Canada Offers Ten Classroom Approaches to Media Literacy

Reprinted with permission of the Association for Media Literacy / Canada.

The following article is from the introduction to the Media Literacy Resource Guide published by the Ontario Ministry of Education in 1989 to guide the implementation of media literacy in language arts in Ontario high schools. The guide was written by members of the Association for Media Literacy / Canada.


The teacher's attitude to the mass media and to students as avid media consumers is crucial to the success of any media literacy program. Most students bring to the classroom an enormous amount of information about and experience with the media -- in many cases, far more than do their teachers. While it is important for teachers to start where their students are, it is also necessary for them to lead their students to where they are not.

This guide stresses teaching inductively and beginning whenever possible with students' direct experiences with the media. The basic method of media studies is that of a "spiral curriculum", a concept developed by educator Jerome Bruner. The fundamental principle of this method is that the key concepts of any discipline can be taught in some form to students at any level. Thus, concepts initially introduced in simple form at the elementary level are, in successive years, explored, developed, and extended in increasingly sophisticated ways as the student matures and develops.

To take a relatively simple example, elementary school pupils might begin to explore the concept of the commercial implications of media by talking about television programs they watch and, with the guidance of the teacher, distinguishing between program material and commercials, identifying the different purposes of each. At a later stage they could look at a variety of commercials aimed at children, discussing their reactions to them and perhaps beginning to evaluate their effectiveness. They could also talk about what they would put in commercials for children if they were making them. Older children could begin to analyze the techniques and appeals of commercials, planning and storyboarding some of their own. They could also explore the relationship between commercials and programming, perhaps examining the link between children's cartoon characters and sales of related products such as dolls or clothing. As they progress through the educational system, they may move on, for example, to more detailed examinations of commercials; studies of the effects of economic considerations on programming, content, and techniques; or research into issues such as the effects of ownership and control media.

Because students are immersed in media, the role of the teacher must be that of a facilitator and a co-learner. The teacher must help students to negotiate meaning, engage in inquiry and research, identify patterns, and create their own media productions.

Stress the Positive

It is important to stress the positive features of the mass media rather than to dwell at length on the negative. It is also essential that students be encouraged to explore the values and the tastes that are relevant to their own immediate cultural context. This fundamental premise of values education implies that the teacher should not be imposing a set of elitist values on the class. (For example, the teacher should avoid holding up "Masterpiece Theater" and PBS as caviar and everything else as junk food for the masses.)

It may be difficult to find socially redeeming values in many of the programs that have high audience ratings or in rock videos, but it is these very examples that our students are eager to discuss. Using media literacy in critical discussion, the teacher can empower students to discover meaning on their own, thus giving them critical autonomy.

Because of the immense diversity in the media and the sheer quantity of information, teachers may feel overwhelmed. This resource guide offers a whole range of coping strategies. First, many avenues for media literacy are already available. For example, most subject disciplines offer approaches to the topic, and many of the activities suggested in this document are ideally suited to the development of speaking, listening, and writing skills. Second, this guide encourages a plurality of approaches, including the application of interdisciplinary perspectives and critical- and creative- thinking strategies.

By necessity, media teachers will be eclectic. As well, the constantly changing content of the media and of popular culture, along with their many new and evolving forms and technologies, will necessitate the concept of "a movable text" that is made up by the teacher, the class, or both together. Such a text will encompass current newspaper and magazine clippings, new video, audiotapes, record albums, and resource people from the community. In such an enterprise, it should be evident that media study is ideally suited to the collaborative strength that is gained from team teaching.

To avoid duplicating activities and audio-visual materials each year, teachers, department heads, and principals will have to plan a coherent and, in many cases, a sequential media-studies program. This may prompt the formation of board media-literacy committees, which can organize workshops for teachers and design media curricula especially suited to local needs.

Teachers not familiar with essential equipment such as slide projectors and the video-cassette recorder will need to develop the competency required to make media literacy worthwhile for their students. For example, effective use of the freeze frame or the scanning mechanism on a VCR can enhance the use of video considerably.

Throughout the guide there are many opportunities for practical media production, an important dimension that complements the application of the key concepts and decoding exercises. Practical activities should never become an end in themselves; otherwise, the critical inquiry that is central to media study may be ignored.


