News Literacy for Elementary Learners

Older students aren't the only ones who consume news. Elementary schoolers see and hear news too, and need age-appropriate lessons to understand the sources and information.

When teaching news literacy is mentioned in library circles, thoughts may immediately go to middle and high school students practicing skills to identify fake news and disinformation. But our elementary students see and hear news too, creating a need for news literacy instruction and exposure to news stories for even our youngest learners.

News Literacy with Early Elementary Students

Recently, when asking a kindergarten class what the news was, one student responded, “It’s what you watch to see what’s happening.” Her definition is entirely appropriate for her age. More importantly, it shows that outside of school, she sees news stories. And she was not alone.

While extended instruction in news literacy may not be called for in early elementary grades, teaching around key concepts and interactions with news can set a foundation for future news literacy learning. Kindergarten through second grade skills already taught help transition students into early news literacy experiences later in their elementary experiences. These include:

  • Understanding the difference between fact and opinion.
  • Sourcing and contextualizing. In the most basic approach, asking students, “What type of item is this?” and “What do you think you know about this event?” can begin to establish the routine.
  • Working with maps, graphs, charts, and primary sources—formats students will later encounter in news stories—gives younger students a chance to read and make meaning from them.

Early elementary students can also consume and respond to news. Age-appropriate topics and delivery of the news is an important consideration. Activities that may accompany those news stories include:

  • Reading news headlines from high-interest articles as a class and ask questions based on those headlines.
  • Watching or listening to news reports created for pre or emerging readers, such as the ABC KIDS News Time podcast. We often view and discuss images from related news stories after listening to this podcast.
  • If older students create a class or school newspaper or broadcast, invite older students to speak to the younger students to share their process in creating news and field questions from their younger peers.

Small instructional changes and intentional moments to listen and talk about the news can pay dividends as students reach upper elementary when they may encounter news more regularly outside of school.

Meeting Upper Elementary Students in Their News Environment

Students will likely be reading, listening to, and watching more school-provided news in upper elementary grades. Articles from Newsela or KidsPost or podcasts like Kidnuz can provide daily or weekly news exposure. Students may also have another source of news outside of school and in addition to their family.

Some upper elementary students will be in a transition in how they receive news. A 2019 report from Common Sense Media shared that by age eight, 19 percent of kids have their own smartphone. That number increases to 53 percent by age 11. Couple that with a 2017 report titled News and America’s Kids that shared that when asked, “Where did you get your news from yesterday?” 49 percent of respondents said that at least some of their news came from online sources. While the 2017 report included older children, it is reasonable to infer that much of the online news that students see comes from their phones.

In my elementary school, we meet students where they are with their news consumption. A simple conversation starter of, “Where do you get your news?” shows us a variety of sources that one might traditionally expect, such as car radios with parents on the way to and from school or on the TV in the evenings at home. Other more modern news sources come up as well, such as personal digital devices or smart speakers in the home.

What also becomes clear is that these students often do not know the source of the news or if the information they are finding—or that is finding them—is really news. These conversations provide an authentic moment to talk about news literacy, revisit definitions for news, compare it to other types of information, and bring news sources into the learning. Online resources such as Info Zones from the News Literacy Project provide structure to learning how news and other information is defined and determined.

These authentic talks pair well with other news literacy learning. For example, students learn to read laterally across multiple stories to determine the reliability of sources and credibility of information. Those skills can be brought into discussions about news outside of school. Students can be challenged to read laterally or share their experiences of using this skill on their own. The shared experiences can also become a formative assessment of the news literacy skill transferring from in to out of the school setting.

News Messengers’ Role in Elementary News Literacy

Focusing on the people students get their news from can be as important as knowing the institutions that are the sources of the news. We describe the people who connect us to the news as news messengers. News messengers can be trusted people in students’ lives like parents, teachers, or librarians. Classmates, who a student values as a friend but may not see as an expert, can also be news messengers.

News messengers connect younger learners with news in different ways. Students may passively listen to news selected by their parents taking on the role of news messenger. Many of my students overhear relatives talking about the news. In this case, the student doesn’t directly see the news story, but they are connected with ideas from it. Adults or friends may also retell the news to children, which may or may not lead to the child seeing the actual news source.

For an emerging news consumer to be more informed, interacting with the news source itself is best. I have role-played with students so they can practice asking for the news source that a news messenger is sharing information from. This can be a challenging role to take on for the student, as it is for a parent or other adult. Sharing these ideas with parents and gathering their support can make news literacy instruction a true team effort.

Students identifying the people who connect them to the news they watch, listen to, and read provides a great transition to introductory conversations around social media. Those same individuals and others may be sharing news on social media and influencing a student’s impression of the news story by commenting on the news story as well as sharing.

The idea of a news messenger can be expanded to apps and organizations. For example, news aggregators that push out news notifications and adapt to our news reading habits may be automatically activated on some phones and digital devices.

All of these activities, discussions, and connections with news outside of school should lead students to a greater understanding of how they encounter news in their lives. It also sets a base of understanding that students can build upon in middle and high school encounters with news as they expand their news literacy skills.

Tom Bober is the school librarian at RM Captain Elementary School in St. Louis, MO, and author of the recently released Building News Literacy.

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