the really important decisions about the construction of the school newspaper or class video project, then set young people on the task of finishing the scut work. Many young people who are disillusioned or cynical about student journalism programs in high school point to their inability to take real responsibility for the choice of message content in the paper. Similarly, plenty of video magazine programs are produced by students who are coerced into making promotional messages for the sports program, the foreign language program, or whatever programs the grownups approve.
Of course, such practices occur because to truly empower children and youth with the ability to design the content and form of their own messages would entail tremendous risk. The issues which concern our teenagers today— sexuality, classism and racism, drug use, violence, the environment and the future— are topics that many educators are unprepared to bring into the classroom. Adults in the community often find the voices of young people very uncomfortable to hear and nearly impossible to respond to.

One of the biggest failures of contemporary journalism education has been in defining its mission as the cultivation of interest in the profession, focusing on developing young people's interests in media careers. Journalism educators must begin to carve out a larger and more productive goal, one that reaches all our children: helping young people develop the citizenship skills to be effective, skillful and critical news readers and viewers. Such skills are essential for full participation in a democratic society. When newspapers are used in American classrooms, too often they are used for vocabulary practice and reading comprehension, and not to strengthen students' critical understanding of newsgathering practices or their reasoning or analytic skills.

Media literacy advocates explicitly aim to link the skills of analysis with student production activities. But what exactly are these skills? And what kinds of media analysis are most appropriate for children of different ages? Most media literacy programs stress the following key concepts:

1. Messages are constructed. The construction process is invisible to newspaper readers or television viewers. Awareness of the choices involved in the making of media messages sensitizes readers and viewers to the subtle shaping forces at work— in the choice of photo or caption in a newspaper, in the images, pacing and editing of a TV news program. Noticing the construction of a message helps one become a more critical, questioning reader and viewer— but this kind of noticing doesn't come naturally to the process of reading or watching TV. It is a learned behavior.

2. Messages are representations of the world. The reason media messages are so powerful is that viewers and readers depend on them for their understanding of the culture. One reason children are thought to be more vulnerable to media influences is because they have less direct real-world experience to compare with the representations provided by mass media. Are police officers really like the guys on "Cops?" Are high school students really as cool as the ones on "Beverly Hills 90210?" Is our community really as dangerous and violent as it appears from reading the newspaper's Metro section? Understanding how media messages shape our visions of the world and our sense of our selves is a central concept in media literacy.

3. Messages have economic and political purposes and contexts. Understanding that mass media industries sell audiences to advertisers is a powerful new concept to many American adults, who are barely aware of how a newspaper can be delivered to the doorstep for 35 cents a day or how television can enter the home a no cost. Teaching this concept to young people, of course, can be sticky, for how you teach about it depends on your ideological perspective on advertising, market economics, the industrial revolution and late-20th century capitalism. Individuals employed by giant media companies might not feel comfortable with the idea of high school teachers and students analyzing their ownership patterns and acquisitions, looking critically at their annual reports and reading their trade magazines. However, any meaningful critical discourse about media messages must include a careful and systematic examination of the economic and political contexts in which films, TV shows, newspapers and news programs are produced.

4. Individuals create meaning in media messages through interpretation. When family sits down to watch a TV program together, the meanings individual family members make of the program will differ, and they can be radically different. For example, in one English class, a 10th grade student submitted an essay on the World Wrestling Federation show, analyzing the powerful symbols of good and evil embedded in the setting, costume and music of the program, interpreting the typical impotence of the referee as a defense of vigilante justice, and describing his own comfort in knowing the good guy will always win. After reading this young viewer's thoughtful, creative work, who can say that WWF is trash television? While not being completely relativistic, media literacy advocates often refuse to line up with those who have a more traditional perspective on children's TV, those who are very comfortable intoning the merits of PBS and the evils of popular, mass audience fare, championing the "good" shows and decrying the "bad" ones. It may not be so important what you watch, media literacy advocates say, but how you watch it.

For years, many educators (and parents, too) have stood like ostriches, sticking their necks in the sand and trying very hard to ignore media culture. Television became the enemy of the fine arts, culture, history and all that is best about civilization. The reasoning went like this: if we ignore it, our children will ignore it.

Now that our culture is almost totally transformed by the compelling electronic and visual experiences that appear on our screens each day, the ostrich stance seems more and more ridiculous. It's time to face up to the media culture we have created and consumed. It's time to help ourselves and our children to embrace and celebrate the messages worth treasuring, to analyze and understand the economic and political forces which sustain it, and to develop the skills and new habits we need to think carefully and wisely about the messages we create ourselves and the abundant messages we receive .

Hobbs is the director of the Media Education Lab at Temple University and a founding Board director of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA). Used with permission, Center for Media Literacy,


The Big Five

Here are five key questions to help students understand and interpret media, from the Center for Media Literacy:

1. Who created this message?
2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
3. How might different people understand this message differently?
4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
5. Why is this message being sent?

CML has created numerous resources to help educators help their students. To learn more, visit


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