Literacy is expanding, and English language arts (ELA) educators at all levels must help learners develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed for life in an increasingly digital and mediated world. Media education is defined as the study of the media with the aim of cultivating people’s media literacy competencies (Lee, 2010). For people of all ages, media function as a public pedagogy due to their influential role in “organizing, shaping, and disseminating information, ideas, and values” (Kellner & Share, 2007, p. 3). To address inequalities in digital technologies and competencies, continuing curricular innovation in the ELA curriculum at all levels of K–12 education is needed. In this position statement, we articulate three core themes that make media education fundamental to teaching and learning in ELA education:
- Exploring Representation and Power through Critical Reading, Listening, and Viewing. Educators value the use of teaching and learning practices that help to identify and disrupt the inequalities of contemporary life, including structural racism, sexism, consumerism, and economic injustice. Critical pedagogies help learners see themselves as empowered change agents, able to imagine and build a better, more just world.
- Empowering Voice with Writing, Speaking, and Self-Expression. All learners need to be able to express themselves using writing, speaking, and visual representation using varied modes, genres, and platforms of communication. These competencies are essential to work, life, and citizenship, impacting who has access to conversations, who can speak, and who is heard.
- Increasing Relevance by Critically Examining Digital Media and Popular Culture. Media education includes attention to teaching and learning practices that increase the relevance of school to society. Inquiry pedagogies can help all learners understand the strengths and limitations of different media forms through an examination of the texts and literacy practices of everyday life, including informative, entertaining, and persuasive genres.
Context: Why Now?
Today’s students live in highly mediated worlds where information, entertainment, and persuasion are delivered to them through the many screens of daily life. If it could ever be said that language is the carrier of all meaning, this is certainly no longer the case, as multimodality represents “the normal state of human communication” (Kress, 2010, p. 1). We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world. We experience this reality daily in the GIFs and selfies we share with one another, the memes and videos we circulate through our social media feeds, the news broadcasts we watch on demand, the podcasts we binge, and the films, TV series, and live events we stream through the ever-growing list of digital platforms. Yet all these modalities involve some element of written language.
Young people encounter many types of media texts and use many different literacy practices throughout a given day. Everyone in our society now needs the ability to assess the widely varying quality of the information, entertainment, and persuasion that surrounds them, to evaluate the veracity and validity of claims, and to debunk misinformation when necessary. The broadening of the communication landscape opens greater opportunities for student voice and agency as they move from users and consumers to participators and creators. Through media education, students begin to deepen sociopolitical consciousness as they recognize how power relationships structure the narratives that surround us (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1993).
Around the world, educators have recognized that the many forms of media offer an expanded set of genres for reading and writing, and these practices have generally been identified as the practice of media education (Buckingham, 2003). ELA educators have long been well poised to support students’ identities as digital consumers, creators, distributors, and inventors through curriculum and pedagogy (Mirra et al., 2018). ELA educators are responsible for preparing students for a future with an evolving media landscape. As society and technology change, so too does literacy (NCTE, 2019b). While some instructional practices of media education can be generalized across disciplines, many areas are unique to disciplinary literacy within ELA education.
Because English teachers have a professional responsibility to prepare students for work, life, and citizenship, media education must be an essential component of the professional identity of teachers. We believe that ELA educators are creative individuals who are familiar with the power of digital media authorship in their own lives. They are
- active participants in contemporary culture and in their local communities, and they recognize how continually evolving media texts and platforms shape how stories and information are created, shared, and circulated (Weninger, 2018);
- professionals who take steps to actively understand, teach about, and compensate for media landscapes that are specifically designed to amplify narratives where some voices and points of view are emphasized and others are trivialized, demeaned, or ignored (Garcia et al., 2015);
- supportive of lifelong learners’ ability to understand, question, and analyze the many spaces of media and communication that are part of everyday life (Morrell et al., 2015).
