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date: 18 April 2024

Critical Media Literacy in Teacher Education, Theory, and Practicefree

Critical Media Literacy in Teacher Education, Theory, and Practicefree

  • Jeff Share, Jeff ShareUniversity of California Los Angeles
  • Tatevik MamikonyanTatevik MamikonyanSchool of Education, University of California Los Angeles
  •  and Eduardo LopezEduardo LopezUniversity of California Los Angeles


Democracy in the digital networked age of “fake news” and “alternative facts” requires new literacy skills and critical awareness to read, write, and use media and technology to empower civic participation and social transformation. Unfortunately, not many educators have been prepared to teach students how to think critically with and about the media and technology that engulf us. Across the globe there is a growing movement to develop media and information literacy curriculum (UNESCO) and train teachers in media education (e-Media Education Lab), but these attempts are limited and in danger of co-optation by the faster growing, better financed, and less critical education and information technology corporations. It is essential to develop a critical response to the new information communication technologies, artificial intelligence, and algorithms that are embedded in all aspects of society. The possibilities and limitations are vast for teaching educators to enter K-12 classrooms and teach their students to use various media, critically question all types of texts, challenge problematic representations, and create alternative messages. Through applying a critical media literacy framework that has evolved from cultural studies and critical pedagogy, students at all grade levels can learn to critically analyze the messages and create their own alternative media. The voices of teachers engaging in this work can provide pragmatic insight into the potential and challenges of putting the theory into practice in K-12 public schools.


  • Education and Society

Updated in this version

The authors made minor revisions to this text to reflect more recent scholarship. The reference list and further readings have similarly been updated.


It is a formidable challenge to prepare critical educators to work inside a system in which every brick in the wall has been laid to transmit the information, skills, and ideas necessary to reproduce the social norms, inequities, ideologies, and alienation that are undermining the quality and sustainability of life on this planet. However, education can be a powerful tool to challenge these problems and create opportunities for students to work in solidarity with others to create a more socially and environmentally just world. To support these changes, we need teachers ready to engage students in critical inquiry by posing questions about systemic and structural issues of power, hierarchies of oppression, and social injustice. In the current media and information age, information communication technologies (ICTs) are available to either continue the control and degradation or to deconstruct the systems of oppression and reconstruct a more just and sustainable society.

Digital technology is opening opportunities for individual participation and alternative points of view, while at the same time a handful of enormous media and technology corporations have become the dominant storytellers, often repeating the same story at the expense of countless different perspectives and creative ways of thinking. Many of these storytellers are actually story-sellers, more interested in peddling ideas and products than informing, enlightening, inspiring, or challenging. While young people are using more media, they are also being used more by media companies. Giant transnational corporations are targeting youth as one of the most valuable markets for building brand loyalty and selling to advertisers. Researchers found 8- to 18-year-olds in the United States spend well over 10 hours a day interacting with various forms of media, such as music, computers, video games, television, film, and print (Rideout et al., 2011). Another investigation discovered that 95% of American 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone and 97% say they are online daily and 46% use it constantly (Vogels et al., 2022).

Not only is the amount of time with media increasing but the quality of that engagement is also changing by becoming more commercial and rarely critical. Researchers at Stanford University administered six tasks to 3,466 high schools across 14 states in the US to judge their ability to assess online information. In one task, students were asked to evaluate the credibility of a website that claimed to “disseminate factual reports” and 96% failed to learn about the site’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. In a different task, over half of students believed an anonymously posted video purporting to show voter fraud in the US was real, even though it was filmed in Russia (Breakstone et al., 2021). In another study, Vosoughi et al. (2018) examined approximately 126,000 stories tweeted over 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017. The researchers were interested in understanding what accounted for the differential diffusion of verified true and false news stories. They found that false news stories spread “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it” (p. 5). In analyzing the tweets, the authors concluded, false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted because people found them not only more novel but the stories also inspired emotional responses of fear, disgust, or surprise.

The concern about “fake news” has encouraged many people to recognize the need for critical readers and writers of media. Some have suggested that we simply need better cognitive skills to determine truth from lies. However, making sense of the media and our information society is far more complicated than a reductionist idea of simply finding the truth. Rather than judging information as either true or false, students need to learn to search for multiple sources, different perspectives, and various types of evidence to triangulate and evaluate findings. In order to best evaluate and understand the information, they also need to question the influence of media in shaping the message and positioning the audience. Since all knowledge is an interpretation (Kincheloe, 2007), interpreting the meaning of a message is a complex process that requires skills to probe empirical evidence, evaluate subjective biases, analyze the medium and construction of the text, and explore the social contexts.

