Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Expanding The Concept Of Literacy

Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA

Published as "Expanding the Concept of Literacy," in Robert Kubey (Ed), Media Literacy in the Information Age. New York: Transaction Press, 1996.

In schools across the nation, teachers and students set aside their textbooks for a few days in April of 1992 to talk about the real-world horrors which they had seen on the television news-- the day after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King beating trial, when the streets of Los Angeles could not contain the rioters who were filled with rage. According to Bullard (1993), "With events in Los Angeles as catalysts, classrooms have become the sites of honest conversations ... that could be the beginning of great understanding."

In addition to discussions about racism, violence and power, students and teachers also talked about images. For our understandings of the King beating and its aftermath were powerfully shaped by the pictures shown on broadcast news, in newspapers and in newsmagazines. These images -- first of the brutal beating of Rodney King, and then of the horrible violence, looting and rioting which followed-- were evidence of the power that the mass media have in evoking strong emotional responses. At many different grade levels, students and teachers across the nation were compelled to begin to explore the paradoxical nature of images with these powerful questions:

  • Do images tell the truth?
  • What meanings do different people see in images?
  • How do words shape the meanings of images?
  • How do the authors of images shape their messages?
  • Why do images arouse us emotionally?

Reports from teachers provide examples of a variety of approaches used in discussing these issues. For example, one elementary teacher used works of children's literature about racism, and after reading, had students compare pictures from the books to pictures in newsmagazines. In a middle school, a teacher compared the language used in a radio news account of the riot compared with similar versions on television and in the local newspaper. A middle school teacher in Houston had students re-write the cutlines to different magazine photographs to see how language shapes interpretations of imagery. A teacher in Detroit helped students analyze how entertainment television programming turned the real-life event into storytelling, as an episode of "Doogie Howser, M.D." showed how the emergency room coped with the riot and characters in "the Fresh Prince of Bel Air" helped in the cleanup effort. High school students in Los Angeles watched the film, Boyz in the Hood and examined how the sequence of narrative events was shaped to heighten audience identification with characters.1

However, it would be a mistake to think that such practices were common events in American schools, even in response to an uncommon tragedy like the Los Angeles riots. Most teachers make use of media for motivation, illustration and enrichment, a use of media which emphasizes its value as an attractive delivery system. Only a few now use media artifacts as study objects. Why? Too many teachers believe that media -- especially television -- are the enemy. Some teachers find it more comfortable to stand outside the cultural world in which their students live, providing little assistance in helping students understand and interpret what has been called the "first curriculum" (Postman, 1985), the carefully designed set of messages about how the world works, how to buy products, and how to behave towards others which television and other mass media provide to every citizen. Indeed, in 1994, it hardly seems necessary to state the evidence which shows the dominance of film, television, and other mass media products on the lives of American citizens (see Alton-Lee, Huthall and Patrick, 1993; Howe, 1983; Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Weiss, 1990 for examples of recent evidence).

Just as the scholarly community is coming to appreciate the ways in which meaning is constructed as a result of the creative tension between the reader and the text, the power of mass media messages also comes from how individuals make interpretive use of them. But images have been taken for granted to serve as mere decoration, and mass media have been neglected in schools, and so students have had little instructional support in helping them analyze and think about media messages. For many years, students and teachers interested in exploring the connections between words, images and ideas have had few resources to use. As we enter the 21st century, it is essential that schools be places which help students better understand the complex, symbol-rich culture in which they live.

Although equally complex, the education crisis in the United States is no better understood than the complex social, political, economic and technological transformations which are reshaping the global communications industries. Students often do not see a connection between what they do in school and the communities in which they live. Such disenchantment with the value and relevance of education leads to failure in school. Every 8 seconds a child drops out of school in the United States; 75% of parents have never visited their children in school; and the United States ranks low among industrial nations in its rates of literacy (U. S. Office of Education, 1983). One thing is certain: our nation has been deeply hampered economically, politically and socially by our inability to educate our citizens effectively.