Members of our discipline have long recognized how print literacies work in tandem with multiple modes of expression (Multimodal Literacies Issue Management Team, 2005). Students should examine how digital media and popular culture are completely intermingled with language, literature, and writing. The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education. Speaking and listening are increasingly valued as forms of expression that are vital to personal and professional success, and with the rise of digital media technologies, they now occur in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. The ability to represent one’s ideas using images and multimedia is now a valued competency in a wide variety of professional careers in the knowledge economy. It behooves our profession, as stewards of the communication arts, to confront and challenge the tacit and implicit ways in which print media is valorized above the full range of literacy competencies students should master.
Research evidence amply shows the need to move beyond the exclusive focus on traditional reading and writing competencies. For example, secondary school students lack critical reading comprehension skills that require them to distinguish between journalism and sponsored content, and they routinely ignore the source of a message when judging its accuracy (Breakstone et al., 2019). But when students are empowered to critically examine popular culture texts in the classroom, the process can productively disrupt classroom hierarchies as learners exercise the right to freedom of expression on issues that are perceived to have meaningful relevance to their identity and values (Cannon et al., 2020).
The rapid changes in the information and communication ecosystem have had important implications for English teachers and others both in and outside of school. It is important for ELA educators to recognize the variety of approaches used in media education, which are each rooted in disciplinary contexts with distinctive lineages, keywords, and concepts.
Approaches to Media Education
The variety of approaches used in media education is a source of great strength for ELA educators, because it enables them to align instructional practices with the needs of their learners and their school and community context (NCTE, 2021). Considering the diverse learning needs of children, adolescents, young adults, preservice teachers, teachers, parents, and other adult learners, one or more of these media education approaches will be relevant to ELA educators:
- News literacy. Driven by rising interest in “fake news” and disinformation, students learn to understand, interpret, and evaluate different forms of news, analysis, and opinion.
- Information literacy. Students receive scaffolding and support for research processes as they access, locate, curate, and evaluate information content, using library databases and the open internet to appreciate how expertise and authority are constructed and contextual.
- Media literacy. Students examine authors, audiences, messages, meanings, representations, and social realities by accessing, analyzing, and creating media in a wide variety of forms, using language, images, sound, and interactivity. Through practices of reflection and action, they consider how information and communication make an impact in the world.
- Media production. Working individually or collaboratively, students compose media through a creative process, during which a completed work product is shared with an authentic audience. This work may occur in any classroom, or it may be offered as an elective in school journalism, video production, or in other activities where voice, agency, and civic engagement are cultivated.
- Critical literacy. Students examine the cultural, ideological, and sociolinguistic content of the curriculum and focus on the uses of literacy for social justice in marginalized and disenfranchised communities.
- Critical media literacy. Students examine mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies by analyzing relationships between media and audiences, information, and power, often with attention to media institutions and representations that address systemic inequalities and social justice.
- Digital literacy. Students develop competencies in using digital platforms for lifelong learning through activities that involve guided inquiry, creative production, and connected learning.
- Digital citizenship. Students learn about the rights and responsibilities of people in complex, diverse societies and reflect on their own ethical choices as they use digital platforms in the context of work, life, and citizenship.
- Newer terms including data literacy and algorithmic literacy invite learners to understand the ethical, political, technological, and economic dimensions of digital platforms and how they structure and control people’s access to information, entertainment, and persuasion.
Although each of these terms reflects distinctive instructional practices of media education, there is substantial overlap between them, which we identify below as core themes. As an essential part of curriculum and instruction in English language arts, these core themes should be also addressed in preservice and inservice teacher education and professional development.