  1. The Inquiry Model
    The inquiry model is a structured framework that will help students recognize basic issues and provide strategies for developing subject content. This model helps to stimulate open questioning and encourages students to be intellectually curious about the world; it also demands that they have the proper tools for meaningful research and discussion. Since many of the topics that interest students (e.g., censorship, bias in news coverage, popular culture trends) need to be focused as soon as possible, this methodology is ideally suited to media study.

    The inquiry model is especially suited to the introduction of media-literacy activities in the classroom. For example, one can easily apply the model to a provocative short film, a television documentary, or an excerpt from a feature-film video that reveals a powerful moral dilemma. Through an intense shared experience that raises a whole range of issues, students are enabled to see the value of a structured framework for facilitating focused research and critical thinking.

    The inquiry model might be used, for example, to explore the following question: "Why do Canadians seem to prefer American media?" The following alternative solutions might be investigated:

    • Media content, from films to television, is predominantly American in origin.
    • American programs are generally cheaper to buy; have better production values, which reflect lavish budgets; and have a faster pace than do most Canadian programs.
    • Quality Canadian programs may reflect our identity, but most Canadians' indifference about or insecurity in this area compels them to avoid endeavours that hold up the mirror to our society.
    • Intense competition in the United States ensures that only the most salable commercial products are seen.

    Students might then explore the alternatives by collecting data in the following ways:

    • Statistics are available in resources on the Canadian film industry, such as Cinema Canada [Editor's note: is no longer in publication] and from the reports of various commissions on broadcasting and the film industry.
    • Students could check with Canadian television networks on the comparative costs of buying an American show – especially those in reruns – and of producing a Canadian series. Students could watch some typical Canadian shows and compare them with the American product in order to notice differences in themes, characterization, and pace.
    • Students could check the ratings of one of the better Canadian television series and the box-office take for some of our critically acclaimed films. In addition, by formulating a questionnaire and having a cross section of people answer it, students could determine whether the results confirm or deny the notion that Canadians are indifferent to or insecure about seeing their identity portrayed.
    • Students could write or talk to Canadian media professionals regarding the allegations about the benefits of competition in the United States.
  2. Critical-thinking strategies
    The critical-thinking movement in the 1980s has helped to provide some important strategies for teachers of media literacy. According to Robert Ennis, critical thinking refers to a body of intellectual skills and abilities that enable one to decide rationally what to believe or do. It also includes a set of values: the pursuit of truth, fairness or open-mindedness, empathy, autonomy, and self-criticism. A "strong sense" critical thinker is one who strives to live in accordance with the values of critical thinking and who is able to think dialogically. A typical mass-media issue involves a blending of intellectual, affective, and moral responses. Many issues carried in the media demand that we move back and forth between opposing points of view. It is here that good dialogical thinking can help us out. Dialogical thinking involves a dialogue or extended exchange between points of view or frames of reference. The following checklist of typical critical- thinking skills is reproduced from Robert Ennis, "A Concept of Critical Thinking," Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1962: 38.

    Critical-Thinking Checklist:

    • distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
    • determining the reliability of a claim or source
    • determining the accuracy of a statement distinguishing between warranted and unwarranted claims
    • detecting bias identifying stated and unstated assumptions
    • recognizing logical inconsistencies
    • determining the strength of an argument

    Teachers interested in more information on these approaches should consult current books and articles on critical thinking in educational journals such as Educational Leadership and Phi Delta Kappan.