What is needed is a new vision of literacy which reflects the complex communication environment in which citizens must manage. This new vision incorporates both the legacy of our rich literary and cultural heritage and the nature of contemporary symbolic expression at the beginning of the 21st century. This paper examines how a new vision of literacy can be incorporated into educational resources for students and teachers. A new vision of literacy is essential if educators are serious about the broad goals of education: preparing students to function as informed and effective citizens in a democratic society; preparing students to realize personal fulfillment; and preparing students to function effectively in a rapidly changing world that demands new, multiple literacies.


Language is the most important element of our humanity, and yet, it is only one of a number of symbol systems which humans use to express and share meaning. Changes in communication technologies over the past 100 years have created a cultural environment which has extended and reshaped the role of language and the written word. Language must be appreciated as it exists in relationship to other forms of symbolic expression -- including images, sound, music and electronic forms of communication. Scholars and educators are coming to recognize that literacy is not simply a matter of acquiring de-contextualized decoding, comprehension and production skills, but that literacy must be connected to the culture and contexts in which reading and writing are used (Cook Gumperz, 1986).

Consider this new definition of literacy, adopted by educators who identify themselves with the "media literacy" movement (Firestone, 1992):

Literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms.

Embedded in this definition is both a process for learning and an expansion of the concept of "text" to include messages of all sorts. This view of literacy posits the student as actively engaged in the process of analyzing and creating messages and as a result, this definition reflects some basic principles of school reform 2 which generally include:

  • inquiry based education
  • student centered learning
  • problem solving in cooperative teams
  • alternatives to standardized testing
  • integrated curriculum

Basic Processes of Literacy: Access, Analyze, Evaluate and Communicate

The four processes which constitute the new vision of literacy provide a powerful frame in which to consider how people develop skills in using language and other forms of symbolic expression. For example, the ability to access messages connects to those enabling skills which include decoding symbols and building broad vocabularies. Access skills also include those skills related to the locating, organizing and retention of information; using parts of a book to find information; selecting and using reference sources using print, computer, video and other sources. The skills of access also refer to the ability to use the tools of technology, including video technology and computers. Access skills are often labeled as "information literacy," or more recently, "superhghway skills."

The ability to analyze messages connects to those interpretive comprehension skills which include the ablity to make use of categories, concepts or ideas; determine the genre of a work; make inferences about cause and effect; and identify the author's purpose and point of view. At the secondary level, the ability to analyze messages includes a recognition of the historical, political, economic or aesthetic contexts in which messages are created and consumed.

The ability to evaluate messages concerns those judgements about the relevance and value of the meaning of messages for the reader, including making use of prior knowledge to interpret a work; predicting a further outcome or a logical conclusion; identifying values in a message, and appreciating the aesthetic quality of a work. Although the skills of analysis and evaluation are frequently conflated by practitioners of media literacy, it is important to recognize that analysis skills depend upon the ability to grasp and make effective use of conceptual knowledge which is outside the student's own perspective, while evaluation skills make use of the student's existing world view, knowledge, attitudes and values.

The ability to communicate messages is at the heart of the traditional meaning of literacy, and the skills of writing and speaking have been highly valued by educators. In the last twenty years, writing has come to approach the primacy that reading has gained in the language arts hierarchy. Communication skills are diverse and, to some extent, media-specific. General skills include the ability to understand the audience to whome one is communicating; the effective use of symbols to convey meaning; the ability to organize a sequence of ideas, and the ability to capture and hold the attention and interest of the message receiver. Media-specific production skills for print include learning to write letters and spell words; using correct grammatical form; learning how to edit and revise one's work based on feedback. Similar media-specific production skills can be identified for speaking, video and audio production.