This is an opportunity for educators to guide their students to think critically with and about the ICTs and media that surround them. Morrell et al. (2013) argue that the technology itself will not bring about transformative educational change. “That change will only come through teachers who draw on critical frameworks to create learning communities where the use of these tools becomes an empowering enterprise” (p. 14). Therefore, the changes in media, technology, and society require critical media literacy (CML) that can support teachers and students to question and create with and about the very tools that can empower or oppress, entertain or distract, inform or mislead, and buy or sell everything from lifestyles to politicians. Now more than ever, teachers should encourage students to be reading, viewing, listening to, interacting with, and creating a multitude of texts, from digital podcasts to multimedia productions.

Teacher Education

Even though youth are immersed in a world in which media and technology have entered all aspects of their lives and society, few teacher education programs are preparing teachers to help their students to critically understand the potential and limitations of these changes. It is crucial that new teachers learn how to teach their K-12 students to critically read and write everything, from academic texts to social media.

This means that schools of education responsible for training the new wave of teachers must be up to date, not just with the latest technology, but more importantly, with critical media literacy (CML) theory and pedagogy in order to prepare teachers and students to think and act critically with and about media and technology. In Canada, where media literacy is mandatory in every grade from 1 to 12, most new teachers are not receiving media literacy training in their preservice programs (Wilson & Duncan, 2009). Researchers investigating media education in the United Kingdom and the US have found that many teachers are unprepared to teach media education and that professional learning opportunities are limited (Butler, 2020; Kirwan et al., 2003). The progress has been slow, especially considering that inclusion of media literacy in formal public education has a history dating back to the 1980s in Australia, Britain, and Canada. However, nonformal media education has been occurring in many parts of the world for decades (Hart, 1998; Kaplún, 1998; Kubey, 1997; Pegurer Caprino & Martínez-Cerdá, 2016; Prinsloo & Criticos, 1991).

While it is difficult to know for sure who is and who is not teaching critically about media and technology (Mihailidis, 2008), there seems to be an increased interest in media literacy in the United States. In 2022, the National Council of Teachers of English published a position statement recommending implementation of media education in English Language Arts along with two special issue journal publications (Lynch, 2021; Kist & Christel, 2022) devoted to critical media literacy, arguing that “media education must be an essential component of the professional identity of teachers” (National Council of Teachers of English, 2022).

As technology and media continue to evolve and increasingly enter public and private spaces, more educators are recognizing the need for training new teachers about media literacy (Domine, 2011; Goetze et al., 2005; Hobbs, 2007a) and some are even addressing the need to teach about CML (Flores-Koulish et al., 2011; Funk et al., 2016; Robertson & Hughes, 2011; Trust et al., 2022). Researchers Tiede et al. (2015) studied 64 universities or colleges of teacher education in Germany and 316 U.S. public educational institutions that provide teacher training and graduate studies, concluding that very few offer more than media didactics (basic educational technology that teaches with media, not about media). From their data in the United States, they report, “media education, with emphasis on the instructional practices associated with the critical evaluation of media, culture, and society, were scarce, representing only 2% of all study programs in teacher training programs” (pp. 540−541). In Germany, the percentage increases to 25%, but “media didactics tends to be emphasized to the disadvantage of media education in both countries” (p. 542).

In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a curriculum guide online in 11 languages for training teachers in media education (Grizzle & Wilson, 2011), declaring that “teacher training in media and information literacy will be a major challenge for the global education system at least for the next decade” (Pérez-Tornero & Tayie, 2012, p. 11).1 In Europe, Ranieri and Bruni (2018) analyzed the successes and challenges of training preservice and in-service teachers about media and digital literacy. An initiative called e-Media Educational Lab, funded by the European Commission, provided blended training to 279 preservice teachers and 81 in-service teachers in six countries. Based on surveys and fieldnotes, Ranieri and Bruni (2018) reported that the preservice and in-service teachers found critical media analysis and media production to be very important; they described their intent to transfer their media competency to their classrooms and expressed a desire to learn more practical ways to help their students develop media competencies.

UNESCO’s approach to media education combines media and information literacy (MIL) to include many competencies, from learning about and using information communication technologies to thinking critically about ethics and democracy. Carolyn Wilson (2012) explains, “MIL is both a content area and way of teaching and learning; it is not only about the acquisition of technical skills, but the development of a critical framework and approaches” (p. 16).

