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An inquirED Blog

Media Literacy: Making The Case For Elementary Social Studies

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

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

An essential understanding of media literacy in elementary social studies is that sources of information are constructed. "It feels kind of obvious to us as adults," Elisabeth said, "but we can help students begin to recognize that every piece of media was made by someone - with a purpose and motive and perspective - it didn't just happen."

Understanding: Sources are influenced by the perspective/purpose of the maker.

After recognizing that media is constructed, the next understanding that can be developed in younger students is that the perspective and purpose of the maker influenced how the source of media is presented in both its form and function.

Skill: Source Analysis

According to Elisabeth, one of the ways that her team works to develop these early understandings in students is through the explicit teaching of source analysis. In younger grades, this includes leading students through a source when they first encounter it. "Even before they can read we can be modeling source analysis as well." Elisabeth and her team use the following protocol to interrogate sources with younger students:

Ask: Who made this?

Walkthrough identifying the maker (author, artist, etc.) and the publisher, if relevant.

Ask: Why did they make it?

If appropriate, help students find clues about purpose. Share relevant information with students (e.g., the author’s note about why they made the text, etc.). Summarize information about the organization behind the text ( e.g., ___ is a news organization, ___ is an entertainment company, etc.).

Ask: What can a source like this tell us?

Prompt thinking and clarify. For example, a nonfiction text may tell us what historians think happened, while an oral history can tell us what the event looked and felt like for one person.

Ask: What can a source like this NOT tell us?

Prompt thinking and clarify. For example, an oral history can’t tell us what the event looked like or felt like for other people.

Ask: Do we want to continue exploring this source?

Connect this question to the topic you are learning about in your investigation.

Elisabeth shared even more strategies and tools during the webinar. Scroll to the bottom of this blog post for the webinar recording.


The following resources relate to the issues and ideas discussed during the webinar.

  • inquirED's Inquiry Field Guide: A great resource that describes the protocol outlined above and shares several tools for media literacy.

  • Center for Media Literacy: The Center for Media Literacy provides an insightful set of Five Key Questions and Five Core Concepts to frame thinking about Media Literacy.

  • Project Zero's Thinking Routines Toolbox: The Toolbox organizes the thinking routines into categories that describe the types of thinking the routines help to facilitate.

  • Stanford History Education Group (SHEG): The Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum and Beyond the Bubble assessments have been downloaded more than nine million times. SHEG's current work focuses on how young people evaluate online content. SHEG has created a Civic Online Reasoning curriculum to help students develop the skills needed to navigate our current digital landscape.

  • Civic Online Reasoning: One of SHEG’s core projects, the goal of the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum is to help middle and high school students become more skilled evaluators of online content.

  • Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy: Article from the Phi Delta Kappan, co-written by webinar guest Sam Wineburg, describing how students should turn to the power of the web to determine its trustworthiness.

  • Digital Hacks: Resources from Sam Wineburg – with the following disclaimer: “This advice does not guarantee foolproof web searching. It does make the promise that if you follow it, you will make fewer bonehead errors and arrive at better, more reliable information.”

  • From Digital Native to Digital Expert: To suss out the credibility of digital information, students should go beyond checklists and act more like fact-checkers

As you continue to make the case for elementary social studies, keep connecting with colleagues from all over the country through organizations like NCSS and stay tuned to our webinar series to connect with others who are passionate about elementary social studies.

View the webinar recording below:


About inquirED

inquirED has moved beyond the textbook, offering a customizable, digital curriculum that supports teachers in shifting to student-centered instruction. inquirED delivers year-long, student-centered curriculum and assessment with engaging content and activities for students and embedded professional learning for teachers. Inquiry Journeys is inquirED’s core elementary social studies curriculum. Inquiry Journeys is a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum with embedded PD that helps teachers shift their practice to a more inquiry-based approach. Learn More.

About our Panelists and Hosts

Elisabeth Ventling-Simon,

Co-Founder and Head of Learning Experiences, inquirED

Elisabeth is passionate about transforming education by empowering teachers. She worked in public education for over 16 years, where she saw a profound improvement in student achievement through project-based learning. In addition to working as a classroom teacher, Elisabeth has served as an instructional coach and professional development designer, focusing on the support of curriculum design and inquiry-based practices. Elisabeth joined the inquirED team in the fall of 2017, where she leads the development of culturally responsive, inquiry-based curriculum and professional learning experiences.

Martin Andrews

Communication Director, inquirED

Martin has taught for 20 years at the K-12 and college levels. As a Social Studies and Latin teacher in Ohio, he developed narrative-based middle school Latin and high school World History curricula. After earning an MFA in Theatre, Martin co-founded Working Group Theatre, helping to create over 15 original plays to educate children and adults. His work has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Metlife Foundation, and others. Martin joined inquirED in December 2017.


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