Critical media literacy: A new tool and pedagogy for tackling ESL

Monday 6 March 2017, by Mlekuz Ana

Critical media literacy helps understand how media construct messages, influence and educate audiences and impose messages and values. Five core questions verifying the understanding of these issues can be used as a tool for developing the critical thinking of students at risk of ESL so as to become empowered and active in transforming their educational and learning environment.

Critical media literacy can be used as a new tool for tackling ESL by developing critical thinking, discussing power structures and encouraging students to become active in changing their educational and learning environment, their lives and society (Halx, 2014; Dewey, 1963; Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994). By using contemporary media messages included in music videos, movies, news etc., educators can easily relate and connect to students’ lives, they can challenge students to critically think about the messages they are receiving and to actively oppose them (Kanpol, 1994; Kellner & Share, 2004, 2005, 2007; Masterman, 1994). Critical media pedagogy is able to engage students who are marginalised, alienated, come from low-SES environments, have low achievements are at risk of early school leaving (ESL) (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Kincheloe, 2007; Stringfield & Land, 2002).

By applying the five core questions of critical media literacy (Who created this message?; What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?; How might different people understand the same message differently?; What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in – or omitted from – this message?; Why is this message being sent?), educators can teach critical thinking not only in the area of media, but also in any kind of communication (Erjavec, 2010; Kellner & Share, 2005; Thoman & Jolls, 2004). In such a way, educators can and should create an inclusive environment in which all students feel welcome and safe to express their own views. Students thus become empowered and gain strategies for how to transform their educational process (Kellner & Share, 2007) and how to become active citizens – active creators of their own lives and their society (McInerney, 2009), which are all circumstances that reduce the risk of ESL.


Many surveys show that low-achievers doubt that the education they are receiving will have a positive impact on their lives (Bacolod & Hotz, 2006; Duncan-Andrare & Morrell, 2008; Halx & Ortiz, 2011; Kincheloe, 2006), which often serves as the basis for their disinterest in school and sometimes even the decision to drop out of school and is especially common among students from marginalised groups and students with low socio-economic status (SES). Therefore, it is evident that the need for a new, more student-sensitive, more student-focused and more relevant to students’ lives pedagogy is needed. Halx (2014) argues that a new kind of pedagogy which proves to be successful among marginalised and low-SES students and includes all of the previously stated characteristics is pedagogy developing critical thinking skills (i.e. critical pedagogy), which is most evident in critical media literacy’s curriculum (Kanpol, 1994). By using contemporary media messages included in music videos, movies, news etc., educators can relate and connect to students’ lives, they can challenge students to critically think about the messages they are receiving and to actively internally and/or externally oppose them (Kellner & Share, 2004, 2005, 2007; Masterman, 1994). Internally, by changing their self-perception and thus improving their self-esteem and consequently their motivation for learning. Externally, by showing their feelings, thoughts, dilemmas to their peers, teachers, parents and other members of society through different communication tools such as different media or a simple conversation. Moreover, it is important that educators encourage students to extend this kind of reasoning to all the messages they are receiving through any kind of communication (Thoman & Jolls, 2004).

This article tries to explain why critical media literacy is suitable as a tool for developing critical thinking skills and thus preventing ESL. In the first part, we define media literacy and critical media literacy and explain why it is supposed to be successful in developing critical thinking skills. In the second part, it is explained how critical media literacy can be regarded as a preventive strategy against ESL. The last part of the article presents concrete strategies for teaching students critical media thinking and critical media analyses in order to prevent ESL. Moreover, in italics specific examples are presented of movie analysis and developing of critical thinking with the help of the five core questions of critical media literacy.


Literature used for this article was found through scientific literature search engines such as ERIC, Emerald, Google Scholar, Science Direct, and ProQuest Dissertation & Theses Global. The key words used were: media literacy; critical media literacy; critical pedagogy; critical thinking; drop-out; marginalised groups; academic achievement. For the purposes of this article, scientific papers, online scientific books and some handbooks on the topic of critical pedagogy and critical media literacy were used.