Combining information technology with media-cultural studies is essential, but still infrequent. Within the current wave of educational reform that prioritizes the newest technology and career readiness over civic engagement and critical inquiry, schools are more likely to adopt only information technology or information literacy and not critical media education. In the United States, few universities offer more than a single course in media literacy and most do not even offer that (Goetze et al., 2005; Meehan et al., 2015).

Schwarz (2001) asserts that because of the power of emerging literacies, “teacher education needs media literacy as an essential tool and an essential topic in the new millennium” (pp. 111−112). She calls for integrating media literacy across all subject areas of teacher education, “from methods courses and educational psychology to foundational courses and student teaching” (p. 118). This interdisciplinary approach for media education could be easier now for K-12 teachers in the United States since the Common Core State Standards require literacy to be taught and technology to be used across the curriculum (California Common Core State Standards, 2013; Moore & Bonilla, 2014; Trust et al., 2022).

Two studies with a total of 31 preservice teachers found a discrepancy between their positive attitudes for teaching media literacy and the lack of attention and support in their teacher education programs to prepare them to teach MIL (Gretter & Yadav, 2018). Based on interviews with these preservice teachers, Gretter and Yadav (2018) report that they associated MIL with critical thinking skills and expressed concerns about not knowing how to teach MIL because their teacher preparation program encouraged “teaching with technology and not necessarily about technology” (p. 115). These preservice teachers complained about “a lack of preparation to help them transfer their knowledge of digital media to MIL pedagogies that would benefit students” (p. 111). This highlights the importance of preparing educators with the theory and conceptual understandings as well as the pedagogy and practical applications for how to teach their students to critically analyze and create media.

Teaching Teachers Critical Media Literacy

Transforming education to critically use media, technology, and popular culture for social and environmental justice is the overarching goal of a critical media literacy (CML) course in the teacher education program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The authors of this article have been involved in designing and teaching this course to in-service and preservice teachers. Through combining theory from cultural studies and critical pedagogy with practical classroom applications of digital media and technology, this course prepares K-12 educators to teach their students how to critically analyze and create all types of media. In 2011, this four-unit course on CML was officially approved and became a required class for all students working on their teaching credential at UCLA.

The teacher education program at UCLA is primarily a two-year master’s and credential program that accepts about 130 candidates annually. The program is committed to developing social justice educators to work with and improve the schooling conditions of California’s ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse children. While most of the students go through the two-year program, additional pathways for earning a teaching credential and master’s degree have been offered, such as a master’s-only program for in-service teachers with two years or more of full-time teaching experience.

The CML class is taught in separate sections, usually divided by subjects, with 25−50 students per section. Most of the candidates taking the class are student teaching at the same time, except for the master’s-only candidates, who were teaching full-time while attending the class once a week in the evening. The class includes lectures, discussions, and activities interwoven into each session during the 10-week quarter.

Beginning with a theoretical overview, the course explores the development of media education that is defined less as a specific body of knowledge or set of skills and more as a framework of conceptual understandings (Buckingham, 2003). Much of the theory behind CML has evolved from cultural studies, a field of critical inquiry that began in the 20th century in Europe and continues to grow with new critiques of media and society. From the 1930s through the 1960s, researchers at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research used critical social theory to analyze how media culture and the new tools of communication technology induce ideology and social control. In the 1960s, researchers at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham added to the earlier concerns of ideology with a more sophisticated understanding of the audience as active constructors of reality, not simply mirrors of an external reality. Kellner (1995) explains that cultural studies has continued to grow and incorporate concepts of semiotics, feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism. Incorporating a dialectical understanding of political economy, textual analysis, and audience theory, cultural studies critiques media culture as dynamic discourses that reproduce dominant ideologies as well as entertain, educate, and offer the possibilities for counter-hegemonic alternatives (Hammer & Kellner, 2009).

Critical media literacy includes three dimensions (Share & Gambino, 2022). The first involves the content students learn about systems, structures, and ideologies that reproduce hierarchies of power and knowledge concerning race, gender, class, sexuality and other forms of identity and environmental justice, as well as general understandings about how media and communication function. The second dimension engages the skills to critically think and question media representations and biases, to deconstruct and reconstruct media texts, and use a variety of media to access, analyze, evaluate, and create. The third involves developing a disposition for empathy, critical consciousness, and empowerment to take action to challenge and transform society to be more socially and environmentally just. This third dimension is based on Freire’s (2010) notion of conscientização, a revolutionary critical consciousness that involves perception as well as action against oppression. These three dimensions of critical media literacy pedagogy are supported through an inquiry-based democratic approach that follows ideas of transformative educators like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. We incorporate feminist theory and critical pedagogy to analyze relationships between media and audiences, information and power (Carlson et al., 2013; Garcia et al., 2013). When we first began teaching the course, we used a simple framework with five core concepts and key questions from the Center for Media Literacy.2 To emphasize the critical potential of these ideas, while providing an accessible tool for teachers to use in the classroom, the following critical media literacy framework was developed, with six conceptual understandings and questions, as shown in Table 1 (Kellner & Share, 2019).