Core Theme 1: Exploring Representation and Power with Critical Reading, Listening, and Viewing
English language arts education has changed over time in response to changes in culture, technology, and society. Educators now include a range of forms and types of texts, tools, and technologies, which now include modes (including linguistic, visual, and auditory), industries (journalism, publishing, advertising, film and video games), and genres (fiction, nonfiction, opinion, romance, horror, memes, GIFs, etc.). Today, people generally experience many different forms of media through digital platforms (TikTok, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Facebook, etc.). The architecture of these platforms reflects the values and identities of their commercial creators, while simultaneously shaping how users interact with each other to express and share thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Narrative, expository, and persuasive texts are complex representations of social reality. As such, they shape our understanding of the world. In both the elementary and secondary grades, teachers model what they want students to do with texts, guiding and providing time for practice, then sharing and reflecting as a class. The use of digital texts and technologies amplifies existing literacy practices. For young children, these practices build trust, ownership, and a feeling of belonging (Muhtaris & Ziemke, 2015). Active discussion of media texts also enables learners to exert a degree of deliberate control over the reading process that may be less possible with other types of literature (Buckingham & Sefton-Green, 1993). When the texts and learning activities in ELA classrooms are culturally responsive to the students we teach, education can function to reduce prejudice through developing critical questioning and cultural competence (Morrell et al., 2015). Student-initiated conversations that are responsive to the media texts of everyday life can generate critical thinking and rich inquiry on big topics like immigration, xenophobia, police brutality, racism, and environmental degradation, just to name a few.
Many teachers—whether consciously or unconsciously—tend to think of curriculum as a zero-sum game in which the study of literature competes with other activities, including the study of persuasive genres or popular culture. While updating our curricula beyond the canonical classics that have historically been taught may be necessary, media education need not displace the study of literature. A growing number of teachers value the opportunity to help students make connections between classic literature and contemporary media texts to advance multicultural understanding and address issues of equity. To this end, teachers benefit from developing confidence to implement instructional strategies that include
- Involving students as co-creators of the curriculum by acknowledging their unique lived experience, pleasures, and preferences in the selection of texts and learning activities (Dalton, 2020);
- Layering the reading of popular culture texts, multimodal texts, and classic literature together to showcase issues of representation in relation to the full scope of human creativity and imagination (Hall, 2016);
- Modeling how to use multiperspectival reasoning and critical evaluation strategies with digital texts and technologies (Hicks, 2021).
Core Theme 2: Empowering Voice with Writing, Speaking, and Self-Expression
Teachers of English language arts acknowledge that reading, writing, speaking, and writing should be central to the ELA curriculum, and they value the opportunity to help students become thoughtful and effective communicators. But some teachers feel pressure to prepare learners to succeed only on a few specific kinds of academic writing tasks, such as writing a five-paragraph essay, while others believe that speaking and multimodal composing activities take up too much classroom time.
Outside of the ELA classroom, the creative work of effective speakers and writers can be found in a wide array of media genres and forms, including journalism, blog posts, advertising, political campaigns, YouTube videos, social media, Buzzfeed-style listicles, photo essays, podcasts, infographics, and many other forms. Many students are more familiar with these forms than they are with traditional academic writing genres (Hobbs et al., 2019). When students can compose in a genre that they are familiar with and enjoy, they can explore ideas and issues in ways that academic writing alone cannot provide, often by deepening their emotional response to texts (Smith, 2018). Because not all students have the same access to compose and share digital media outside of the classroom, teachers can address issues of equity in media participation by providing students multiple opportunities to write and remix media genres within the classroom, as part of a media-rich academic writing curriculum. To this end, teachers benefit from developing confidence to implement instructional strategies that include
- Developing reading, listening, and viewing activities that use texts whose target audience crosses between age boundaries (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2021);
- Using multimodal composition practices to deepen critical engagement with academic content and present learners’ personal stances on contemporary social issues (Unsworth & Mills, 2020);
- Supporting learners as they compose messages to inform, persuade, and entertain, using language, music, and sound to advance critical listening and performance skills (Buckley-Marudas & Doerr-Stevens, 2019)
Core Theme 3: Increasing Relevance by Critically Examining Digital Media and Popular Culture
Outside the classroom, students’ engagement with digital media, popular culture, and multimodal texts is as high as it’s ever been and is ever increasing, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic (Eales et al., 2021). ELA classrooms that exclusively rely on the study of literature and academic writing are becoming increasingly disconnected and remote from students’ lived experiences. Educators are often pleasantly surprised to discover how much time and talent students invest in their work when we expand our notions of literacy to include the analysis and production of video, infographics, podcasts, graphic novels, fanfiction, and other diverse modes. When literature, language, and writing are connected to students’ experiences with contemporary media and popular culture, it can also help keep the curriculum fresh and joyful (French, 2021).
