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Help Students Spot Fake News with Critical Literacy Skills

In a world of fake news and increasingly incredible reality, it’s crucial that we arm students with the skills they need to read between the lines, says Jonathan Douglas...

  • Help Students Spot Fake News with Critical Literacy Skills

Digital technologies offer a raft of new learning opportunities for students, but as these new technologies evolve and become ever more present in their everyday lives, are our young people equipped with the skills they need to navigate the potential pitfalls of a digital world?

This is the question at the heart of a new commission launched by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy. Over the next year, the commission will look at so-called ‘fake news’ and examine the teaching of the critical literacy skills students need to identify it.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, but the rise of digital media has seen it take on a new, more threatening form, as people are able to access and share it so easily. It threatens democracy, confidence in governance and trust in journalism – with young people who are unable to separate fact from fiction particularly vulnerable.

Did you know, for example, that more children than ever are using digital media as their main source of news - and that 1 child in 5 believes everything they read online is true?

In this digital age, children who can’t question and determine the reliability of the information they find online will be hamstrung – at school, at work and in life; and there are wider implications for democracy, too. Teachers are the key to boosting children’s critical literacy skills, but they simply can’t do this without the proper training, support and resources.

Your country needs you

By bringing together the greatest minds and authorities on fake news and education, the new parliamentary commission will give us a fantastic opportunity to make the case for critical literacy to sit at the heart of our education system. At the National Literacy Trust, we want every child to have the chance to develop the critical literacy skills they need to survive and thrive in this new digital age. We can’t do it without you.

To inform the commission, the National Literacy Trust, in partnership with First News and The Day, has launched two surveys for secondary school teachers and their students. We want to know what children understand about fake news and how good they are at spotting it, as well as hearing about what teachers think about fake news, whether they consider it a problem in the classroom and where they think key critical literacy skills should be taught.

We’ve developed some great free teaching resources to go alongside the surveys and to help you introduce your students to fake news.

Ask your students to take part in the fake news survey, which is on the National Literacy Trust website: literacytrust.org.uk/fakenews. This can be done in class or set as homework. Remember to take part in your teacher survey too.

As part of the student survey, young people will be asked to decide if a series of news stories are real or fake. The good news is – we’ve got the answers for you!

Once your students have finished their surveys, use our special answers resource to go through each story and discuss all the clues which might indicate whether it’s true or not. The resource is also available on our website and has notes and prompts for you to encourage lively discussions.

We also have a brand new teaching resource, linked to the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculums, which is packed full of ideas to help you bring fake news into the classroom. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the activities included in the resource…

What is fake news, anyway?

Your students will probably have a varied understanding of fake news, based on their own personal experiences. It is important to create a shared definition in your class so that students can discuss and identify examples appropriately.

Here’s our definition of fake news, followed by some activities you can do in the classroom:

Fake news is news or stories that are not true. Fake news is published on the internet, in newspapers, shown on TV and broadcast on the radio in order to mislead people. Fake news stories often have shocking, exaggerated or false headlines to grab people’s attention. The internet means that fake news can be spread very quickly through the use of fake news website and social media.

Here are some of the main types of fake news:

  • False stories that are made up on purpose: these stories make people believe something that isn’t true. Sometimes this is done to get lots of people to visit a website.
  • Misleading stories: these stories may have some truth to them but they are not completely accurate. This is because the people writing them don’t check all of the facts before publishing the story or they only use the facts that fit with the story they want to tell. These stories are often biased.
  • Satire (which means using humour): websites such as The Onion or Daily Mash create fake news stories to make fun of the real news. These stories are meant to be funny and entertaining but some people don’t realise the story is meant to be a joke and think it is true.
  • With your students:
    • Create a class definition of fake news by asking students to share examples of the different types of fake news stories they’ve seen and heard. You can use the main types of fake news from our definition to guide discussions.
    • Create a fake news glossary to include words that may be unfamiliar to your students, eg biased, hoax, propaganda, intentionally.
    • List lots of different places where you can get news from – including newspapers titles, websites, social media channels, magazines, TV and radio programmes – and as you say each one out loud, ask your students to clap if they trust that news source. Then create a trusted places display in your classroom, library or computer suite.

    Students might be embarrassed to admit that they’ve fallen for fake news stories, so it is important to provide a safe space for them to be able to discuss their experiences openly and share how they feel about them.

    • Create a real or fake? display in the classroom and ask students to keep adding to the board whenever they have read or heard a piece of interesting real or fake news. They could also add a post-it note to the article to share any questions or feelings they may have about the story.
    • Have a daily or weekly discussion about a current news story that has caught your students’ attention. Ask them to think critically about the story – what is the journalist’s motivation? Who is their intended audience? How does this change the way you feel about the story?

    The full resource can be downloaded from the National Literacy Trust website and also includes a top tips for spotting fake news handout which you can print and give to your students to keep. Visit literacytrust.org.uk/fakenews.


    Jonathan Douglas is director of the National Literacy Trust. Follow him on Twitter at @JDLiteracyTrust.

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