By the time today’s children in the United States reach age 75, they will have spent nine years of their lives watching TV, including two years of ads alone. Yet media literacy education in the U.S. still lags behind that of every other English-speaking country in the world, according to a new report commissioned by Cable in the Classroom, the cable industry’s education foundation.

When you add the number of hours students spend watching movies, listening to radio, and surfing the web, they easily spend one-third to one-half of their time awake involved in the consumption of electronic media. Yet “many schools still treat poetry, short stories, and the novel as the only forms of English expression worthy of study,” the report says.

As a result, most children are not media literate, so they are poorly equipped to think critically about the messages they see, hear, and read every day.

“Thinking Critically About Media: Schools and Families in Partnership,” actually a series of six essays by media education experts, is intended to raise awareness of the issue and promote a dialog among educators and policy makers about how best to incorporate a broader emphasis of media literacy skills in today’s classrooms.

Although all 50 states have incorporated media literacy education into their standards for instruction, too few graduate and professional development programs train teachers to implement media education effectively, the report says. This fact—coupled with the enormous pressure educators are under to meet basic accountability standards in the core areas of reading and math—means too many students aren’t getting the type of media literacy instruction they need to interpret information correctly and evaluate its credibility.

Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, explains why media literacy is an increasingly necessary skill for today’s students: “The Jeffersonian ideal of an informed electorate necessitates media literacy education. … With the incredible rise of the internet and the unedited nature of many web sites, students need more than ever to learn how to assess the validity and credibility of the information to which they are exposed.”

The report offers several strategies for addressing these shortcomings:

1. Schools should incorporate media literacy education throughout the curriculum, not just in English classes, and at all grade levels.

Social studies, science, and even health education are all areas where media education can occur, the report says. Science classes, for example, can teach about the science and technology of radio, TV, and the internet; social studies classes can study the history and development of the media and its influence on world events; and in health class, students could produce a short, videotaped public service announcement for their peers on a topic of their choice: drug abuse, healthy eating, safe sex, etc.

Such an assignment would force students to think about how their writing, editing, and production choices affect the impact of their message on viewers, Kubey says.

2. Technology, and its use by students to produce their own media, is a key component to media literacy education.

Pointing out the meaning of terms like “bandwagon,” “glittering generalities,” “foreshadowing,” and “irony” is a necessary part of media education—but even better is having students become involved in making editorial decisions of their own, deciding for themselves what to leave in or out as they create a television commercial or a radio documentary.

3. School districts and colleges of education should increase professional-development efforts to reflect the importance of media literacy education.

4. Parents should play an important role in media education, too. School districts can encourage their participation by holding workshops for parents and conducting other outreach efforts.

Movies, TV, and the internet should be studied alongside books, plays, and poetry, Kubey said. But that’s not to say the study of electronic media should replace traditional instruction in reading and writing. On the contrary, the two can go hand in hand.

“One way to integrate media literacy with traditional literacy is to emphasize writing skills in students’ scripts and in their critical reviews of films, TV programs, advertising, and web sites,” Kubey wrote. “One way to increase students’ interest in literature is to help them recognize that many of the same storytelling techniques used in the classics are also used in the popular programs and films with which they are already familiar.”


“Thinking Critically About Media: Schools and Families in Partnership”