Media literacy: concepts and definitions

Traditionally, media literacy was defined as the ability to analyse and appreciate literary works and to communicate effectively via good writing (Brown, 1998). With the development of media in the 1970s, it was extended to reading the text of film, television and other visual media. Since the term “media” nowadays may refer to art, billboards, computers, film, moving images, multimedia, music, oral and written language, television and social media, the concept and scope of media literacy has also become wider and more versatile (Gardiner, 1997; Meyrowitz, 1998). Buckingham (2003) therefore argues that media literacy is the knowledge, skills and competencies required to use and interpret media. UNESCO’s definition is, however, more complex and defines media literacy as a process of the assimilation and employment of a media system’s codes and operative skills required to properly use the technology on which these codes are based. Moreover, media literacy, as UNESCO understands it, should also encompass the capacity to access, analyse and evaluate the power of media messages and the capacity to communicate using all forms of media (television, film, radio, recorded music, press, Internet and other digital communication technology) (Perez Tornero & Varis, 2010). Hobbs (1996) defines media literacy as a process of accessing and critically analysing media messages and creating new messages using media tools, whereas Rubin (1998) argues that media literacy means understanding sources of communication technology, the codes used, the messages produced and the selection, interpretation and impact of these messages.

As evident, two components of media literacy definitions are the most common – first, the awareness of the multitude of media messages and, second, a critical ability to analyse and question these messages (Hobbs, 2001; Silverblatt, 1995; Singer & Singer, 1998).

Kellner and Share (2007) define four different approaches to understanding media literacy:

  • The first approach is the so-called protectionist approach, which sees media audiences as passive victims and values traditional print culture over media culture. It tries to prevent addiction to media by cultivating an affection for high culture and its values and thus displaying all aspects of media and computer culture in a bad light.
  • The second approach is media arts education, which assumes that learning how to construct media messages implicitly teaches media literacy.
  • The third approach called media literacy movement defines media literacy as a series of communication competencies, including the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and communicate, and expands the notion of literacy to multiple forms of media.
  • The fourth approach – the critical media literacy approach – includes aspects of all three approaches stated above, but puts emphasis on the critical analysis of the dominant ideology used in the media and highlights the importance of detecting prevailing dominant representations of gender roles, race, class and sexuality. Moreover, it expands the analyses to include social issues, issues of control and pleasure, while it promotes the production of alternative media forms and consequently develops critical thinking skills.

Critical media literacy and the development of critical thinking

Critical media literacy’s curriculum is one of the most compatible curriculums for teaching students critical thinking (Kanpol, 1994). Critical media literacy encourages individuals to apply analytical tools to media practices, promotes critical thinking by encouraging them to examine connections among media, self and others and to understand the issues of power and the media’s role in identity shaping (Buckingham, 1998; Lewis & Jhally, 1998). Critical media literacy also provides a framework to understand media’s impact on shaping beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (Brown, 1998; Kellner, 1995), sociocultural theories of learning and development (Garcia, 2005; Valenzuela, 2005) and critical pedagogy (Kincheloe, 2006). Critical media literacy helps individuals to expand their concept of literacy and develop higher order thinking skills (Hobbs, 1996; Kozma, 1991), which are necessary for developing critical thinking, collaboration and self-direction (Steinberg & Kincheloe, 1998; Dweck, 2000) and are directly related to student achievement (Boske & McCormack, 2011).

Teachers, students and other individuals are often not aware of media’s educational potential and how they shape our reality as its pedagogy is frequently invisible and unconscious. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how media construct messages, influence and educate audiences and impose their messages and values (Kellner & Share, 2005).

To sum up, critical media literacy establishes a critique of mainstream approaches to understanding media messages. Moreover, it is seen as a project which is a tool of democratic social change. This process combines critical inquiry of the media culture and cultural industries, which discuss issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and power. In addition, it promotes the creation of alternative media messages which are opposing the dominant hegemonic media (Kellner & Share, 2007). Marginalised individuals, who are too often stereotyped or misinterpreted in the mainstream media such as the poor, minorities, low-achievers, individuals with behavioural and mental issues etc. who are at risk of ESL and even ESLrs themselves (Gunn, Chorney, & Poulsen, 2009), can use media and information technology through critical media pedagogy. Critical media pedagogy serves as a tool for empowerment in order to tell their stories and express their concerns either through different media projects in classes or in other communication outside of school (YouTube, Facebook, blogs, vlogs etc.). It is very important for these groups of individuals who do not have many opportunities to express their points of view to ventilate them (Kellner & Share, 2005). On the other side, through this process the dominant group is given the opportunity to come across the social realities the marginalised groups are experiencing (Kellner, 2004; Kellner & Share, 2005). Critical media analysis and the production of new media messages can thus serve as the basis for class or public discussion of different issues.

