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Teaching Opinion

Ways to Strengthen Students’ Information-Literacy Skills

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 26, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways teachers can help students combat “fake news” and develop information-literacy skills?

In Part One, we heard responses from Carla Truttman, Josh Perlman, Jennifer Casa-Todd, Bryan Goodwin, and Frank W. Baker.

Today, this series will finish up with suggestions from Elliott Rebhun, Michael Fisher, Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, Dr. Laura Greenstein, and Douglas Reeves. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Elliott Rebhun

Elliott Rebhun is the editor-in-chief of Scholastic’s Classroom Magazine Group. He started at Scholastic in 2003 as the editor of The New York Times UPFRONT®, the company’s high school social studies news magazine. Prior to Scholastic, he worked at The Times, both in print and digital, and at Newsweek. He has a B.A. from the College of Arts and Sciences and a B.S. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania:

Media literacy has become a focus of instruction nationwide, and while teaching our students that staying informed is important, we also have a responsibility to make sure that kids know how and where to obtain accurate, unbiased information and think critically about that information. P-12 teachers find themselves addressing this daily as they share with their students the skills needed to problem solve and empathize when thinking about issues within our global society, as well as to discern whether the information they obtain is factual or fictional.

Teachers may ask themselves what they can do to weave media literacy into their daily classroom instruction so that students learn how to seek credible information. Students should know the value of reading the news, and facilitating regular classroom discussions about current events is a wonderful way to enhance the culture of literacy within a classroom. News articles written specifically for students across different grade levels and free online resources with civics and media-literacy content such as We the People provide a context for talking about current events and media literacy as an important part of citizenry.

We should also encourage students to seek information on topics of interest, providing kids with opportunities to learn about the world around them and engage in their communities. As part of this, it’s important for educators to explain to their students what fake news is and demonstrate how they should responsibly analyze facts and interpret news to discern what is true and what is false. We cover this topic extensively in Scholastic Classroom Magazines across genres, including news, science, and health. To start, there are four simple strategies that educators of all grade levels can utilize to help their students become conscious and thoughtful consumers of news.

  • Be critical. You can’t trust all of the content that you find online, even when someone you know sends it to you. It’s important to think critically about what you read on the internet.
  • Search for indicators. Analyze the sources that a news piece cites and be observant of advertisements that can reveal a lot about any hidden goals of an outlet.
  • Corroborate. Spend time doing research of your own. Make sure that the source is credible and see if you can verify other sources of the same news.
  • Check to be sure. Nonpartisan fact-checking sites such as Factcheck.org and Politifact.com are tools that can help you verify what is true and uncover what is false.

Media-literacy lessons are valuable for students across grade levels, and age-appropriate news content is a wonderful resource to begin these conversations in classrooms. It’s never too late to make media literacy a priority so that our students become good citizens who are knowledgeable, who participate in society, and who work to make it better, because the future belongs to them, and they deserve a great one.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher who is now a full-time author and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction in immersive technology. His latest book is The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement, published by Solution Tree. For more information, visit The Digigogy Collaborative (digigogy.com) or find Michael on Twitter (@fisher1000):

In our book, The Quest for Learning, Marie Alcock, Allison Zmuda, and I discuss concerns with working so openly on the web with networks, resources, and multimedia. We use the acronym VIA to think about information literacy and source validity. The V in VIA stands for “Verifiable Details.” The I stands for “Intuition,” and the A stands for “Authoritative Connection.”

Verifiable Details: Students should get into the habit of comparing resources and corroborating information. For instance, it’s interesting to look at how different news sources handle breaking news. Students can look for similarities in the different sources to determine what information is the most believable. Students can use tools like NewsPaperMap.com to see news sources from all over the world. This gives them the opportunity to look at other countries’ perspectives on the news that our domestic sources are reporting on. They should also be noticing whether or not the sources have links to additional information, references for their claims, citations, and quotes from verifiable sources.

Intuition: If a source sounds salacious or outlandish or too good to be true—then it probably isn’t true. Beyond verifiable details, students should also learn to go with their gut—if a resource seems to be off or misleading, then it probably is. If the resource is demonstratively different from other sources on the same topic, then it is likely questionable. If the source was paid for by a special-interest group, then that might also be a red flag.

Authoritative Connection: What is the affiliation of the creator of the source? What is the parent source of the material? Students should be able to recognize known credible sources. They should also know something about the author that is creating material that is shared online and in print. Does the author have knowledge of the subject matter or topic? What else has the author written or experienced around the topic? Does the author or the parent source have any dubious actions in their background? What is the domain of the source? If it ends in an unfamiliar domain like .biz, .coop, .info, or .club, then the authoritative connection may be thin or nonexistent.

Trustworthy work comes from critical thinking VIA students’ thinking about validity and truth. Students need these cues to prevent them from “researching” and reporting on whatever the first five results in a Google search are.

Also, students could benefit from learning how to use Snopes.com or websites like Politifact to verify the claims that an entity or author might make.

Response From Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, ranked #4 in the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education, is the author of 18 books on rigor, motivation, instruction, and leadership. She regularly collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. She can be reached through her website, www.barbarablackburnonline.com:

Years ago, prior to the “fake news” environment of today, I taught my students the difference between fact and opinion. This was important because I used USA Today instead of a textbook for my struggling students and I wanted them to move beyond taking articles at face value. First, we analyzed news stories and identified key facts, which we tried to confirm from another source. Next, we moved into opinions/perspective columns. I particularly liked (and still do) USA Today because they always publish an opposing view to their editorial. In small groups, students read both sides of the issues, listed the facts that supported the author’s opinions, chose the side they agreed with, completed additional research, and then debated another group. This forced them to see the differences between what is news and what is a person’s perspective. I believe this is foundational as students try to determine what is actually fact-based news, whether it comes from a newspaper, website, podcast, talk show, or TV.

