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Media Literacy: What Is It and How to Teach It in a Special Education Setting

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/5/2012

Should you be teaching media literacy in a special education setting? This article tells you the basics about media literacy and technology in the classroom, with a special focus on special needs learners. The digital education revolution is here - get on board!

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    Media Literacy Basics

    So what is media literacy? Is it really just as simple as using an interactive whiteboard or a laptop in the classroom, or is there more to it?

    Media literacy in an educational context should be about much more than simply putting in a DVD and filling in some classroom time. Teaching media literacy is about informing, extending and developing awareness of literacy and literature via the mediums of film, radio, DVD, TV, electronic media and advertising content. In the highly animated, visually stimulating era of modern media, it is important that young people are given strategies for dealing with the potential visual overload that can bombard them from so many sources.

    Media literacy is partly about incorporating learning which is contained within media based forms (reality TV, dramas, documentaries) and partly about learning to manage information which comes via the media (using critical thinking, making informed and balanced judgements, understanding the author - reader/viewer relationship, learning that advertising is a deliberate strategy rather than providing creative content for entertainment).

    A useful book to support media literacy is Reading for Media Literacy - Navigating the World of New Texts by Anne Vize (Curriculum Corporation, 2009).

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    Media Literacy in Special Education

    For some students with special needs, there is a reduced capacity for tasks and skills such as:

    • Using critical thinking
    • Making reasoned and informed judgements
    • Analyzing the subtleties of personal communication (glances, shrugs, tone of voice, etc.)
    • Analyzing and applying learning from one situation to another
    • Learning by inference
    • Understanding the motives that inspire others to communicate with them

    This can be the case for students with an intellectual disability, as well as those students who have autism, a learning disability or a cognitive processing difficulty. For all these reasons, some students in special education settings may struggle to understand and obtain meaning from some film, TV, radio or advertising content. These students may tend to:

    • See advertising as informative or instructional media
    • Struggle to understand inferred meaning in scripts and dialogue
    • Respond rapidly and positively to any instruction given in an online environment (click here to enter the competition, for example)

    Although teaching media literacy in special education may be more problematic than in mainstream settings, its importance is arguably even greater. If you are not teaching media literacy in your special needs setting, then how are your students going to gain an understanding of media skills and the ability to filter and manage challenging media content in their adult lives?

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    Teaching Media Literacy

    Special education teachers have an important, but probably quite different role in teaching media literacy than do their counterparts in mainstream education. They need to ensure their students are able to effectively use the media in all its forms, that they are not left prey to others who would seek to take advantage of them in an online environment, equip their students with strategies for managing highly visual or confusing information, and help them understand new and emerging forms of technology that may be helpful and supportive of their learning into the future.

    Special educators are in a unique position to help build a next generation which is able to positively use the media for their own ends, and to make informed, reasonable judgements about integrating media messages into their own lives and daily activities.