Expanding the Concept of "Text"

While the four concepts provide a new frame for thinking about the processes involved when people create and share messages, what makes the new vision of literacy so powerful is the application of these skills to messages in a variety of forms. At present, reading/language arts educators focus on literature as the core of the K-8 curriculum: the short story, poetry, drama and non-fiction are claimed to be ideal because they "motivate learning with appeal to universal feelings and needs... classic literature speaks most eloquently to readers and writers" (California State Board of Education, 1986, p. 7).

But they also may seem disconnected and remote from the experiences of students who, because of television, are "escorted across the globe even before they have permission to cross the street" (Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 238). Critics have claimed that, too often, a literature based reading/language arts program "ignores the life experience, the history and the language practice of students" (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p. 146), and that when literary materials are used primarily as vehicles for exercises in comprehension and vocabulary development, students may become alienated from the processes of reading and writing in a range of contexts.

In the past, educators have been comfortable to disenfranchise and overlook present-day cultural products, especially television, even though many works of literature which are now considered classic or traditional began their life as popular works designed for mass audiences (Beach, 1992). But just as scholars and critics have engaged in heated controversy about what texts are appropriate study objects to be included in the canon of essential literary works (Gless and Herrnstein Smith, 1992), these debates are filtering into changes in the curriculum.

Many educators have discovered that the analysis of contemporary media can build skills that transfer to students' work with the written word. When educators permit and encourage the study of contemporary media products in classrooms, students develop skills which alter and reshape their relationship to media products. Nehamas (1992) explains that "[s]erious watching ... disarms many of the criticisms commonly raised about television." More importantly, analysis of media texts helps students gain interest in writing and speaking, and helps nurture students' natural curiosity and motivation. Consider a story presented by Lauren Axelrod (cited in White, 1993), a high school teacher in Houston, Texas:

I used media literacy concepts to get my low-achievement students to tackle Conrad's Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. I started with an extensive analysis of the Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now, and we discussed the film's narrative structure, mood, point of view, rhythm and character development. Then a team of students read Conrad while another team read Eliot. We then applied the same concepts to the short story and poem in group discussion and writing exercises. Finally, students created a videotape which compared and contrasted the three works with each other. I saw students turn on to literature in a way I never saw them engage with anything in the classroom.3

Media education exists as an increasingly vital component of elementary education in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Spain and other nations. In Great Britain, the mandate includes media education as a strand within the National Standards developed in English, where students are required to study the ways in which media products convey meanings in a range of media texts (Alvarado and Boyd Barrett, 1992; Bazalgette, 1992; Brown, 1991; Buckingham, 1991; Lusted, 1991; Masterman, 1985). While still controversial among those who favor a more traditional and narrow view of 'culture,' scholarly work in media pedagogy has grown widely, and consensus is growing about the set of concepts, skills and learning environments which help most to strengthen students' ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in many forms.

The New Vision: Key Analytic Concepts

Current approaches to reading/language arts often make use of a laundry list of concepts which inform the work of teachers and students in a classroom. Such lists are the result of adding new paradigms for learning upon older models. Layer by layer, the models now used in reading/language arts have become cumbersome and unwieldy (Hawthorne, 1992). Writes Hawthorne, "The scope of English heightens the individuality of curricular patterns...Teachers are left to wave the various components into a coherent pattern for themselves and their students" (p. 116). But a simple and powerful new definition of literacy, as proposed in this report, makes it possible to identify the most important processes, concepts and skills for K-12 instruction and make use of these with a wide variety of message forms, from folktales to commercials, from historical fiction to newspaper photography.

