Making Media Literacy Happen

By Mary Perry, California State PTA Communications Commission

The phrase “media literacy” can raise different issues for different people. One parent  might point to the cacophony of different advice regarding the pandemic. Another parent might put their concerns about social media exposure and student mental health at the top of their list. A local school board member might lament the recent media uproar related to curriculum choices.

In each of those examples, people agree that both adults and students need to better manage the flood of media messages the internet delivers to us all – every hour of every day. At the same time, having a world of information at our fingertips has become a way of life and we want our kids to have the tools they need to function well in that world. Ultimately, our democracy and our quality of life depend on it.

If our kids are going to be educated about media literacy, educators and families all have a part to play. Unfortunately, the approach to media literacy education is fragmented at best and completely missing at worst. PTAs can make an impact – below are some ideas to get started.

Agree locally on some basic definitions

Confusing terminology is one challenge in starting the conversation. We use the term media literacy here, but some organizations use information literacy, digital citizenship, or news literacy. While the precise definitions can vary, the basic intent is pretty much the same.

One of the first organizations to call attention to the need for media literacy education was the Center for Media Literacy (CML). This California-based nonprofit organization provides a comprehensive definition that is often quoted:

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate using messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

To build support and take action, it’s important to work through any confusion caused by the jargon.

Make sure the adults – in both families and schools – understand basic media literacy concepts

Before we can teach media literacy to kids, we need to learn about it ourselves. If only there were a class for adults!

Unfortunately, resources to support parents who want to improve their understanding and skills in media literacy are much more limited than the available curriculum for students (and thus for teachers). That said, some good ones do exist.

CML has developed a short online course, called the Global On-Ramp to Media Literacy, that provides a concrete definition of media literacy and its importance, and has some food for thought regarding how we each approach media as consumers and as creators.

The News Literacy Project has developed several free resources for the public, such as an e-learning platform, shareable tips, and an annual news literacy event. You can share them to raise awareness and give your parent community some ways to educate themselves. You could also use them as the basis for a PTA meeting or workshop devoted to the topic.

The Family Online Safety Institute, an organization supported by the major internet and media corporations, has a robust section devoted to digital parenting generally. Among the many articles is one that provides a clear, accessible presentation about what they call Information Literacy. It’s worth a few minutes of your time and might also be a good discussion starter at your next PTA meeting.

Learn what your local schools are doing to make media literacy part of the curriculum

Experts increasingly agree about what high-quality media literacy education looks like and their work can help guide schools and families.

RAND, a non-profit research organization, has been among the leading voices calling attention to the need for media literacy education. They recently published curriculum guidance that educators can use to plan, implement, and evaluate their efforts. It’s a fairly dense “how to” that most parents/caregivers won’t find helpful. However, it does include a six-step framework you can use to ask about your local schools’ efforts, including questions like these: 

  • Have school and/or district staff developed a shared vision about media literacy education, including agreeing on standards to inform what is taught?
  • How have any discussions of media literacy been informed by our local context, including community needs and possibilities for community support?
  • What is the plan for implementing media literacy instruction? Are there classrooms or schools teaching this now or is there a timeline? Is there an intent to build on current efforts to get to a district level implementation?
  • What, if any, instructional resources have teachers, schools, or the district selected? How were they chosen?
  • What plans are there, or could there be, for sharing media literacy information with families?
  • How does the school and/or district plan to measure students’ competency in media literacy?

Make Media Literacy a focus in your PTA, school, and community

In our series of posts on the topic of media literacy, we have:

So what is a logical next step? Of course, it depends on your local situation, but help and a wealth of good ideas abound. For example, Media Literacy Now is a national organization working to ensure essential media literacy skills are taught in every classroom, in every subject. Along with a rundown of what states have done to support media literacy, their Pathways Project has lots of suggestions for what PTA leaders can do to support media literacy at the school, school district, and community levels.

You can also start by accessing these organizations, all of which support media literacy and have plenty of free resources to share.

PTA members with questions about this or other Communications topics can send them to