These six conceptual understandings and questions are referred to regularly and are addressed in all lesson plans. It is important for teachers to understand the concepts and questions because theory should inform practice for all three dimensions. However, it is better for K-12 students to learn to ask the questions rather than memorize the concepts, since the questions, with appropriate guidance, can lead students on a path of inquiry where they are more likely to make meaning themselves, related to the conceptual understandings.

The CML framework is designed to help teachers and their students question the role of power and ideology that socialize and control society through making some people and ideas seem “normal” and “natural” while the rest are “othered” and “marginalized” (Hall, 2003). This critical framing supports teachers and students to deepen their explorations of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, overconsumption, environmental exploitation, and other problematic representations in media. Candidates analyze and discuss current media examples, while also learning how to use various ICTs to create their own media with alternative counter-hegemonic representations. Using an inquiry process and democratic pedagogy, problems are posed to the students to collaboratively wrestle with, unpack, and respond to through media production.

Critical media literacy promotes an expansion of our understanding of literacy to include many types of texts, such as images, sounds, music, video games, social media, advertising, popular culture, and print, as well as a deepening of critical analysis to explore the connections between information and power. In our digital networked media age, it is not enough to teach students how to read and write just with print while their world has moved far beyond letters on a page. Literacy education in the 21st century requires breaking from traditional practices to include all the varied ways people communicate with media, technology, and any tool that facilitates the transfer of information or connects people. This calls for new skills and understandings to decode and analyze as well as to create and produce all types of texts. The California Teaching Performance Expectations also require teacher education programs to expand this view of literacy and integrate media and technology into coursework in order to “deepen teaching and learning to provide students with opportunities to participate in a digital society and economy” (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 2016, p. 9).

Each class starts by reviewing and applying the conceptual understandings and questions. Since one goal of the course is for candidates to understand that literacy includes reading and writing all types of texts, we encourage students to analyze as well as produce media. A series of assignments requires candidates to work together to create various types of media projects such as visual posters, photographs, podcasts, memes, digital stories, and social media. The candidates are also expected to work collaboratively on a CML lesson plan and learning segment that they write up, present a summary of to the whole class, and when possible, also teach it. For a detailed description of this course, see Share (2015) and visit the UCLA Library Critical Media Literacy Research Guide for links to articles, videos, and websites used in the course.3

Table 1. Critical Media Literacy Framework

Conceptual Understandings


1. Social constructivism

All information is co-constructed by individuals and groups of people who make choices within social contexts.

WHO are all the possible people who made choices that helped create this text?

2. Languages/semiotics

Each medium has its own language with specific grammar and semantics.

HOW was this text constructed and delivered or accessed?

3. Audience/positionality

Individuals and groups understand media messages similarly and differently, depending on multiple contextual factors.

HOW could this text be understood differently?

4. Politics of representation

Media messages and the medium through which they travel always have a bias and support and challenge dominant hierarchies of power, privilege, and pleasure.

WHAT values, points of view, and ideologies are represented or missing from this text or are influenced by the medium?

5. Production/institutions

All media texts have a purpose (often commercial or governmental) that is shaped by the creators and systems within which they operate.

WHY was this text created and shared?

6. Social and environmental justice

Media culture is a terrain of struggle that perpetuates or challenges positive and negative ideas about people, groups, and issues; it is never neutral.

WHOM does this text advantage and disadvantage?

The Study

From a desire to explore if and how former students are applying the skills and knowledge gained from the critical media literacy (CML) course into their teaching practice, we created an online survey for students who had taken the course. Through purposeful sampling, we sent out the survey to the 738 students who had taken the CML course and ended up with 185 usable responses (25% response rate), 153 preservice and 32 in-service teachers. Of the 185 respondents, 53 taught elementary school and 132 were secondary-level teachers. The breakdown of the middle school and high school teachers was: 38 science, 34 math, 33 social sciences, 28 English, and several reported teaching a combination of subjects as well as some who taught other areas such as music, visual arts, Spanish, English language development, or adult education. The span of experience was wide; some just started teaching and some had been teaching over seven years, yet most of the teachers (52%) had been teaching between two and three years.