Media literacy incorporates the theoretical traditions of semiotics, literary criticism, communication theory, research on arts education and language development. Although the conceptual principles of the new vision of literacy have taken many forms by various curriculum writers in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States, the author identifes the following ideas as critical components of all programs:

  • All messages are constructions
  • Messages are representations of social reality
  • Individuals construct meaning from messages
  • Messages have social, political, aesthetic and economic purposes
  • Each form and genre of communication has unique characteristics

It is clear that the most dynamic concepts of current practice in reading/language arts instruction are wholly consistent with these key concepts. But when educators include the analysis and creation of film, photographs, newspapers, radio and television, new concepts are required to enable students to ask critical questions about these contemporary forms. Some of these concepts may be unfamiliar to reading/language arts teachers, particularly at the elementary level. For example, teachers in some communities have sometimes been reluctant to include the analysis of how messages have political or economic purposes. While it may be argued that analysis of the economics of literature is not of central value for young students, analysis of the economics of media messages is essential to help middle school and high school students understand the nature of communicative messages in contemporary culture. It would be irresponsible to include the study of film, television, newspapers or other mass media without providing students in grades 4 and up with a paradigm to help them understand the ways in which messages have value in the marketplace (Hobbs, 1994).

New Ways of Using Media in the Classroom

Technology now plays a greater role in American classrooms than in the schools of most other industrialized nations. Composition teachers, for example, often make use of word processing software which helps students prewrite, write, revise, proofread and publish. And with multimedia software, students can create documents which combine words, sounds, images, and on-line and other information resources.

But when teachers talk about the uses of video in classrooms, they emphasize the values of enrichment or motivation, identifying television as a "lure" to make classic works more attractive, or referring to video as a vehicle to "deliver facts." Teachers often admit to using video as a "babysitter" when they are tired or must be away from the classroom, or when they wish to "reward" students who have completed their work (Hobbs, 1993). Such uses of video reflect both the casual and passive ways in which we use television in the home (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), and what Jerome Bruner has called "the transmission model," where learning is a process of sending information by those who know more to those who know less (Bruner, 1986).

Why has the use of video technology not developed more fully in American schools? The most obvious answer seems to be because television is so ubiquitous in our homes. Years of habitual use have reinforced the belief that television is merely an entertainment media. Another is that teachers often assume that the study of television, film and photographic imagery is unnecessary and redundant, too distracting from the core elements of reading/language arts.

But when television, video and other media are used well, they can be significant teaching tools in the nation's classrooms. For example, a collaboration between WNET and Texaco Teacher Training Institute for Science, Television and Technology involved training teachers in how to use television technology in science classes. According to researcher Ruth Ann Burns, who examined the effectiveness of the program, when television is used interactively as a component of middle school science classes, students' "writing is more creative and descriptive, and [students] displayed more ingenuity and innovation on assignments, and they were more confident and enthusiastic in class" (Tech Trends, 1993, p. 4). This program works because, in part, it identifies teachers, not programs, products or technology, as the most significant change agents in education.

As glossily packaged and presented film, video and advertiser-supported materials enter the school classroom, video materials are considered to be an effective way to deliver messages because everyone in a classroom is presumed to be able to decode the messages on the screen. But the new vision of literacy presented in this report is not just aimed at cultivating the relatively simple process of decoding messages-- it is the sophisticated analysis, evaluation and the active creation of messages that are the most significant, complex and vital skills needed for survival in an information age. These take a lifetime to master fully.

Even very young students can engage in conceptual analysis and evaluation of media messages, at a time when they are still beginning to master the decoding and comprehension skills required for print. According to Resnick (1987, p. 31):

The most important single message of modern research on the nature of thinking is that the kinds of activities traditionally associated with thinking are not limited to advanced levels of development. Instead these activities are an intimate part of even elementary levels of reading... when learning is proceeding well.

When teachers make use of a full range of messages in developing children's literacy, higher-order cognitive skills can be integrated into the activities of very young children using media messages as study objects. This helps motivate students to master the basic accessing skills to crack the code of the printed word. These analytic concepts, already familiar to students in their work with media artifacts, can then be applied to print forms. Elementary teachers who have used this approach find that "much of the language used to view television critically is transferable to other media-- noticing camera angles in photography, understanding differences between reality and fantasy.... There are also many connections to teaching verbal and written skills " (Lacy, 1993, p. 11-12).