Persuasion and propaganda play a central role in consumer culture, democracy, and public life, and the field of English language arts has long recognized the need to call attention to the power of misleading language that distorts reality (NCTE, 2019a). Still, for a variety of reasons, narrative and expository forms receive the lion’s share of attention in ELA classrooms, and the study of persuasive genres is uncommon—even when nearly every message in the home, workplace, and community includes persuasion. While some educators position argumentation as superior to persuasion and propaganda, classic theories of rhetoric have always recognized the coequal status of ethos, pathos, and logos as they work in concert to influence audience attitudes, knowledge, values, and behaviors (Fleming, 2019). To this end, teachers benefit from developing confidence to implement instructional strategies that include
- Exploring the interconnections between children’s participation in popular culture and their composing practices as they use diverse symbolic tools, including drawing, writing, and talking (Dyson, 2018);
- Using curated multimedia and popular culture resources, including music and podcasting, that are linked to ELA topics, issues, and themes (Evans et al., 2021);
- Deepening critical examination of persuasive genres, including the study of contemporary propaganda, by providing opportunities for learners to “talk back” to advertisers, political leaders, corporations, celebrities, and other public agents of persuasion (Hobbs, 2020).
Now that we have introduced three core themes, we briefly consider the importance of access and equity as well as the ongoing challenge of assessing student learning, which are key dimensions of media education in English language arts.
Access and Equity
Some English teachers may value the three themes of media education but not feel personally responsible for helping to develop students’ digital technology skills. But in the world outside the classroom, a wide range of literacy practices now rely on access to and use of digital texts, platforms, and technologies. Although digital texts, platforms, and technologies are important resources for learning, access to them is unevenly available in homes, schools, and communities. For this reason, ELA teachers should participate as active stakeholders and advocates in helping to increase access to digital devices, digital content, bandwidth, digital readiness, and the political economy of computational languages.
Digital devices: In creating compositions of all kinds, tools always matter. Just as pens and paper were once essential for traditional forms of literacy, digital devices are necessary to participate in the literacy practices of work, life, and citizenship. Although many students have access to smartphones, not all devices are created equal, and both hardware and software can impact a student’s ability to use the device in English language arts contexts. For instance, the hardware a student uses can affect their composition options in creating multimodal texts. Tablets and mobile phones are application-based, and their design lends itself to documenting life around students by capturing video, visual, audio, and geolocation information. But tablets and Chromebooks often limit pedagogies to consumption-focused practices (Sahin et al., 2016). Students in robust ELA curricula need to be able to do far more. Students need access to digital devices that enable them to engage with and manipulate digital texts, and schools can either provide greater access to a wider range of more useful devices in the classroom or offer more flexibility in allowing students to use their own digital devices (Woodall, 2021).
Digital content: Not all digital content is created equal. Whereas traditional textbook content could often be traced through clearly visible publishers, editors, and advisory boards, digital content often appears before teachers without comparable transparency. Whether from small, start-up ed tech companies, or from well-meaning teachers, it can be frustratingly difficult for teachers to gauge the trustworthiness and quality of digital content. In addition, digital content is often inseparable from the digital devices and applications used to access it. Whereas traditional static print-based content appeared straightforward to teachers, digital content always includes dynamic elements that are both seen and unseen: buttons to click on, text boxes to type into, voice-recording options, and a constant flow of data generated that sometimes (though not always) informs a student’s learning. Teachers must increase their confidence in scrutinizing both the source of digital content itself and the ways dynamic digital elements influence what and how students learn.
