Teaching Media Literacy in the ESL Classroom

This article first appeared in Language magazine, April, 2002.

A veteran language teacher outlines why it's important and strategies that work.

Both ESL theory and classroom practice point to an understanding of the target culture as a necessary element in second language learners' ability to master English. In this country, nothing offers a clearer window into our culture than the media. From Hollywood's entertainment and music industry to AOL/Time Warner's CNN, America's pervasive media not only reflects our value system but also influences our society on many levels.

In so doing, it provides an excellent springboard for a broad spectrum of skill building activities for English language learners. Indeed, many ESL publishers have seized upon this notion by incorporating authentic materials from newspapers, magazines and other media sources. All of this, of course, has been enhanced by the proliferation of the Internet. Now with a couple of clicks, teachers can challenge their students with the latest news article or video clip from a vast array of sources in this country and abroad.

Clearly, using news reports, movies, TV documentaries or radio talk shows can give students a deeper understanding of U.S. perspectives and lifestyles. And certainly the field of advertising provides a rich forum for further cultural explorations. But is it enough to simply use examples from the media to explore US values?

The answer may lie in a burgeoning new discipline blossoming in high schools and universities throughout the United States. Known as Media Literacy, this fast growing field can also be tapped into by ESL practitioners wishing to develop curricula and lessons for second language learners.

What is Media Literacy?

To get a clearer understanding of media literacy, I spoke to Elizabeth Thoman, founder and president of the Center for Media Literacy. Thoman, who has worked in this field for over twenty years, defines media literacy as "the ability to interpret and create personal meaning from the hundreds, even thousands of verbal and visual symbols we take in everyday through television, radio, computers, newspapers and magazines, and of course advertising." Says, Thoman, "It's the ability to choose and select, the ability to challenge and question, the ability to be conscious about what's going on around you and not be passive and therefore, vulnerable."

In the old days of four or five TV stations broadcasting just part of the day, people got most of their information through books. The focus was, therefore, on learning to read print — which came to be called "literacy." Now, thanks to cable television, satellite networks and video streaming on the web, viewers are bombarded by a blinding array of verbal and visual messages.

Indeed, a simple calculation reveals that the typical teenager who watches four hours of TV a day also views over 30,000 commercials a year. This has created an urgent need to become "literate" about visual media. Indeed, as Ernest Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching states: "It is no longer enough to simply read and write. Students must also become literate in the understanding of visual images. Our children must learn how to spot a stereotype, isolate a social cliche, and distinguish facts from propaganda, analysis from banter and important news from coverage."

Never in human history has so much information been so easily accessible. But today's bottomless pit of media programming is a double-edged sword for educators. On one hand, we enjoy a wealth of resources at our fingertips. Unfortunately, however, using them in the classroom can be a daunting experience, especially when combined with the task of making this information understandable to foreign speakers.

No doubt virtually every international student who comes to the U.S. now has access to hundreds of TV channels, thousands of newspapers and magazines on every conceivable topic. While this abundance of information creates a host of language learning opportunities, it has become harder for ESL learners to discriminate.

Says Thoman, "International students have not always experienced the commercial underpinning or consumer driven culture that we have. They don't understand the tradeoffs involved with commercial media." Thoman points out that foreign students need critical skills to see through the images of American culture. "Since people use the media to learn a language, they can also swallow the value system," she says.

That's more than enough reason to use a media studies approach with these learners.

So beyond helping international students master the basics, media literacy enhances critical thinking skills. And, since thinking in English is a crucial component of English learning, what better way to foster this than by having students reflect on how, for example, an ad for the latest automobile misleads or even manipulates its target market. Later, I'll provide more examples of some media literacy inspired activities. But first, let's trace media literacy's development.

A brief history

Back in the fifties, when the media was still in its infancy, the messages sent out were straightforward. Even commercials, now the realm of psychological surveys, were largely a "what you see is what you get it" phenomenon. Just compare a car advertisement today to one from five decades ago to see just how the media has evolved. Indeed its evolution has been accompanied by an increasing sophistication, as the public too has become more discerning.

Of course, media literacy did not spring up immediately. There was a lag time of about twenty years. Says Gary Ferrington, Director of the Media Literacy Online Project, it was during the 1970's that Media Literacy began as an educational practice. "During that decade, educators recognized that non-print media employed unique visual and aural language frameworks to encoded information. The ability to read the "text" of a motion picture, television program, advertisement, or photograph, for example, became important in an in expanding definition of literacy."

Unfortunately, by the 1980's, economic and political changes moved media literacy programs to the back burner in this country. At the same, Ferrington notes, media education programs expanded in other countries such as England, Scotland, Norway, Canada, and Australia.

Now as we clear the threshold into the 21st century, things are changing-and quickly. Thoman says there's been an exponential rise in interest in media literacy during the past two years. She attributes this to the growth of the Internet as well as news events such as the 2000 presidential election, the Columbine tragedy and the Clinton scandal.

And while ESL programs have been slow to follow, it is no less critical for second language learners to grasp these concepts. Marni Baker Stein is the Coordinator of Distributed Learning at the University of Pennsylvania's English Language Programs. She believes a media literacy approach allows instructors to situate their instruction within the larger social and cultural structures to which they belong. "This is far more effective and authentic than traditional media approaches," she says.

Indeed, ESL practitioners must empower learners to sift through the endless messages these media offer. In so doing, students will become better learners and speakers of English. They'll also become more informed citizens-of no matter what country they call home. Indeed, with so much happening in the world today, the use of the media has become especially relevant to students' lives.

Activities for the classroom

Whether instructors choose to teach media literacy explicitly will clearly depend on the level and sophistication of their learners. Low level students struggling to understand a simple text would be overwhelmed and distracted by explicit training in media literacy concepts. Still, a teacher of such students can use a media literacy framework to inform their teaching. For example, the instructor might have learners look at simple print or TV ad to distinguish between "fact" and "opinion". Another task for low level learners could involve comparing the headlines describing a particular news event from various newspapers around the country.

Of course, with advanced students a more direct approach can be taken. In my Media Literacy Class at UCSB's International Programs, I usually begin with a questionnaire to help students explore their perceptions about the media Other activities include doing contrastive analyses of specific news events by examining how different newspapers cover the same story. We also investigate how media "filters", such as how corporate, advertising and political concerns impact the type of news items highlighted by different media outlets. Another particularly empowering activity involves having learners read letters to the editor from the local newspaper. Later, students write their own letters. Usually two or three get published, demonstrating to students, firsthand, the power of the written word. A trip to the local television station to watch a live newscast is especially enlightening as learners see for themselves how the news appears from inside a studio.

One other activity involves visiting the local bookstore to find articles in alternative magazines and present them to the class. Naturally, access to a computer lab is helpful. There students can develop both their media literacy and listening skills by downloading audio and video clips.

Final thoughts

This is just a sampling of how a media literacy approach can inform one's pedagogy. There's no limit to the kinds of activities that can be created. But as with any new discipline, educators will benefit from educating themselves first. Becoming involved with various Media Literacy organizations provide a good starting point.

No doubt, a media literacy perspective can bring one's teaching to a whole new level. But it's critical to stay focused. This approach should not be used as an excuse to bash the media. And more importantly, instructors need to understand that for everyone involved media studies should be ongoing. As Thoman says, "Media literacy is not a finite body of knowledge but rather a skill, a process, a way of thinking that, like reading comprehension, is always evolving,"

Author Bio: 

Arnie Cooper is a freelance writer and instructor in the International Programs at University of California, Santa Barbara.