What happens, according to British educators, is that when students critically examine a wide range of texts in both print and visual media, they develop more complex expectations about everything they read and see. "Media education is often seen as a way of defending children from television. It ought to be seen as a way of giving them high expectations of television, of all media, and of themselves" (Bazalgette, 1992, p. 45). Such views represent the potential of the new literacy to reshape the character of our nation's near limitless appetite for mass media products and in doing so, to help citizens re-connect to the rich storehouse of literary treasures from many cultures, past and present.


The new vision of literacy has consequences for some of the most important issues which face American educators today. As developed in the following pages, this paper outlines how the new vision of literacy helps restore the important connection between the school and the culture, making education more relevant to the communities to which students belong. It also outlines how the new vision of literacy reflects the kind of authentic learning which occurs when reading and writing occur in contexts where "process, product and content are all interrelated" (Edelsky, Altwerger and Flores, 1991, p. 9), and where language skills and language learning are conceived of as being inherently social processes, requiring direct engagement and experience tied to meaningful activity.

Building Relevance between the Classroom and the Community

The claims by now are depressingly familiar: many students actively resist the process of learning in school, and while they can decode language, they cannot infer meaning; the school curriculum is fragmented and de-contextualized, promoting indifference and intellectual dependency (Diaz, 1992; Hirsch, 1989; Gatto, 1992). Fortunately, elementary educators have already begun to respond to these criticisms by making changes in their methods of instruction: moving away from a curriculum which emphasizes facts and isolated skills and towards an emphasis on collaborative, active learning which involves complex thought and interpretation (Cohen and Grant, 1993).

Multicultural Education

Multicultural education is education that values human diversity and acknowledges that "alternative experiences and viewpoints are part of the growing process" (Grant, 1993). The new vision of literacy proposed in this report is fueled by this philosophy. It promotes cultural pluralism and social equality by making changes in the processes and content of school curriculum; in doing so, it is centered on "building meaningful relationships between curriculum and life" (Pang, 1992. p. 67).

Carlos Cortes argues that media literacy is essential to multicultural education, noting that media literacy strengthens students' knowledge about various media forms, helps develop analytic and creative skills in responding to media, and helps students become skilled in using print, images, sounds and other tools to express and share ideas. Cortes (1991, p. 153) writes, "Media can be used to stimulate students to consider multiple perspectives on current and historical multicultural dilemmas." Clearly, both multicultural education and the new vision of literacy proposed here share the goal of opening up the canon to expand the range of works which are studied in the classroom.

Not unexpectedly, much of the criticism which has developed about the inclusion of works by Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, African Americans and others can be directed at the new vision of literacy as well, which would include works from popular culture which some critics have labeled "trash." Educators who believe that "good literature" is a "salve one can apply to children from the wrong side of the tracks to heal them of their background" (Beach, 1992, p. 554) will likely resist any efforts which attempt to make the canon more responsive to the lives of students and their communities. But John Beach recognizes that the time is ripe to examine the variety of definitions of "good literature" and suggests that instead of viewing literature as a pyramid which places classic works at the top and works of popular culture at the bottom, it should be considered "like a tree with many branches; the 'best' can be found at the tip of each branch."

ESL/Bilingual Education

How might the new vision of literacy affect students who come to school speaking other languages besides English? According to Porter (1990, p. 153), the instructional methods which are most effective in ESL/bilingual education are identical with the active learner-centered model which the new vision of literacy promotes. Techniques which make use of "drama, songs, objects and audiovisual materials to help convey meaning and content" are highly effective.

In Portland, Maine, media artist Huey (also known as James Coleman) developed a media education program for ESL students speaking 27 languages, where students make film and video using animation and live-action techniques. Portland elementary teachers "have found that Huey's approach offers their students a creative way to improve their English, their public speaking and their communication skills in general.... and it breaks down walls between schools and communities through cable TV and closed circuit screenings and student research within the community" (White, 1993). Writing for the College Board, Hirsch (1989. p. 60) notes:

Over and over again, teachers in ESL and bilingual classrooms have realized the power of authentic tasks to motivate communication and language learning...In searching for authentic tasks and materials, many ESL and proficiency teachers are looking beyond traditional textbooks to primary sources in the language they are teaching, including newspapers, television commercials, menus, hotel receipts, children's books, and journalism and fiction.