The mixed method survey included 20 questions. The first eight sought to identify participants’ teaching background. The remaining 12 questions inquired about their experiences teaching CML skills and concepts to their K-12 students. Ten quantitative questions used a Likert scale with a choice of responses, including very frequently, frequently, occasionally, rarely, and never, as well as an option to choose not applicable. The final two qualitative questions were open-ended in which respondents could type their thoughts about any “memorable moment(s) teaching critical media literacy” and “any additional comments.” During the analysis phase, we found it helpful to combine the categories very frequently and frequently and refer to them as VF/F.

Voices From the Field

Using mixed methods of quantitative and qualitative data, we analyzed the survey responses to explore teachers’ ideas about what they had been doing with their students. The overall feedback suggested that the majority of the respondents had brought aspects of media literacy education into their K-12 classrooms, and sometimes even incorporated CML. One of the most recurring patterns we noticed was that these teachers had been expanding the traditional concept of literacy by engaging their students with various types of media.

Teaching With Media

In reply to the first question, most of the respondents reported having integrated media into their class activities: 64% VF/F, 30% occasionally, 6% rarely, and no one responded never (N = 185). The responses to Question 1 were very similar for elementary and secondary teachers, with only a 1% to 5% difference. Where we saw greater variation was when comparing the subject matter of secondary teachers. The English and science teachers had the highest percentages (75% and 76%) of VF/F responses to Question 1 about integrating media into class activities. Math teachers, by contrast, reported the lowest percentage, with 44% reporting VF/F and 15% rarely integrating media into the curriculum (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Responses from secondary teachers to Question 1 about how often they integrated media into class activities.

Source: Author’s own work.

While these responses demonstrated an overall high amount of media integration, it was not clear how the teachers integrated media and what students were doing with the media. The responses from Question 5 (“my students have created the following media”) provided more information about the students’ interactions with media, showing that the vast majority of respondents (92%) had their students create some type of media (see Figure 2 for a list of the various media students created).

Since the question only asked teachers to check the box for the type of media their students created, we did not know how often this occurred or with what degree of analysis. Questions 1 and 5 indicated that teaching with media occurred with over 90% of the respondents.

Figure 2. Responses to Question 5 about the different types of media that all 185 respondents report their students have created. They were asked to choose all that apply.

Source: Author’s own work.

Teaching About Media

The second question tried to find out more about those interactions with media by asking respondents to rate how often they had given their “students opportunities to engage in media analysis.” For Question 2, about one-third of all 185 respondents, 32%, reported VF/F, 43% occasionally, 21% rarely, and 4% never. When comparing responses from Questions 1 and 2, the respondents seemed to have been doing more teaching with media (Question 1) than teaching about media (Question 2) (see Figure 3). A similar finding was mentioned in the research conducted in Germany and the United States by Tiede et al. (2015).

Figure 3. Comparing all responses from Question 1 about integrating media into class activities (teaching with media) with Question 2 about engaging in media analysis (teaching about media).

Source: Author’s own work.

A more nuanced perspective of Question 2 is possible when comparing the responses about media analysis from different content area secondary teachers. In response to Question 2, the teachers who reported VF/F were the following: 63% of English teachers reported giving the most opportunities for their students to engage in media analysis, as compared to almost half as often by 32% of science teachers and about five times less often by 12% of math teachers (see Figure 4). Since literacy is a primary goal of English instruction, it is not surprising that English teachers reported the highest levels of media analysis (Hobbs, 2007b).

It is important to recognize that teaching about media can be a highly complex and multifaceted undertaking, especially when done through a CML lens. For example, the second conceptual understanding encourages students to analyze the codes and conventions of the media text and the medium through which they travel by asking how the text was constructed and delivered or accessed. This, in itself, can have many layers and yet is just one of six questions intended to help students think critically about media. Livingstone (2018) asserts, “media literacy is needed not only to engage with the media but to engage with society through the media.” As Luke and Freebody (1997) argue, it is not enough to only have a psychological approach to literacy, as if reading and writing is just an individual cognitive process. We need to also bring a sociological lens into the process of questioning the contexts, the dominant ideologies, and the systems that make some things seem “natural” or “normal.” The CML framework is a holistic tool for thinking about and questioning the dynamic role media play in our relationships with ourselves, each other, and society. Responses and comments to other questions in the survey provide more insight into how some teachers have engaged their students in various types of media analysis.

Figure 4. Comparing responses from different content areas about Question 2 regarding how often secondary teachers gave their students opportunities to engage in media analysis.

