An inquirED Blog

Media Literacy: Making The Case For Elementary Social Studies

Updated: Feb 17

Elementary student at table with laptop learning about media literacy

What is the role of media literacy in elementary social studies? Scroll to the bottom of this blog post for the webinar recording. This blog post and the associated webinar are sponsored by inquirED and the National Council for the Social Studies.


In talking with teachers about media literacy, two things become clear. They believe media literacy is extremely important within the elementary grades AND they are frustrated by a lack of clarity (and resources!) around the topic . This aligns with our discussion in a previous webinar with Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group. "It's very difficult to define media literacy," according to Wineburg, "it can mean so many different things.

Media Literacy in the Analog Age

When I began my social studies teaching career in 2001, the field of education – just like every other field - was on the precipice of the digital revolution. My ideas about media literacy, however, were still very much analog. Twenty years later, even though students now carry a supercomputer in their pockets, much of the classroom practice of media literacy is rooted in analog principles that are:

  • Situational: The analog idea that we only need media literacy skills when we are writing research papers, looking at advertisements, etc.

  • Static: The misconception that resources and sources can be fixed and reused (like the checklists many teachers use to help students evaluate sources).

  • Sequential: The belief that younger students need to build their reading and writing skills before they practice media literacy.

Media Literacy in the Digital Age

Here's a question that less than a decade ago would have sounded like the plot of a science fiction novel: Where does the world of media end and our real lives begin? As you read this now on your phone, computer, or tablet – what's working in the background to influence your decisions about where you look, what you click, or what you do next? Media literacy in this kind of digital world – the one our current students were born into – must be:

  • Global: Because media is all-pervasive, our interpretation of it becomes an unconscious habit over time. Part of the work of media literacy in the digital age, then, is to bring our unconscious habits and assumptions into our awareness, and help us practice new skills and build new habits.

  • Dynamic: Media is changing so fast, becoming so indistinguishable from everyday experience, that media checklists are out of date as soon as they are written. Think about how easy it is for each of us to create a website, or how increasingly difficult it is to tell fake images and videos from real ones.

  • Incremental: Students of all ages feel the effects of the global and dynamic nature of modern media. These days, it's the water our students swim in as soon as they are aware of the world. Since there is no starting gate for media exposure, there shouldn't be one for media literacy.

Key Understandings and Skills

In our webinar, Elisabeth Ventling Simon, Co-Founder of inquirED and Head of Learning Experiences, joined us to talk about two of the central understandings that she and her team try to embed in Inquiry Journeys lessons and units. These understandings form the foundation of the media literacy skills students will develop over their lives.

Understanding: Sources of information are constructed