Home-School Connections

In some communities, parents are active and supportive players in the day-to-day life of the school. In too many communities, however, parents are disenfranchised partners in the educational process. In considering the relationship between the new vision of literacy and the home-school connection, it is necessary to identify the high level of ambivalence and concern which many citizens have with the ways film, television and other mass media have shaped public discourse. Many adults believe that television has damaged the process we use to elect public officials; that mass media organizations disrupt the private lives of individuals unnecessarily; that violence in film and television programming desensitizes people and alters their conceptions of the social world; and that the values of sensationalism have reshaped culture and the arts (Bianculli, 1993).

The new vision of literacy proposed in this report is based on a fundamental truism about the purpose of democracy: in order for citizens to be engaged in self-governance, they must critically analyze and evaluate information and resources. This work is essential if citizens are to take meaningful action and make meaningful decisions on issues of concern to the community. But in a culture in which citizens see themselves as spectators and consumers, democracy is threatened. When citizens do not employ their skills of analysis and evaluation to information and entertainment products, apathy and cynicism reign.

The new vision of literacy could help encourage parents to more fully embrace their responsibilities to help their children interpret the meanings of the complex messages which bombard them every day. Too often, parents feel intimidated by the activity of the classroom, by routines which are established by educators, who may unintentionally disempower parents from embracing their own authority as interpreters of textual materials. While some parents may hesitate to voice their interpretations of a literary work, parents often feel quite comfortable discussing their interpretations of a film, a situation comedy, a dramatic series, a documentary or a op-ed article. The new vision of literacy creates opportunities for parents and their children to re-engage with the complex task of sorting out the meanings of the messages in the environment.

Making Classrooms Centers for Authentic Learning

Educators have been discussing how to make learning more authentic since the 19th century, when John Dewey first began outlining how children's own activity, their work, could be a vehicle for learning. When learning is authentic, the content of classroom discourse is meaningful and relevant to students; language skills are not taught in isolation; connections between subject areas are emphasized. According to Sizer (1984), in authentic learning environments, students learn through direct experience with tasks they themselves value, with intellectual stimulation from teachers who ask thoughtful questions and provide supportive coaching.

The new vision of literacy helps nurture new relationships between teachers and students, helping rebind the current contrast that "exists between paidia (play) and paideia (education)" (Gallagher, 1992), based on the recognition that the aim of the reading/language arts teacher is to cultivate a learning environment where students bring their own naturally energetic exploration to the study of new ideas.

Student Empowerment

Rather than considering language development as a series of isolated and fragmented skills, the new vision of literacy puts students at the center of the processes of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and communicating messages. Most importantly, the new vision of literacy is centered around empowerment, defined as the "process through which students learn to critically appropriate knowledge existing outside their immediate experience in order to broaden their understanding of themselves, the world and the possibilities for transforming the taken-for-granted assumptions about the way we live" McLaren, 1989, p. 186).

Consider a potential cycle where third-grade students, using a wide variety of message forms, engage in the processes of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and communicating while exploring the theme of "weather." 5 In a classroom environment which makes use of learning centers for a wide range of activities, students can access a variety of information resources available to them about the weather and post them on the wall. Students can discuss similarities and differences in weather coverage by their local newspaper, USA Today, the Weather Channel, and local radio newscasts. Perhaps the teacher can take them to a TV station where they can see how the weather graphics are created and meet and interview the meteorologist.