  3. Values education
    The mass media are an ideal resource for the discussion of moral dilemmas, the development of moral reasoning, and the use of techniques such as values clarification. Dialogical reasoning, which has been described as an important part of critical thinking, can play a significant role in discussions of topics such as the pros and cons of the mass media, government control of media, censorship, advertising, and the moral values identified in popular television and films. Consult the bibliography in the ministry's resource guide Personal and Societal Values (Toronto: Ministry of Education, Ontario, 1983) for further information on values education.
  4. Media from the perspective of subject disciplines
    In relation to media-literacy analysis in a subject context, it is important to stress that teachers will need to move beyond conceiving of media simply as audio-visual aids. Ideas that teachers can use to incorporate media literacy into their classes include:
    • English – Film-literature comparisons, script writing and multimedia thematic units (ie. exploring how themes such as the nature of courage, the hero and comedy are expressed in various mediums).
    • Social Sciences
      • History – Presentation of historical figures, historical bias and point-of-view, the marketing of politicians, and propoganda.
      • Geography – Comparisons of the images of cities in films and TV to the socio-economic realities of those cities; deconstruction of travel films; bias in films made by governments or corporations; depiction of countries as portrayed by governments vs. "structured absences," images that are not included in the official portrayal.
    • Family Studies – The representation of the family in advertising and film; sexuality and sexual stereotyping in the media; and the culture of violence.
    • Science and Technology– In addition to their treatment in science fiction, there are numerous references to science and technology in newspapers, films, magazines, and novels. Television, in both news and entertainment programs, constantly packages scientific issues and information. Some of this material can be integrated into the science curriculum by pointing out connections between the scientific issues raised by the media and the scientific principles underlying them. Students can also explore the strengths and limitations of the presentation of science topics in the media.
    • Visual Arts – The possibilities for media literacy in the visual arts are enormous. Many of the decisions made in the media are based on aesthetic considerations. The role of art in a mass-media-dominated society is of major concern for aspiring artists. Art teachers need to assess more than just the principles of pleasing form when looking at media; they need to consider all of the aspects that have been outlined in the section on key concepts in Visual Arts, Intermediate and Senior Divisions, Curriculum Guideline (Toronto: Ministry of Education, Ontario, 1986).
    • Music – Students are immersed in rock music and rock videos. While some music teachers use rock as a resource, many consider it inappropriate for their music courses. However, there are many valuable connections that can be made through the comparison of traditional and popular music. The popular-music enables music teachers to help their students investigate the aesthetics, the value messages, and the commercial implications of this pervasive form.
    • Physical and Health Education – Representation of gender, sexuality, violence, and televised sports in the media are all avenues that can be explored in the classroom.
    • Mathematics – Teachers of mathmatics will find that a great deal of research in the mass media depends on statistics. Hence, the skills of compilation and graphing will be important. In the area of television, the methods of rating the most watched prime-time programs depend on the exact use of mathematical information.
    • Resource Centre Teachers – Today's resource centres contain not only books, but also a good cross-section of popular periodicals, phonograph records, slides, and audio – and videotapes. In the area of print, many periodicals, such as Time and Maclean's, require not only the traditional reading skills, but also media-literacy decoding skills as well. Resource centre teachers can play a valuable role by helping students and teachers to understand the strengths and limitations of each medium when they are selecting resource materials.
  5. Cross-media studies and interdisciplinary strategies
    The issues, trends, and special events of our time are simultaneously reflected in all or several of the mass media. Hence, whether the topic is the arms race, the promotion of a rock star, an advertising campaign, or sexuality and violence in the media, a cross-media analysis is required. The effective application of the key concepts of media depends on the integration of several media. A discussion of violence in the media, for example, might combine knowledge from history, literature, sociology, psychology, communications theory, and linguistics.
  6. Creative experiences
    As well as being able to "decode" the symbols that dominate their society, students should be able to "encode" them. Just as we must integrate writing with the development of reading skills, we should integrate formal media analysis with media production. Thus, creative or production activities should be an essential component of media studies in the classroom. These creative activities can range from something as short and simple as sequencing a series of photographs to a project as complex as the production of a rock video. Many students will grasp the analytic material only if they have undergone production experiences.
  7. Semiotics
    Semiotics is the science of signs and is concerned primarily with how meaning is generated in film, television, and other works of art. It is concerned with what signs are and the ways that information is encoded in them. Some of the decoding/deconstructing activities in this guide use strategies from semiotics. This approach, which has had considerable influence on European academics and media teachers, is now coming into its own in North America. While it may appear to be intellectually demanding and somewhat abstract, it can yield many rewards for the dedicated media teacher. The following books are useful references in this area: Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972); James Monaco, How to Read a Film; Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982).
  8. Reading the media environment
    Each medium of communication has its own biases and ideology. When we interact with a medium of communication, we are influenced as much by the form of the medium as by its message. To explore this notion further, we should ask the following question about each communication medium: What would life be like without this medium? Finding answers to the following questions might also help us to understand better the effects of our interactions with our media of communication:
    • How does it work (e.g., technically, physiologically)?
    • When/how was it discovered/invented?
    • How did its use develop (e.g., socially, economically, politically)?
    • Who are its outstanding users? What do they communicate? How?
    • What are the medium's present conventions? How did they develop?
    • What are its present limitations? How are they best exploited?
    • How does the medium affect its users and how do they affect it?
    • How have other media affected this one?
  9. Alternative points of view
    As a counter to the mass media, which are generally, conservative and constitute a major industry in which the profit motive is paramount, teachers, depending on the level of the class, can show films and videos that present an alternative vision or a different kind of perception and experience to that of the mainstream media. These should be a supplement to, and not take the place of, the study of popular models. Many excellent narrative and documentary films by the National Film Board of Canada and by many experimental filmmakers and video artists, for example, will challenge students' ways of seeing the world. Of course, good literature and art will do the same. Certainly contemporary culture can be illuminated from many sources: by a small-circulation magazine with a distinctively alternative point of view; by a provocative CBC radio documentary; by a record of a contemporary fusion jazz combo, a small independent rock band, or the work of a performance artist/musician such as Laurie Anderson.
  10. Full-credit courses in media literacy
    These courses, offered at the secondary school level, will probably be presented as one of the optional courses in English or the visual arts and will reflect a great diversity of approaches. The following are examples of areas covered by such courses:
    • Pop culture: An understanding of some of the following: popular culture and trends; the coverage of royalty; the appeal of the current rock megastars; pop culture's fascination with rituals; the nature and power of celebrities; fashion TV (television programs that are concerned with the world of fashion, showcasing the latest trends and profiling fashion designers); fast-food happiness (the extensive marketing of fast-food restaurants through advertising campaigns that convey the idea that such eateries bring happiness by solving all one's problems); fads – from pet rocks to Cabbage Patch dolls; the appeal of shopping malls; pop culture in a foreign country; the culture of toys; the appeal of cult film patterns in teen films; formulas in best sellers; the appeal of Harlequin romance novels; the pop culture of the fifties and sixties.
    • The world of images: Media images of men and women; analysing photographs; adolescent magazines; analysing advertisements – signs and codes; dividing the world.
    • The information society: Current theories and research on the impact of the electronic media; the theories of Marshall McLuhan regarding the global village, the nature of perception, and the use of our senses; the dynamics of third-wave technology (electronic technology and the use of computers); the computer revolution; the role of new and emergent technology.
    • The study of specific media or a genre within a medium: Course units are often devoted to in-depth study of a specific medium (e.g., film, television, the newspaper). The study of a medium can be subdivided further through the study of specific genres. A unit on a genre in films might explore the nature of horror films in radio, suspense drama; in television, the evolution of sitcoms.
    • Television production: The nature of the television medium; the dynamics of television production; script writing and storyboards; the use of the portable video camera; the creation of a mini-documentary and a commercial; the use of special effects; applications of the mobile studio."