For example, successful students and teachers (as a dominant group) might not be aware of the different struggles low-achievers or students at risk of ESL (as a marginalised group) encounter. Through different learning projects, critical media pedagogy thus offers tools and an opportunity for marginalised students to present their stories, points of view and struggles to the dominant group (and vice versa) using different media. In this way, in addition to developing critical thinking skills, where students together critically analyse their own behaviour and the views of others in school, a welcoming school environment is created in which students feel safe to express their own feelings and views, feel more connected to their school and are thus at a lower risk for ESL.

As can be seen, critical media literacy helps all students, those belonging to marginalised groups such as minorities, low-achievers etc. and those belonging to the dominant groups, to see their own realities and the realities of the other group differently (Kellner & Share, 2005).

Implementing critical media literacy as an ESL prevention strategy in practice

There are different ways for educators to teach students how to critically analyse and use the media and no rigid pedagogical models are suggested (Kellner, 2004). The orientations for teaching critical media literacy are instead interpretive reference points from which educators can base their strategies on. Educators should identify the elements and objectives and moreover should understand that principles and programmes may differ in varying contexts (Kellner & Share, 2007).

Based on Masterman’s core concepts of media literacy [1], the Centre for Media Literacy (CML) in its CML MediaLit Kit (Thoman & Jolls, 2004) introduced five core questions to help educators teach media literacy (Kellner & Share, 2007). Further, if applied correctly these five questions can help students (and the rest of the population) change the way they interact with and learn in today’s media culture, their communities and their lives in general and can even help them to develop critical thinking and become active citizens (Erjavec, 2010; Kellner & Share, 2005; Thoman & Jolls, 2004).

Key question 1: Who created this message?

The first key question covers the principle of non-transparency and the realisation that all media messages are constructed (Kellner & Share, 2005). This is the foundation of media literacy since it challenges the power of media which tend to present their messages as non-problematic and transparent. Media messages do not present reality as it is or a simple reflection of the world, they are created, shaped and positioned through a construction process that includes many decisions about what to include or exclude and how to represent reality (Erjavec, 2010; Kellner & Share, 2005; Thoman & Jolls, 2004). This concept helps students understand that media creators decide what to present and what to leave out, resulting in media shaping our knowledge and understanding of the world (Thoman & Jolls, 2004).

Example: The movie Dangerous Minds [2] is based on a true story of a white teacher and recounts her story of teaching problematic students (at risk of ESL) in an American context. The storyteller is a member of the dominant group. Students in the classroom, watching the film, should be encouraged to discuss to which group different characters in the movie (the teacher, the students etc.) belong – to the dominant or marginalised? Who are the members of the dominant and marginalised group in the movie and who could these be in other national contexts (for example other minorities in any given environment) or at their school/class? What are their common characteristics? Would the story be different if told from a different point of view – for example, by a member of a non-dominant group?

Key question 2: What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

The second key question explores the codes and conventions used in media messages and is based on the assumption that all media messages are constructed using a creative language with all its rules (Thoman & Jolls, 2004; Kellner & Share, 2005). Media often present codes and stereotypes which put marginalised groups (workers, women, people of colour, also ESL students) in a subordinate position in contrast to the positive representation of bosses, the rich and successful students as natural and consequently reinforce the stereotypes and present them as a natural state (Kellner & Share, 2005). Media education’s goal is therefore to teach students to distinguish denotation (literal meaning) from connotation (associative, subjective meaning based on cultural and ideological codes) or, in other words, to distinguish what they see or hear from what they think or feel (Fiske, 1990), thus preventing messages being presented as natural when connotation and denotation become one.

Example: The Dangerous Minds movie strengthens the stereotype of the problematic student (ESLr) as a member of a minority or someone who comes from a deprivileged environment. Students should be encouraged to analyse whether all students who are members of minorities or come from poorer environments really are at a higher risk of ESL and should provide different examples from either real life or movies supporting or opposing this stereotype. Moreover, students should also discuss possible solutions to the problem of stereotyping ESLrs.

