Literacy · Teaching Reflections · Technology in Education · Topics for Parents and Students

Essential Media Literacy: The Fake News Phenomenon

How to teach your students (and…maybe your parents) about fake news

Fake news is everywhere; it seems as if overnight it has drowned out legitimate news sources and blurred the lines of truth. Teaching our students about media literacy has never been more important.

The skill of being able to decipher authentic news from fake news is both challenging and daunting for students and adults alike. When I developed this unit on fake news my first inclination was to teach it to my students as well as my Facebook friends; I just couldn’t stomach glancing through another homepage stream of fake news stories!

I also wanted to tie in active reading and news report writing skills (OSSLT), which fit nicely with the context of fake news, so my unit plan blends these skills along with media literacy. Overall, it has turned out to be the most engaging and effective multi-skill unit I’ve ever taught.

So, put down that decade’s old unit on a Shakespearean play and pick up this one on fake news! You’ll still be teaching key reading and writing skills, but with a big side helping of media literacy.

Part 1: understanding fake news and how to spot it.

The unit begins with an overview of what ‘fake news’ is, and we work collectively as a class on generating our own definition, which I left on the whiteboard for the duration of the unit. We looked at short film clips, articles and personal knowledge in the creation of our definition.

Next, we focused on how to spot fake news. Using the skill of active reading, we read some articles and took a look at a couple Youtube clips. We also scrolled our social media sites and shared examples of what we thought were examples of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news. We also took a couple quizzes on spotting fake news (there are many on the Internet) to try to hone our skills.

To end this part of the unit, we devised a list of how to spot fake news, and created memes (my students LOVE creating memes @ to help inform our social media friends and family about how to spot fake news. Logically, this also solidified student learning about the topic of ‘spotting’ fake news.


Part 2: elements of fake news and news articles.

 This section of the unit focused on using the skill of active reading, as well as thinking about the fake news genre and analyzing fake news articles. We actively read a variety of fake news articles and tried to identify key elements of ‘good’ or ‘popular’ examples of the genre. Then, we created a list of ‘key elements’ we though most common and wrote them on the whiteboard.

The next step was to learn about the structure of news articles in general. We watched some videos and used various images that identified parts of news articles to learn about the physical structure of a news article.

We also analyzed the fake news genre a bit at this point in our learning, by reading various articles and watching some Youtube clips about how fake news is created and why. This was great way to get a glimpse into the business of fake news as well as its purpose in our society. We also discussed and questioned the legality of fake news and predicted how we saw the genre evolving.

Part 3: writing and publishing fake news.

 Now for the main event! This was the part of the learning unit my students couldn’t wait for. We reviewed parts of a news article and key elements of ‘good’ fake news articles before moving through the writing process in the creation of our own fake news articles. I believe in doing everything I ask my students to do, so I created an exemplar for each step of the writing process with my own article as part of my teaching practice throughout this part of the unit.

At each writing process step, I also briefly conferenced with students, to help refine and guide their writing. When the majority of articles were ready for publishing, I created a fake news website using WordPress with student input (they picked the title, colours, etc.) in about 15 minutes to show how easy it is to create a legitimate looking fake news site.

After uploading each student article to the fake website, students were challenged to create a social media sharing plan to generate the most reads possible for their individual article (WordPress calculates reads for each individual article). I also showed students how to copy and paste their individual article url’s to social media sites. As an extra layer of fun, I decided to make generating the most reads a contest, with the top three articles after a span of 10 days getting a prize.

Check out our fake news websites:


Part 4: culminating quiz and bonus media literacy lessons.

 I decided to culminate the unit with a quiz that assessed student understanding and analysis of the fake news genre (media literacy), as well as their application of active reading skills in the identification of parts of a news article and elements of fake news articles (reading). Along with my assessment of their writing skills in part 3 of the unit, these were the two ‘big’ summative assessments I used.

Since this was the first time I’ve taught this unit, I also stumbled on some more media literacy lessons I wasn’t really prepared for but that were generated as a result of our fake news website contest. Shortly after the articles were published, some were getting comments by Internet trolls and genuine readers alike, so we had a mini-lesson on what it means to be an ‘Internet troll’: discussed a definition, looked at examples, talked about why people do this.

Also, as the contest wore on and we regularly checked on results I was able to use the WordPress reader tracking tool to show students how quickly their website/article were shared on the Internet (1 day to move to other North American countries, 3 days to go International). This again prompted a mini-lesson on how quickly things can be spread on the Internet, even if they aren’t true (I could have also tied this into bullying at a social level, but chose not to).

Finally, the best impromptu lesson came in the form of an email I received as a comment from someone who works at the CIA – yeeesss…….that CIA. Apparently, one of my students articles got posted on a known neo-nazi website, and after taking a look at the host site, the kind CIA agent monitoring the site decided to let me know about the fact that it had been posted and has been removed. So, once again we had a great mini-lesson on how challenging it is to ‘own’ and ‘control’ things we put on the Internet and that they can be used by others very easily to suit quite different means.

Do you love this unit and need to have it?

 Some of you will read this unit and think…..hey I can do this, but I want to change this and add that, etc. Others will think: gimme, gimme, gimme; I want to do it, but I want all your stuff. Well, if you are of the ladder train of thought, please visit my teachers pay teachers webstore where I sell a full copy of this unit plan, including resources, examples and assessment tools. Here is a direct link to the product:

The final word

 Let’s face it, friends, the world we grew up in is long gone; we can’t teach our students what we were taught in 1995. Media literacy is the most important skill we can teach our students and ourselves!

This is not to say that we can’t blend traditional language skills such as reading and writing into theses types of units. If you don’t use the structure of the unit I’ve shared above, create your own, but don’t stand still – evolve and change as a teacher just as the world around us evolves and changes.

If you’ve been teaching the same thing for 5 years, it’s irrelevant – use this upcoming summer holiday to shake things up and teach something new. You’ll learn along with your students, which is really more fun than photocopying something from a decaying binder, isn’t it?

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