Working in cooperative teams, students can collect, gather and read information from newspapers, magazines and books about different kinds of weather phenomena (floods, hurricanes, etc). The teacher can share with them stories, poems and biographies of people whose lives have been powerfully altered by changes in the weather, using works of children's literature. Through pen-pal letter exchanges with students from schools in South Florida or Missouri, students can learn about the recent real-world impact of weather on the lives of other children.

Again working in teams, these third-graders can analyze and evaluate the similarities and differences between the various versions of the daily weather as they appear in the news media; track the sequence of weather updates as they change throughout a 24-hour period; categorize different vocabulary words used for different writing purposes: when weather is described by scientists, when children use language in their letters about floods or hurricanes, and how poets use language to describe the range of feelings weather evokes.

Students can creatively communicate a wide range of messages which serve to share their interpretations with others. One group of students can gather, select and organize images to create a visual collage or wall display of the tragedy of floods and hurricanes as they affected children in the United States and around the world. Another group of students can write letters or conduct phone interviews with children in South Florida or Missouri to get a better understanding of other perspectives on the effects of weather. Students can write poetry about the feelings they experienced after reviewing TV news footage of the recent weather disasters. Working in pairs, they can videotape and edit interviews with their parents or relatives or write a description of dramatic weather experiences they've had. Students can creae their own TV weather report based on data they collect themselves, developing graphics and spoken information to display their information. Because of the breadth of projects, students will get a chance to make use of those learning modalities which are most comfortable: kinesthetic learners will choose to create the wall display, while verbal learners will choose to conduct an interview or write a letter. Effective teachers will help students to work on a wide variety of tasks to strengthen their writing, reading, thinking, listening, speaking, critical viewing and media production skills.

Integration with other Subject Areas

As is clearly evident, the new vision of literacy provides a simple, process-based model which makes connections between reading/language arts, the visual and performing arts, social studies and science. Shepard (1993, p. 35) explains how the new vision of literacy is an ideal tool for subject integration at the elementary level:

If media literacy is presented to [teachers] as just another add-on, there will be little hope for its adoption. If, however, media literacy is presented not just as something that meets students' needs, but something that will meet the teacher's need to integrate the disparate elements of a broad curriculum, then it stands a good chance of becoming an important part of the curriculum. In fact, media literacy functions so well as an integrator that it would be worth using even if it were not as intrinsically important as it is.

Because mass media artifacts are relevant to science, social studies, the visual and performing arts as well as reading/language arts, teachers can easily make connections which stretch across subject areas by teaching with media and teaching about media.

Using New Tools of Assessment

When assessment is authentic, it has as its central purpose the goal of providing feedback to a child and his or her parents about the quality of the learning experience. When assessment is authentic, it mirrors the ways in which standards of quality are evaluated in the world outside the classroom: through close examination of products and performances.

For more than a century, assessment in the United States has been shaped by the needs of scholars and academics to standardize and quantify learning experiences (Gould, 1981). This has led to an atomized, fragmented view of the learning process, one conducive to "data reduction." Now, educators are coming to recognize the need to reclaim the assessment process, and as a result, diverse new forms of assessment are being used in schools. 6

The new vision of literacy provides simple and direct opportunities to observe, monitor and evaluate the processes of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and communicating messages in a range of informal and formal settings. Because the creation of messages is central to the new vision of literacy, portfolio based models of assessment are consistent with the new vision. Indeed, the premise of the new vision is based on the idea that the processes of accessing, analyzing and evaluating messages all contribute to the creation and communication of messages, so students can make direct connections between their reading and their writing, their viewing and analysis of images, and the process of creating messages using language, images, sounds, music, graphics and video.

The Toronto Board of Education's Benchmark Program has been using an assessment model designed to demystify educational goals and illuminate the nature of good performance (Larter and Donnelly, 1993). By combining authentic performance activities with systematic observation and holistic evaluation, teachers can assess student skills in a way which most closely matches the broad general skills which are at the core of reading/language arts instruction. For example, in one benchmark of students' ability to comprehend non-print information and their oral communication skills, grade three students in Toronto are asked to watch a videotape on owls and explain the major ideas in their own words. Students were found to generally lack strong skills in the comprehension of informative video, perhaps becuase their expectations about television shape their level of motivation and effort in decoding (Salomon, 1979).