Key question 3: How might different people understand the same message differently?

The third question’s goal is to decode audiences. It is based on the assumption that different people experience the same media messages differently (Kellner & Share, 2005; Erjavec, 2010). This question assumes the audience is active and there is a difference between the producers’ coding of the media text and the recipient’s decoding of the same media text (Hall, 1980). Each of the recipients has his/her own characteristics (age, gender, education, cultural upbringing etc.) which affect the interpretation of a media text and subsequently create the recipient’s unique understandings (Thoman & Jolls, 2004). It is precisely this that conclusion has contributed greatly to the notion that media literacy can empower audiences to be active in the process of creating meaning (Kellner & Share, 2005; Erjavec, 2010).

Example: At this point, it is necessary to encourage all students (especially those at risk of ESL) to express their own understanding of the movie message and point out their different views and find reasons why they are different. Students should be encouraged to identify with other groups and think about how members or students at risk of ESL/different minorities/successful students/teachers understand the movie. They should compare and discuss their different views and therefore understand how these are emerging/being developed.

Key question 4: What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in – or omitted from – this message?

The fourth question builds on the assumption that the media have embedded values and points of view in their messages (Kellner & Share, 2005). Values become embedded in the message with the creator’s decisions on a character’s age, gender, race mixed with the lifestyles and behaviours portrayed. If the message is news, then values and points of view are embedded by the length of the message, which story goes first etc. The values included are unavoidably a reflection of the creator’s values, attitudes and points of view (Thoman & Jolls, 2004). Critical media literacy’s aim is therefore to detect these embedded values and to doubt the prevailing ideology, bias and connotations of the explicit and implicit representations in the media. This kind of media analysis can also help to develop critical thinking and further questioning of the representation of race, class, gender, ethnicity etc. in media and other types of communication (Erjavec, 2010). Moreover, the awareness of embedded values in media or other messages increases the tolerance for differences in thinking and understanding the same message and helps in decision-making on whether to accept or reject the overall message (Thoman & Jolls, 2004).

Example: Dangerous Minds attempts to represent ‘whiteness’ (the dominant group) as the rationality, authority and cultural standards against the ‘non-whiteness’ (the marginalised group) as violence, chaos and failure. Students should be encouraged to think of other cases where similar representations of students at risk of ESL are visible not only from movies, but also from real life and how they can oppose them.

Key question 5: Why is this message being sent?

The last question tackles the motive or purpose of the media or any other message. This question is based on the assumption that media are organised to acquire profit and/or power (Erjavec, 2010; Thoman & Jolls, 2004; Kellner & Share, 2005). The main aim of this question is to determine the influence that financing, ego or ideology has on the message, which helps the message receiver appropriately respond to it and understand the reason it was sent (Thoman & Jolls, 2004).

Example: All movies are filmed in order to make a profit and this is also the case of Dangerous Minds too. Students should, however, try to think of other reasons or if one of the reasons was also to present the issue of ESLrs and how the movie could be changed so that this message becomes more evident (at this point, students should be warned not to use stereotyping or other risks presented through the other four core questions).

Critical media literacy educators should employ all five questions to address the problem of media representation and not only the ones that are most obvious, such as which techniques are used in the media message or how audiences react to the message. Further, educators should challenge their students to question widely accepted assumptions with oppositional interpretations as well as seeking alternative media with oppositional and counterhegemonic representations and messages. In addition, they should encourage their students to produce new media messages, which reflect their own points of view (Kellner & Share, 2007). As a result, students learn about different views on addressed issues, are encouraged to discuss these issues and consequently possibly change their own knowledge, opinion and view on these issues. Moreover, students are encouraged to present their new messages through other public communication channels (such as YouTube, Facebook, blogs, vlogs etc.) and therefore participate in a wider public debate.

