February 10, 2020 | By Rachel Besharat Mann, PhD
When I taught United States history at a high school in New York City, I had a discussion with my students about finding sources for their upcoming research projects. The responses mainly echoed, “just Google” and “stay away from Wikipedia.” These were not promising guidelines, but did make me think: Should we stay away from Wikipedia? Is it all right as a jumping off point? How do we teach students to vet endless sources when we may not know ourselves?
As information seeking has moved primarily to the internet, the ability to discern fact from fiction, or information literacy, has been of particular interest to many educators and researchers. This is especially true for those interested in how students are navigating sources and what teaching information literacy may look like in the classroom. As older students are moving from class to class with teachers who are focused on different disciplinary content, it is often difficult to find the time for information literacy during short class periods. But these skills are essential to fostering a more sophisticated understanding of the content and supporting the many adolescent literacy skills outlined by the Learner Variability Project.
In fact, researchers have referred to a “crisis” in adolescent literacy overall, as some students are progressing through middle and high school with limited traditional and digital literacy skills.
On the digital front, we often assume our students are adept at navigating digital spaces, which may not always be the case. In one study, a majority of adult and undergraduate participants were not able to effectively evaluate online sources. Studies such as these are troubling and may leave us feeling hopeless and apprehensive in terms of information and media literacy instruction.
However, there are many underlying factors of traditional literacy which support the development of digital literacy that can be integrated with content instruction. Focusing on developing critical literacy with students can help students question their sources during academic research and when faced with information from outside of school, namely on social media. Interestingly, research has shown that when students are explicitly taught to critically question text, their reading comprehension improves, creating a fundamental need for this type of instruction. Teachers can utilize engaging in-class activities to immerse students in content while demonstrating source evaluation. For example, teachers can pull different articles from social media platforms for class analysis, which may simultaneously increase motivation and show that teachers value out-of-school literacies.
Another strategy identified by researchers is lateral reading, or opening multiple tabs to check source information, as an effective way to evaluate online sources. When teachers think aloud the process of opening tabs and conducting research into authors, organizations, and the facts presented, students see the process illuminated. They also begin to understand that there are no hard and fast rules to evaluating online sources; it is a decision-making process as to the trustworthiness of the source and the purpose of the research. This type of instruction helps connect these skills to real world applications, making information learning pertinent to students long after graduation. Research also suggests that explicitly teaching digital reading skills may remediate for a lack of background knowledge. Studies have shown, for example, that students who have sharp internet navigation skills may compensate for low background knowledge when accessing informational texts online.
In this overwhelming sea of information, finding educational research that can be useful for educators may be a challenge. The Learner Variability Project’s new Adolescent Literacy model provides summaries of educational research and aligned strategies for classroom use, making research accessible to teachers and other educators.