The development of standards, tied to authentic performances, which allow educators to assess the quality of students' writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills is consistent with the new vision of literacy. The province of Ontario was the first in Canada to mandate that media literacy instruction be at least 30% of the reading/language arts program in grades 7 - 12 (Duncan, 1993). The performances of younger students from the Toronto Board of Education results suggests that students lack basic comprehension skills of information presented in video formats, pointing clearly to the necessity of direct instruction to help students in grades K-8 to learn to comprehend, interpret and analyze a wide range of texts, including messages from television and the mass media.

Staff Development Issues

Teachers are just as ambivalent about media culture as the rest of the citzenry. As discussed earlier, teachers have a wide range of attitudes about the value and consequences of broadening the concept of literacy to include new materials, especially popular music, film, television and music videos. However, teachers who have attempted to incorporate these materials into their classroom realize that students have a tremendous amount of knowledge and interest in these messages, and teachers and students can share together in the learning process.

It is not difficult for teachers to move from teaching exclusively with media to addressing media as study objects. Some teachers have described the process as similar to the process of "consciousness raising" about gender and race which many educators experienced in the 1970's. "It's like putting on a new pair of glasses-- you see the same things [in media culture], but now I approach these messages differently," wrote one teacher.6

Teachers who are comfortable with whole language approaches to reading/language arts will find the new vision of literacy consistent with the practices they already use. Teachers who use traditional teacher-directed approaches will probably enjoy the flexibility that using print, images and sound-based materials brings, and they will find how much students can grow and learn under their own steam when they find the tasks of the classroom relevant to the world outside the classroom. Teachers who make use of skill-based approaches in reading/language arts may be able to build connections between their focus on decoding and comprehension skills and the process model of the new literacy, which places skills in the larger context of accessing, analyzing, evaluating and communicating messages.

But German educator Dichanz (1992) writes plainly about what it takes to make the new vision of literacy a reality in schools: "It is the staff that has to translate tasks... into practical work, and it is that staff that has to be provided with the theoretical background for this new approach..." For U.S. educators, this means that the work of staff development is best accomplished not by individual teachers acting independently, but through coordinated and sustained efforts, using resources and tools which help them gain access to new ideas and practice new strategies of managing classroom activity. Such work is well underway at the state, district and local levels. For example, the State of New Mexico has begun a process of teacher training so that media literacy will be integrated into the high school curriculum.7 And the community of Billerica, Massachusetts has begun the process of extensive teacher training, including the first Master's Degree in Media Literacy, in order to implement a new vision of literacy in grades K-12 integrated within existing subject areas.8


If media literacy is to emerge as a new vision of literacy for the information age, then a high degree of coordination will be required from among a range of shareholders: the scholarly community, educators in K - 12 environments, parents, the publishing and media production industries, and the standardized testing industry. Given the decentralized nature of American schools, it is unlikely that such coordination will receive the support it needs, and more likely that media literacy initiatives will develop as a result of innovation and experimentation in the diverse "labs" of individual disctricts, schools and classrooms.

For all it can do for education, media literacy won't cure cancer, and it's not brain surgery. It won't take a miracle for teachers, using a variety of methods and approaches, to help students extend their analysis, evaluation and communication skills using video production, audiotape, still photography, on-line services and more. While media literacy holds out the promise of helping reshape teaching methods and practices to become more inquiry-based and student-centered, it may too easily be turned, by the new technologists and publishing industries, into just another "product" to be delivered by book, videotape or satellite dish into young minds. For an institution which has historically clung to the concept of literacy as the central organizing force of education, we must respect the time it will take to promote the type of sustained and meaningful change that is needed for our schools.