These five core questions of critical media literacy are used in practice for teaching critical thinking in many projects in countries around the world (Schofield & Rogers, 2004; Hull, 2003; Guajardo, Guajardo & del Carmen Casaperalta, 2008; Comber & Nixon, 2005). One of such projects based on a critical media literacy framework included students of English as a second language course at a Los Angeles middle school with high ESL rates, where they analysed the media representation of their community and afterwards created their own positive media messages. By using a critical media literacy framework, the lessons became more inclusive for all types of communication and the relationship between information and power was addressed. However, what is most important is that students at risk of ESL were more engaged in new literacies with a critical perspective, and were able to increase their self-esteem, their sense of pride in their community, interest in school and desire to learn (Choudhury & Share, 2012).

It can therefore be assumed that by developing critical thinking through critical media pedagogy students are empowered with tools to realise that low achievement in school or ESL is not something fixed, but created by different messages and that they have the power to recreate and change it. All of this is possible through project-based media production, which can be used not only in media lessons but also in other lessons [3], for making analyses more meaningful and empowering as students acquire tools for responding and taking action on the social conditions externally by discussing their problems, views and dilemmas with others through different means of communication, and internally by changing their self-perception and improving their self-esteem and motivation for learning. As a consequence, students become empowered to transform their own educational process and become active citizens who actively create a more equal and democratic society (Kellner & Share, 2007) as a far-reaching goal.


The article shows that critical media literacy’s curriculum provides a platform for developing critical thinking skills, which is the basis for better decision-making during adolescence and adulthood and is significantly correlated to academic achievement (Marin & Halpern, 2011; Taghva, Rezaei, Ghaderi, & Taghva, 2014) and non-risk behaviour (unprotected sex, drug use, ESL etc.) (Marin & Halpern, 2011). Critical media literacy encourages students to discover underlying elements such as power structures and gendered identities in different media messages (Alvermann & Hagood, 2002) and encourages students to make new, different messages that oppose the dominant ideology (Kellner & Share, 2007). With the help of the five core concepts or questions (Erjavec, 2010; Kellner & Share, 2005; Thoman & Jolls, 2004) students analyse media (and other) messages, create new messages and thus experience their own realities and the realities of others, different individuals (Kellner & Share, 2005). By doing so in either the classroom or through other (more public) means of communication (such as blogs, vlogs, social media etc.), students learn about and discuss the realities of others and consequently gain knowledge and possibly change their views, opinions and behaviour, while they become more self-confident and motivated. It can be said that through critical media literacy students become empowered with strategies to become active and transform their educational process and environment and try to create a more democratic society (Kellner & Share, 2007).

Nevertheless, we should be aware that enacting critical thinking through critical media literacy cannot solve or change the material conditions of students’ lives (poverty, drugs, mental illness etc.) (Shor & Friere, 1987), which are important factors of low achievements and sometimes even ESL. Nevertheless, what developing critical thinking can do is uncover these inequalities and discuss them from different points of view. In this way, educators already create an environment for a more inclusive, politically engaged and socially just curriculum, where all students can feel welcome, accepted and understood and where they feel safe to express their own views and become active creators of their educational path, lives and their society (McInerney, 2009), which are all conditions reducing the risk of ESL.


[1Key concept of media literacy is representation; key goal of media literacy is denaturalisation of media; media education is primarily investigative; media education is organised around core concepts, which use analytical and not substantive tools; media education is a lifelong process; media education tries to stimulate not only critical understanding but critical autonomy; effectiveness of media education can be measured by the ability of students to apply what they learned through media education (critical ideas and principles) to new situations and the amount of commitment, interest and motivation displayed by students; media education seeks to clarify the life-situations of students by stimulate the motivation, interest and enthusiasm generated by the media’s coverage of topical events (Masterman, 1994).

[2This American movie is based on a true story of Louanne Johnson who is hired as a teacher in a high school in a poor area of the city where most of the students are African-American and Hispanic and at high risk of ESL due to their poverty-stricken, racially segregated, economically deprived environments. Most students’ parents show little interest and enthusiasm in the education of their children. After a terrible reception from the students, Louanne tries many unconventional methods of teaching to gain the students’ trust.

[3Example: One of the West Wing episodes (S02E16) where one of the plots revolves around the proposal by the fictional NGO to replace the familiar Mercator-projection map with an inverted version of the Gall-Peters Projection Map can be used in geography when learning about different world maps, mathematics when learning about projection, history when learning about the relationship between the Europe and the rest of the world, sociology when learning about the dominance and marginalisation etc.

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