Source: Author’s own work.

Evaluating Information and Advertising

In the qualitative responses to Questions 11 and 12, teachers mentioned embracing basic media literacy principles in the ways students were evaluating the credibility of information and advertising as well as creating different types of media. The popularity of the term “fake news” and the growing amount of disinformation have increased the challenge to distinguish misinformation and propaganda from journalism and scientifically researched facts (Rogow, 2018). An elementary teacher who reported “frequently” integrating media into the classroom, asserted:

Though my students are younger and some of these concepts are more difficult to teach than others, I find it important to bring up especially in terms of making sure they don’t believe every YouYube video they watch. We’ve had many meaningful discussions about what can be created for a video shouldn’t just be accepted as the truth. For example, the ‘mermaid’ documentary that came out a few years ago had all of my students convinced that they had found a mermaid. It led to an interesting discussion on hoaxes and further reading about Bigfoo[t] and other such stories.

Since all media contain bias because they are created by subjective humans, it is important for teachers to help their students to recognize the bias and also be able to judge the credibility of information. A high school math teacher wrote:

It has not happened until this school year, when I began teaching Statistics. I introduced some pictographs for students to analyze and an article for students to read about how a website stated that if polls were unskewed, Trump would be leading the polls for election. I had students read and discuss about the validity and why/why not it is trustable.

Several respondents mentioned having their students study political advertising, and since all U.S. elections are now multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns (e.g., Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign won the top prizes at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Awards), there is little distinction between selling products, ideas, and political candidates.

Analyzing advertising is an important aspect of media education because advertising is the motor that drives commercial media and has become so common in our lives that there are few spaces that are completely ad-free (Jhally, 2003). Several respondents reported about their students investigating advertisements for false health messages, misleading packaging, political campaigns, tobacco, alcohol, and different perspectives. One secondary English teacher wrote, “My students took pictures of advertisements that surrounded their neighborhood and we analyzed them for patterns, themes, and purposes.” A high school science teacher reported, “I had many times this past year where students were able to reflect on marketing strategies and how they affect the viewer’s perspective of their life and themselves. Students made great connections.”

During the critical media literacy (CML) class, students scrutinize consumer culture and the role advertising plays in creating anxieties, shaping desires, and normalizing representations about all things, from consumption to gender, race, and class. Candidates in the CML class learn about these ideas through readings, by analyzing advertisements, and also by creating ads for different target audiences. When asked about the media their students had created, one third reported their students created advertisements.

Creating Different Types of Media

When students are taught print literacy, they are instructed how to decode letters on a page and how to write with those letters to construct words, sentences, and paragraphs. The same process of teaching reading and writing should be applied to visual images, movies, songs, video games, social media, and all the various multimedia texts that students are encountering daily. In responses from the survey, teachers reported about having their students write and create many different types of texts beyond print (see Figure 2).

One English teacher wrote that having students create media was “very successful. They loved being able to create memes, posters, Prezis, etc. to present their work.” An elementary teacher shared about students “creating podcasts/npr style news stories regarding UN sustainability goals.” Several respondents commented on their students designing commercials or challenging ads by producing spoofs that parody the ads. One middle school teacher shared, “students analyzed ads for nicotine and alcohol products, then used the practice with critical media skills to create ‘anti-ads’ with Google drawings.”

During the first year of teaching, a high school science teacher reported about a memorable moment when “creating a multi-lingual, easy-to-understand and scientifically supported pamphlet on the hazards in LA’s environment.” A high school Spanish teacher wrote about his students creating critical memes in Spanish, like the ones they created in the critical media literacy (CML) class. During the session exploring racism and media, candidates challenge racist representations through creating racial myth-busting memes. As a strategy to demonstrate the value of media production, the CML class has students create various media in almost every session, and these activities are often the favorite lessons mentioned in the end of course evaluations.

Increasing Engagement

While engagement is not a learning objective, all teaching benefits from students being engaged in their learning. One of the patterns that emerged from the responses was teachers’ observations that student engagement increased. An eighth-grade English teacher wrote that after incorporating media literacy, the students’ “entire attitude toward learning shifted. Especially the hard to reach students.” An elementary teacher reported, “Media literacy has made great contributions in my class with science research in the past. The simple act of using google images, google maps and finding credible sources has sparked learning and interest in my class.” Another elementary teacher shared about using critical media literacy (CML) to analyze food justice issues: “They were instantly engaged and students who had a difficult time writing and with critical thinking then did not.”