Once students know the basic differences between factual news stories and opinions, we need to address whether factual news is really factual. What do I mean? I recently talked with a student who said that the moon landing never occurred. That’s an example of “fake news.” The student showed me the website he used to find that information, but he simply assumed that, since it was on the internet, it was true.

Our next step is to teach students how to evaluate the credibility of the source providing the “facts.” After leading a discussion on how to determine if a source is credible, show two examples of stories, one fake, one real. Work together to identify the source, research information about the source, and determine its credibility. Next, students, working in small groups, are assigned a fake-news topic or story that has been shared on the internet, either via Facebook, Twitter, or via a Google search. Students must research the source, determine if it is fake or real, and write their opinion of the credibility of the source, using at least three pieces of valid evidence to support their opinion. As an extension, after further discussion, students can write blog entries to rebut the fake-news claims.

Response From Dr. Laura Greenstein

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:


Is all the news really bogus? If it’s hard for adults to sort through all of it, imagine how hard it is for students to grasp the idea that people they are told to respect and admire are trying to fill their minds with untruths.

Rather than fretting over all the news that’s not fit to print, it is more important that our students are able to evaluate information and sources. Assessment of what one sees, hears, reads, and views requires an understanding of its origin and intent.

Distinguishing truth from lies, accuracy from misrepresentation, and the full facts from distortion is difficult for even the most media-savvy adults. The goal of information literacy is for students to acquire, analyze, and use information. Rubrics and annotated checklists can accompany this RAP.

Reliability: How does the author support, defend, and further her statements, claims, or position? Can it be verified? Do other sources have similar or contradictory information?

Authority: Who is the source/author, and what are the individuals’ or organizations’ credentials?

Purpose: What is the author trying to convince me to believe, do, or think? Does he seem to have a preference or bias in his writing?

There are numerous teacher resources on developing student’s information literacy. Equally, if not more important, is assessing student’s information literacy. One option is FACTITIOUS that presents headlines and stories for students to analyze and swipe either real or fake. However, it is more relevant for students to evaluate material related to their current learning goals: a specific period of history, scientific research, healthy-living advice, or biographical information. This may begin with a whole-class review of source material using the RAP model, followed by individual or small-group review of references and further research.

Follow-up with individual or small-group projects on selected subtopics of their interest. Students can accompany their presentations with statements for the audience to evaluate as real or fake.

A. Using e-cigarettes can be just as dangerous as smoking.
Vitamin cigarettes will add years to your life.
Robassia is now selling a natural product to counteract the toxic effects of tobacco.

As time and learning intentions allow, students can develop their own fake-news site using low or high tech. Here are some professionally designed examples: All About Explorers, Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, and DHMO: Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division. Students present their work and their audience, peers, teacher, or larger community evaluates the sites.

Extend learning beyond content knowledge by asking students to make recommendations, compare divergent ideas, synthesize ideas from multiple sources, and present and defend informed arguments. Fortify information literacy by weaving it directly into teaching, learning, and assessing rather than setting it apart.

Exit Slip: In the era of “fake news,” choosing the right answer is still a basic tenet of assessment. Which answer is correct?

A. The more you study, the higher your test scores.
B. Assessment derives from the Latin, “Assidere.”
C. Test scores in the United States continue to rise.

The correct answer is B. Assidere, meaning to sit beside and guide another. A. Review, drill, and practice may raise specific test scores, but assessment is intended to reliably gauge a student’s progress and inform educational responses. C. It depends which test scores and for what purpose.

Response From Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books and 100 articles on educational leadership, teaching, and student achievement. His videos and articles are all free downloads at CreativeLeadership.net. Doug Tweets @DouglasReees and can be reached at DReeves@ChangeLeaders.com:

My rule is that the internet is a hypothesis, not a conclusion. Students may start with a source that takes a point of view and makes claims about a political, educational, economic, or other issue. They then have the obligation to find at least two additional sources, one of which opposes the original claim and another one which either supports the original claim or perhaps offers an alternative claim. The student’s job is to evaluate the credibility of each source and make an argument about which sources are more and less credible. Primary-grade students can sniff out misleading claims in advertisements, and I think the same approach should be at the heart of graduate-level classes in research and statistics, particularly those classes taken by educators and administrators.

Responses From Readers

Jeff Norris:

I teach Higher Level IB Biology. During the students’ first year, I have them write a Literature Review, despite it not really being directly related to the syllabus or their exam scores.

HOWEVER, the ability to research sources, synthesize ideas, and write about them is a fundamental skill that I PREACH to them. These skills will help them with their Internal Assessments (practicals) in science classes, and their Extended Essays which are diploma requirements. More importantly, these are skills they’ll need at the next level and beyond when having to prepare “papers” or “reports.”

The task: anywhere between 500-1250 words on any topic they can relate back to biology or specifically the syllabus, sources (at least 5 or more primary) need to be fully and properly cited in text and listed in the lit. cited section at the end. We go over these and look at students statements, perspectives, and the sources used to support their claims. We differentiate between primary and secondary or even tertiary sources (i.e., blogs written by people only reading news outlets). We also delve into which sources are more reliable or even just “sound” more believable in the context of the Lit Review. It’s one of my favorite tasks, assignments despite not being required or directly related to their exams. We all learn new things (i.e., facts/knowledge/information) and whether or not such things are believable, supported, or just personal opinions, ideas, or beliefs.

Thanks to Elliott, Laura, Michael, Barbara, and Doug, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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