Number one for English language teachers

Teaching technologies: 21st-century literacy

Type: Article

In this article from the archives of English Teaching professional magazine, Elisabeth Halmer identifies the need for new competencies in the new century.


The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

Introduction  Media education  Critical competence  Media competence  Media in the English class  Starting points  The media in my life  The Amish  Analyzing websites  Analyzing cartoons  Analyzing advertisements  Analyzing trends


Economic and technological developments are increasingly having more and more impact on our social lives. Over the last few years the media, and especially information technology, have developed incredibly fast and have become extremely complex. The daily routine of our children is influenced by media technologies to an extent which we could not have predicted several years ago. In addition to TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, in recent years the computer, the Internet with its chat rooms, mobile phones, etc have all become an integral part of young people's lives.

Advertisements can be found everywhere, and no matter how hard we might try, it is impossible to avoid being 'informed' all the time. Wherever we go, we are followed by some kind of news. In order to avoid too much subconscious influence, we are required to develop a critical attitude towards the flood of information. We are all - but in particular the younger generation - expected to be media competent. An education and training which does not take this new 'qualification' into consideration fails our young people.

Media education

Media education aims to make young people media competent, which not only involves knowing how to use a computer and all its related technologies, but also requires analyzing and questioning the information provided. So what seems to be required is not only education for our children on how to use the media but also education about the media and its strategies, which might be manipulative as well as informative. Media education, as already integrated in some curricula, must be a crucial element of today's teaching programmes. This task cannot only be tackled in conventional computer or information technology lessons but should be integrated in all subjects.

Critical competence

You may have experienced students gaining information from the Internet and taking everything for granted without checking who created the homepage, what ideological background it might have and what effect this might have on the information provided. We are all literate with respect to conventional sources of information. When we read a newspaper, we generally know its socio-political background and somehow we are able to communicate some kind of healthy scepticism to our children. But have we really managed to convey to them that the Internet and other new information technologies might be manipulative and may not necessarily present trustworthy information?

Media competence

What does being literate actually mean today? Is it still sufficient just to be able to read, write and calculate or does literacy require other skills in the new century? At the 21st Century Literacy Summit in Berlin in 2002, it was agreed that media competence was a skill which people would need in the future and, in fact, one they already need today in most key positions. Certainly, media competency cannot substitute for what we conventionally regard as literacy, but without the following competencies it will become more and more difficult to succeed in our economic world.

  • technological competence: the ability to use new media (for example, the Internet) in order to get information and communicate with others
  • information competence: the ability to collect information by all possible means, to organize data, to select whether information is relevant or trustworthy and to process it in order to acquire a qualified opinion on a broad level
  • creative competence: the ability to produce and offer information with the help of the media
  • social competence: the ability to realize the social consequences of the new media and to develop the appropriate responsibility

Schools are expected to train and educate students accordingly so that they are best prepared for their future professional life.

Media in the English class

I would like to present some examples of how to integrate media education into our English lessons. These are simply intended to stimulate your creativity, to enable you to develop your own ideas and to show that you don't have to be a specialist in order to raise your students' media awareness.

Starting points

Every school subject offers interfaces between media education and the subject itself, but this is particularly true of English as it actually deals with language. In general, one can say that there are six basic questions or categories which can be used as a starting point for the analysis of media and texts in all subjects (the idea for these questions is taken from Susanne Krucsay):

Producer: Who is giving the information and why / with what purpose?
Media: What kind of 'text' is it? (We have to take into consideration that in this model a text is not necessarily a conventional written text, but can be any piece of information conveyed, including visual or audio texts.)
Media technology: How is the text produced?
Language: How do we know what the text means?
Recipient: Who is the target 'reader' and how does the person comprehend the text?
Design: How is the topic presented?

With the help of these questions, you can react to any 'media opportunity' and initiate a simple but critical analysis. Take, for example, an advertisement, a headline and a cartoon and make your students answer the above questions. You will realize how productive the process is. These questions can also be used to encourage the pupils to produce some text on their own. Taking the questions as guidelines, they can pretend that they are a particular producer of a text who wants to convey a certain message to a special target group.

The media in my life

Encourage the students to think about and then discuss these questions:

  • What kinds of media do you use every day? Make a list and say when and how often you need them.
  • What kinds of media are used for which tasks or activities?
  • Which do you use most often and why?
  • Imagine you have to give up one element of the media, e.g. newspapers or the Internet. Would your daily life change? How? What advantages and disadvantages might this have?
  • Do you know any people who live without a TV? What motivates people to reject television?
  • There are still some people who don't have a mobile phone. What might be their reason for this?

The Amish

Before talking about the way of life of the Amish, a society without any media, ask the students to consider and discuss the following questions:

After you have provided information on the Amish, ask the students whether they can imagine living in a society like theirs. What might be the advantages and disadvantages?

Analyzing websites

Students need to learn that it is relevant to know who the producer or owner of a particular website is, as this influences the way a topic will be presented. Ask the students to enter a particular word into a search engine and analyze one of the offered websites. While analyzing the site, they should answer these questions:

  • What topic or subject does the website cover?
  • What kind of information does the site offer and to what extent is the word you searched for part of it?
  • Who is the target group?
  • What purpose does the site have?
  • Is it up-to-date? When was it last updated?
  • To what extent and in what form do any commercials appear?
  • What links are offered? Are they helpful?
  • Who is the owner or producer of the site?

Analyzing cartoons

Political cartoons in newspapers are ideal for the foreign language classroom as they can be 'read' by everyone. Yet sometimes the context or political background might be difficult to understand. The following questions could be considered while analyzing a cartoon:

Analyzing advertisements

You can use commercials shown on TV or ads from newspapers and magazines to get students to consider these questions:

  • What is the product being advertised?
  • What aspects make the ad eye-catching?
  • How is language used? Think of buzzwords, rhetorical features, metaphors, etc.
  • Are there any people in the ad? If so, who and why?
  • Can you find any aspects that discriminate against a certain group of people? If so, who is discriminated against?
  • Are any stereotypes exploited?
  • What objects are shown? Are there other objects apart from the one that is being advertised?
  • What colours are used (in which part of the advertisement) and what might be the reason for this?
  • Who is addressed? Do you feel addressed by the ad or do you feel offended?
  • If you had to advertise this product, would you make any changes to this advertisement? Would you create a completely new ad? Why?

Comparing TV, radio and newspaper adverts for the same product could be quite interesting in order to see how much the strategies, methods and effects vary. As a follow-up activity, the students might also create their own advertisement, perhaps in an art lesson.

Many of our students are constantly under pressure from so-called trend-setters. But how and why do particular trends develop? You could use these questions to generate a discussion:

  • What is trendy or up-to-date at the moment?
  • How do certain trends develop?
  • Do you know any trend-setters?
  • How do you know what is up-to-date? Who told you?
  • How important are trends and image to you?
  • How much are the different kinds of media involved in creating certain trends?
  • Different youth groups follow different trends. Why? Can you give any examples?
  • Do pop culture and the pop industry contribute to the spreading of trends around the world?

These are just a few examples to illustrate what integrating media education in the English lesson means. You could use them as they are or adapt them to your own particular classroom environment. The choice is yours, but whatever you do, you will be bringing a new awareness to your students and equipping them with the tools they will need to deal with information in the 21st century. 

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