A secondary science teacher reported, “Students spent the entire class engaged in discussion when I intended for it to only be an introduction to the unit.” Another high school science teacher wrote, “When I did teach a class specifically geared towards media literacy, it was great because students were engaged. They were quick at analyzing images and creating their own.” A third science teacher wrote, “using critical media literacy made engaging my students in abstract chemistry concepts more meaningful and engaging.” Engagement tends to increase when students are genuinely interested and intrinsically motivated, something that often comes out of personal connection, a sense of meaningfulness, and an authentic belief in the value of the learning (Dewey, 1963). These are all elements of good CML pedagogy. A high school science teacher described the feelings of students and their parents as they responded to their CML work: “My favorite moments are students exuding pride and passion over the work they are creating that speaks to their perspectives and experiences; parents proud of their students’ media creations.” Feelings of pride and passion are important for all students to experience; they help lower students’ affective filters for learning (Krashen, 1995) and increase intrinsic motivation to want to learn.

Critical Media Literacy

As we analyzed teachers’ written responses, we saw a number of comments in which they were taking basic media literacy concepts to deeper levels of criticality. Several mentioned how useful the class was to understanding critical theory and be able to see how it can be enacted in their K-12 classroom. Similar findings were mentioned after Joanou (2017) analyzed data about a critical media literacy (CML) class taught to master’s-level practicing K-12 educators. Joanou (2017) reported, “critical media literacy helps bridge the gap between theory and practice” (p. 40). The use of media texts and popular culture can provide relevant examples for entry into abstract concepts that are often politically and emotionally charged, and sometimes too sensitive or too distant to begin discussing on a personal level.

Teaching about the connections between information and power reflects a key goal of CML (Kellner & Share, 2007) and our respondents demonstrated this through their qualitative comments about recreating counter-narratives, analyzing the politics of representation, making critical connections between history and current events with media texts, and engaging in political, social, and environmental media activism. Questions 3 and 4 attempted to assess the frequency in which teachers were bringing critical aspects of media education to their students.

Question 3 asks teachers to rate how often: “My students have engaged in media analysis by exploring media representations of ideology, race, class, gender, sexuality, environmentalism, and/or other social justice issues.” Elementary and secondary teachers reported almost identical frequencies in response to Question 3: 22% in both groups reported VF/F while 42% (elementary) and 45% (secondary) stated occasionally. When asked Question 4 about making connections between information and power, the differences increased: 39% of the secondary teachers responded doing this VF/F while just 23% of the elementary teachers reported doing this VF/F.

In-service teachers reported higher frequencies for Question 3: 54% of in-service teachers reported VF/F while preservice teachers reported 14% VF/F. For Question 4: 56% of in-service teachers reported VF/F compared with 30% of preservice teachers who reported VF/F.

When comparing responses separated by subject matter with secondary teachers, 33% of English teachers and 30% of social science teachers reported VF/F for engaging in critical media analysis, as seen in Question 3 about exploring media representations. This is considerably higher than the 16% of science teachers and 9% of math teachers reporting VF/F. The math and science teachers reported the highest percentages for rarely or never having their students explore media representations of social justice issues (see Figure 5). The literature supports similar findings. Garii and Rule (2009) reported that student teachers had a difficult time integrating social justice into math and science content due to several factors. In their research with novice elementary teachers, Garii and Rule discovered that the candidates were not confident in their ability to teach math and science and had limited and unsophisticated knowledge of the content. They also viewed math and science “to be a set of routinized, algorithmic practices that lead to a single, correct answer and neither science nor mathematics are assumed to be closely connected to real-world issues and concerns” (p. 491). Given that they are struggling to learn and understand the content, math and science candidates turned to classroom textbooks to guide instructional practices. Incorporating nontraditional practices or making connections to students’ lives becomes a challenge because they disconnect social justice from their teaching and focus on teaching to the content (Garii & Rule, 2009).

Figure 5. Responses to Question 3 from secondary teachers about how often they engaged their students in critical “media analysis by exploring media representations of ideology, race, class, gender, sexuality, environmentalism, and/or other social justice issues.”

Source: Author’s own work.

One of the more significant findings of the study is the number of respondents reporting they “noticed that using critical media literacy encourages critical thinking among students” (Question 9). Of the preservice respondents, 61% reported VF/F, and for the in-service teachers, the percentages jump to 81% who reported VF/F. In both cases, the majority of respondents expressed their feelings that CML promotes critical thinking most of the time (see Figure 6). A middle school social science teacher wrote that after teaching CML, “students were deeper thinkers and our discussions were so much richer. Students were highly engaged and more invested in the classroom.” When comparing grade levels for Question 9, we see 78% of elementary teachers reported that using CML VF/F encourages critical thinking, and 61% of secondary teachers reported VF/F. This large percentage of elementary teachers reporting about CML encouraging critical thinking shows great promise for the potential of CML in the early grades.