Bandwidth: Access to the internet can vary widely based on socioeconomic and geographic factors. When students or families report that they have home access to the internet, that does not mean that the access they have is equitable. A student who has access to the internet via a cable modem will in many cases be able to work more quickly and multitask compared to a student who reported having home internet access but is sharing a single device with cellular phone service. This is especially relevant as more and more schools are turning to video conferencing applications to facilitate blended and online learning.
Digital readiness: Discussion about digital divides now includes increasing emphasis on the degree to which people succeed or struggle when they use technology to try to navigate their environments, solve problems, and make decisions (Horrigan, 2016). Both students and teachers benefit from digital literacy competencies that empower them to use internet-connected devices well. Just as writers gain fluency through opportunities to read and write daily, students gain competencies through regular invitations to compose, share, and revise digital media compositions. In constructing multiple opportunities for students to build digital competencies, we foster students’ capacity to speak and be heard in the larger social conversations happening outside of the classroom. Because confidence in using technologies is necessary for lifelong learning, teachers must be sensitive to how an individual student’s readiness to engage with digital technology may be specific to a particular task, device, or app. For this reason, teachers also benefit from diverse professional development opportunities that increase their own confidence in implementing instructional practices that make use of digital media tools, apps, and platforms. Professional development experiences need to offer educators the chance to practice technical skills as well as to learn to implement rich, nuanced pedagogical practices. This need not be time consuming. Educators who explore DIY and makerspace approaches to teaching and learning have found that having shorter timeframes to create work and setting limits on the materials to be utilized increase both creativity and learning (Lahana, 2021).
Computational languages and power: All of the digital tools, platforms, and applications used by students and teachers are themselves composed of computer code written (most often) by companies. It is important for English educators to advance in our own critical awareness of how issues of power and inequity operate in the greatly invisible computational languages that comprise digital tools, platforms, and applications, especially as a small number of companies dominate our online activities and profit from the data we produce through online interactions (Nichols et al., 2022). Because our access to digital media is mediated and shaped by profit-seeking firms, it is important to unmask and critique the less-visible dimensions of the digital platforms we use for school, work, and daily life (Lynch, 2015), which are comprised of computational languages written for commercial purposes. Educators also have the right to be critical of technology firms that push gadgets into school districts in the name of revolutionizing education.
The inequalities of access to digital technologies in education heighten larger social inequalities in society. For this reason, many students need explicit instruction, modeling, and time to become proficient readers who comprehend and use digital technologies as tools for thinking. Without ongoing opportunities to learn, practice, revise, and reflect upon the digital tools they are using, students with limited or low-tech instruction will be missing key building blocks to becoming lifelong learners. For these reasons, we recommend that ELA teachers participate as active stakeholders, advocates, and co-learners in helping to increase access to digital devices, bandwidth, and digital readiness, and to understand and challenge the political economy of digital platforms and computational languages.
Assessment of Student Learning
The assessment-centric culture of schools clearly affects how teachers, parents, administrators, and students perceive the value of media education pedagogies and practices. While high-stakes testing and interruptions to instruction place demands on time and space in the ELA curriculum, educators have the power to articulate priorities in the choices they make during the school day.
Although many ELA teachers are quite receptive to expanding the concept of literacy, they often acknowledge that assessments of student learning are poorly aligned with the many new instructional practices of media education that are implemented in elementary and secondary schools (Dalton, 2020). Educators may struggle to apply conventional assessment practices to students’ use of digital and media technologies. For example, when students create digital media using online platforms, some teachers are unaware of how templates and design format options have influenced the structure and shape of the work. For this reason, it is important to align medium- or genre-specific criteria for evaluation with foundational rhetorical concepts like audience, purpose, point of view, structure, sequence, and tone.
