Digital Literacy for Digital Natives

Helping teachers address fake news and cultivate smart, discerning consumers of online information.

April 2018, Volume 41, Issue 8

Like high schoolers across the country, my students are digital natives, well versed in the intricacies of Snapchat, Instagram, and group chats. One in four American teenagers reports being online “almost constantly,” and 92 percent report going on daily, according to a 2015 Pew study.

But every scroll through social media, every Google search, and every YouTube video brings a barrage of news, fake news, and ads masquerading as news, all of which my students must sort through. Many of them are ill-equipped for the job—not always able to tell fact from fiction; to identify content that is attempting to persuade them; or to recognize reliable sources. They’re eager consumers of news, but not yet discerning ones.

This is a pervasive problem. A 2016 report by the Stanford History Education Group, analyzing the work of roughly 7,800 middle school, high school, and college-level students, found that a majority were unable to tell sponsored advertisements from real articles, or to recognize where information they read was coming from.

The task of training students to be thoughtful news consumers is daunting and unwieldy. It’s not just a question of sorting real from fake news, says the study’s lead author, Sam Wineburg, but “the broader question of how do all of us evaluate the information that comes to us via screens.”

When I go online for news, I bring with me a wealth of already-amassed knowledge about the news source and its reliability or flaws, developed over decades. Often I have a baseline knowledge of the content, which informs how I evaluate what I read. But where to start with students who are just now building these skills? Luckily, a growing number of resources are available to help teachers begin to tackle this problem.


Here are four steps along the pathway to digital literacy in the classroom, followed by resources below.

1. Students need to be able to identify possible motives an article might have.
Most of the information our students see online has a motive—trying to persuade them to buy something or think something or believe something. But students struggle to recognize these diverse agendas.

Ask students to develop a list of possible motives that articles and images might have. Curate examples of each motive and together write a list of clues students can use to identify each.

2. Students need to be able to identify tone and bias.
It is often hard for students to identify the tone of an article unless it is blatant. How can we break down bias and tone into recognizable components?

To give students rudimentary tools to identify bias, have a discussion about why authors choose certain words or highlight certain facts. Compare articles about the same subject from different news sources: What information is highlighted? What words are used to describe the same event? Does the article present both sides of an argument or just one?

To explore how biased news is created, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project suggests challenging students to write their own biased news story about an event they are studying. Start by having them list all the facts, and then have them select only certain facts they want to include or exclude to try to convince classmates of a particular idea.

3. Students need to learn to be skeptical of sources and develop tools to check them.
In a world where even the most respected newspapers are described as fake news, how do we help students know what sources count as reliable?

Start by having students catalogue where they currently get their news—Facebook? Twitter? Podcasts? Applying what they’ve learn about bias, students can begin to assess the perspective and the mission of the news sources they read. Are they reading independent journalism with original reporting, are they reading advocacy sites, or are they getting news from crowd-sourced “citizen reporting”? Talk with them about the standards and ethics of journalism. Together, gather a list of sources your class believes are reliable and keep the list easily accessible to students.

Use a checklist created by the News Literacy Project to help students evaluate sources and detect fake news.

4. Students need to understand how what they read online is targeted at them.
Many students don’t know that when they search online, complex algorithms determine the articles and ads they see. Few students understand how bots can make topics falsely appear to be important. When software shapes what we see, our students must be wary of whom to believe online, and they must work to read authors who don’t always confirm but rather push and stretch their beliefs.

Build students’ awareness through discussion of key concepts, mini research projects, and even by intentionally testing these technologies out. Here’s one lesson on understanding online searches.

These are just the first steps; this work will need to be ongoing and integrated at all levels and across all subjects. Cultivating our students into thoughtful, discerning, and critical digital thinkers is one of the most important responsibilities educators now have.

From Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Learn more at

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