Mapping and measuring media literacy

Policy-makers seem unduly preoccupied with measuring ‘levels’ of media literacy right now. Here’s a more constructive approach to defining and assessing media literacy, based on some in-depth research.

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I’ve been provoked over the past few weeks by my continuing involvement in discussions about assessment in media education, and by planning a talk for a major European conference in Warsaw entitled Media Meets Literacy. At the moment, a lot of energy seems to be going into the mapping and measuring of media literacy – and not always for good or sensible reasons. There are lots of different groups of people devising and revising assessment criteria, and many of them seem to me to be reinventing the wheel.


I decided it was time to put up a document we published last year to accompany a substantial teaching pack called Developing Media Literacy, published by the English and Media Centre. The pack itself came out of a four-year research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and it contains an extensive set of multi-media teaching materials designed for use in primary schools. It’s mainly aimed at Key Stage 2, but it could be used quite profitably with students aged between about 8 and 13. (You can order a copy here.)

There are self-evident problems in measuring media literacy. How do you measure creativity or critical understanding? How do you avoid reducing literacy to a matter of functional or instrumental skills? There is a danger that you end up measuring what can easily be measured, and ignoring everything else. However, it is an issue that has to be addressed, especially in the current educational climate.

This document was intended to provide support for teachers working with the materials in the classroom. It offers a succinct overview of the pedagogy, key concepts and areas of knowledge embedded in the activities, based on knowledge and understanding drawn from media education practice over the last 30 years, and reinforced by the findings of the ‘Developing Media Literacy’ research. I don’t imagine it will put a stop to wheel-reinvention, but we hope it’s reasonably definitive!

The document includes:

  1. Concepts: What do children need to know about media? Media education has traditionally been defined in terms of a set of four ‘key concepts’: media language, representation, institutions and audiences. This section gives a broad outline of these concepts and what they entail. It also shows what progression might look like across each concept, from the ‘entry-level’ understanding children bring into school with them, to a more nuanced level of conceptual understanding.
  1. Practices: What do children need to be able to do with media? Literacy can obviously be broken down into reading and writing; and it also involves the ability to reflect critically on how meanings are made. This is also the case with media literacy. In this section, we look at the processes that are involved in ‘reading’ media – making sense of media texts, and analysing them – and ‘writing’ media – that is, creating your own texts. We also consider here what children need to know about the contexts in which texts are created.
  1. Processes: Media literacy has its own distinctive knowledge and skills (concepts and practices, as we have defined them). But it also involves forms of learning that are much more generally applicable; and it can be a useful and exciting way of achieving broader objectives. This section briefly summarises some of these broader types of learning we believe to be particularly significant in media literacy, such as collaboration, questioning, de-familiarisation and decentring, independent research, and critical reflection – many of which overlap with other curriculum areas.
  1. Progression: Here we have attempted to map some of the ways in which children might develop their understanding and skills in media literacy at different stages in the learning journey. We provide ‘maps’ of learning progression focussing on each of the key concepts and practices. The model of progression, and the classroom examples we use here, are based on the ’Developing Media Literacy’ research, which was conducted in eight schools with children of different ages. (These maps are included in a separate document.)

These documents were written by the project team: David Buckingham, Jenny Grahame, Mandy Powell, Andrew Burn and Sue Ellis.

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  1. Pingback: The strangulation of Media Studies | David Buckingham

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