Teachers need to design learning experiences with clear criteria for evaluation, and then provide timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback that helps them develop knowledge and skills. Projects that require students to create media to demonstrate their learning provide opportunities to evaluate students based on their labor, which can include free-writing, drafting, peer review, revision, and editing (Hicks, 2021). Using multiple strategies for assessment includes attention to both process and product, self-reflection on learning, and attention to the affordances of digital technology for using, remixing, manipulating, and creating multimodal texts (Tan et al., 2020).
Feedback is the most important driver of student learning, and ELA educators understand deeply that it should be a primary form of assessment. Digital annotation enables students and instructors to have significant flexibility in commenting on student-created work, providing personalized, detailed feedback by highlighting text, adding comments, drawing notes, or attaching additional images, videos, or other resources directly within the creative work. Video annotation tools permit instructors and peers to make comments on student videos by pinpointing their comment to a particular moment in time.
Another intervention that may assist the migration of media education into the mainstream of education practice would be a disciplinary acceptance or agreed-upon language and systems for assessing and evaluating the communicative qualities present in diverse, multimodal texts (McGrail et al., 2021). While the communicative qualities deemed rhetorically effective will shift in relation to genre, audience, purpose, usage, and platforms, some general criteria have emerged for creative digital media products produced by learners. For example, criteria such as appropriation and transformativeness (the appropriate use of copyrighted material in the creative process) may provide a means to assess some features of student-produced media, helping students to avoid the perils of plagiarism and engage in remix practices that are creatively generative.
A Call to Action
In summary, we offer these action steps to advance media education in English language arts:
- The time is now to bring media education into the mainstream of ELA education. NCTE members should take personal responsibility for this work, working individually and collaboratively at the local, regional, and national levels.
- There are many different instructional practices and approaches to media education because of the rapid changes that have occurred in the information and communication ecosystem. NCTE members should make strategic decisions about which approaches to implement with their learners, taking into consideration their needs and using practices that are most relevant to the context of their classroom, school, and community.
- All learners at all grade levels have the right to
- explore questions of representation and power through critical reading, listening, and viewing;
- use their empowered voices through writing, speaking, and self-expression in multiple genres and formats;
- make relevant connections between school and society through the use of digital media and popular culture.
- As an essential part of curriculum and instruction in English language arts, these media education themes should be addressed in both preservice and inservice teacher education and professional development through hands-on, minds-on learning.
- ELA teachers should participate as active stakeholders, advocates, and co-learners in helping to increase access to digital devices, bandwidth, and digital readiness, and to understand (and challenge) the political economy of digital platforms and computational languages.
- In assessing student learning, students and teachers should make use of digital and video annotation tools to provide multidirectional feedback from teachers, learners, and public audiences. Research and policy leadership initiatives should be implemented to help NCTE articulate best practices in assessment for project-based media assignments, including frameworks that support both medium-specific and general criteria for evaluation.
For students to be prepared for success in college and careers, they need high levels of engagement in their own learning and a strong sense of confidence in their identity as learners. For this reason, media education pedagogies can be a key lever in education reform when educators wield influence in ways that support critical, flexible, responsive, and creative thinking.
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This statement is an update of the NCTE position statement on Multimodal Literacies (2005).
- Renee Hobbs, chair, University of Rhode Island
- Denise Chapman, Monash University, Australia
- Candance M Doerr-Stevens, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
- Seth D. French, Bentonville High School, AR
- Tom Liam Lynch, The New School, New York, NY
- Cruz Medina, Santa Clara University, CA
- Ernest Morrell, University of Notre Dame, IN
- Chris Sloan, Judge Memorial Catholic High School, UT
- Lisa Stringfellow, The Winsor School, MA
- Kristin Ziemke, Big Shoulders Fund, Chicago, IL
- Bill Bass, Parkway School District, St. Louis, MO
- Fred Haas, Hopkinton High School, MA
- Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University
- Sara Kajder, University of Georgia
- Katie Muhtaris, Barrington Community Unit School District 220, IL
- Csilla Weninger, National Institute of Education, Singapore
This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.