A Scaffolding Approach to Media Education

Scaffolding, developing a unit of study through a set sequence of steps, is well suited to Media Education. Scaffolding involves:

  1. Providing students with an overall picture of what will be expected of them.
  2. Breaking up and sequencing the order in which various concepts, skills, and applications of skills will be taught and assessed.
  3. Checking for students' understanding of what is being taught and requiring students to complete parts of the project as we go along.
  4. And finally the product -- student demonstration of their understanding and teacher and/or peer evaluation of their understanding.

If, for example, students are going to do a presentation giving an analysis of the codes and conventions of sitcoms, ideally the scaffolding would proceed this way:

  1. Model what such a presentation would look like.
  2. Teach them the relevant codes and conventions.
  3. Practice identifying codes and conventions in various sitcoms. (Allow students repeated opportunities to apply what they are learning so they can integrate that knowledge into their presentations.)
  4. Require them to research and put together their presentation.
  5. Before students present their work, have them submit an outline, including notes or ideas for what they intend to use.
  6. Finally, present of students' understanding and evaluation of this understanding. (See Evaluating Media Products for evaluation ideas.)



"Specific Approaches to Media Literacy," Barry Duncan et al. Media Literacy Resource Guide, Ontario Ministry of Education. Toronto, ON., Canada, 1989. Pages 14-19.

Author Bio: 

Barry Duncan, founding president of the Association for Media Literacy in Canada, is one of the pioneers of the media literacy movement in Canada. He writes Barry's Bulletin three times during the year, a column for teachers on media literacy.