Figure 6. Comparison of preservice and in-service teachers’ responses to Question 9 about how often they have noticed CML encourages critical thinking among their students.

Source: Author’s own work.

Creating Counter Narratives and Supporting Students’ Voices

Many of the responses regarding transformative education centered on guiding students to create counternarratives and supporting student ideas and voices. Respondents mentioned activities that enabled their students to recreate media texts with a critical lens. These counternarratives included recreating superhero comic books, news, advertisements, digital storytelling, national holiday observances, and poems. A high school English teacher noted, “after analyzing recent and popular superhero comic books, my students used the comic medium to tell an autobiographical story wherein they exhibited power in the face of oppression.” A middle school English teacher reported:

The most memorable lesson I’ve taught involving critical media literacy was a unit based on perseverance and the power of the human spirit in regards to power structures and oppression. After analyzing multiple types of media, students created their own VoiceThread using spoken word in order to share their own messages of perseverance. It was incredibly powerful to hear their messages.

For most respondents, the notion of enabling their students to share personal stories using multimedia tools meant that they were integrating critical media pedagogy into their teaching practice. Traditionally, personal and experiential knowledge as a form of literacy is not often valued; thus, it is a critical pedagogical orientation to encourage students to recreate media texts that reflect their intersecting realities and challenge the pervasive dominant ideologies. Students’ personal histories become scholarly pursuits when digital storytelling encompasses media production skills taught through a critical media literacy (CML) framework. Vasquez (2017) asserts, “students learn best when what they are learning has importance in their lives, using the topics, issues, and questions that they raise should therefore be an important part of creating the classroom curriculum” (p. 8). A middle school math and technology teacher commented about incorporating CML into her master’s inquiry project:

The project we ultimately created was a digital storytelling project, in which students interviewed their parents or someone they admire and created some sort of media project around that story to tell counter-narratives to the dominant story told in media about people of color.

Guiding students to create counternarratives can be an empowering instructional strategy that nurtures their personal realities and supports their voice. Considering the context of urban education, it becomes particularly important for low-income students and students of color, who have been historically denied the power to be heard, to engage in their learning as empowered subjects through creating digital counter-narratives.

Politics of Representation

A major difference between critical media literacy (CML) and the more common media literacy practiced in the United States is the rigorous examination of the politics of representation; an analysis of how historically disenfranchised social groups are represented in media (Funk et al., 2016). Many of the respondents discussed analyzing issues related to representations of different identities with their students. A high school visual arts teacher reported that through “using current events in the media, students created headline news with people of color perspective.” The majority of the responses highlighted engaging in discussions related to gender and a few responses about race. One elementary teacher noted:

My grade level did a Critical Media Literacy unit and after it was over, a week later, a student showed me a box of Chips Ahoy cookies and said that it was made to be sold to boys and girls. She compared it to a rainbow pop tarts box made for girls and a basketball cereal box made for boys that we had discussed during the CML unit.

A high school social science teacher reported:

My 11th and 12th grade Sociology class created representation boards. Each group was assigned an identity (‘white male,’ ‘Asian male,’ ‘black female,’ etc.). When each group was done, we compared the images and discussed the similarities between representations of race and gender. It really opened their eyes.

The politics of representation explores the complexities and intersections of identity markers, such as ethnicity, culture, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and ableism. Several candidates alluded to the intersectionality between race and gender in their responses, mostly engaging their students in discussions related to the unequal representation and socialization of gender roles. They also noted that discussing stereotypical gender roles challenged their students’ internalized notions of gender. Responses such as the following highlight the shift in their students’ perspectives about gender: An elementary teacher wrote, “We’ve had some successful discussions around gender stereotypes and I’ve heard the language change in the classroom and students be more thoughtful about others’ choices.” Another elementary teacher reported, “My students showed greater acceptance. After teaching a lesson invoking gender all my male students felt accepted to choose any color paper—the favorite was pink for the rest of the year.”

Making Critical Connections

In response to the open-ended questions, an array of items was mentioned that demonstrate critical engagement, from teaching about racism and whitewashing, to numerous examples of analyzing gender and sexism, as well as projects on environmental justice and climate change at all grade levels. Some respondents discussed their transformative practice through the way their students analyzed and created media to make critical connections between historical and current events.

A high school social science teacher stated, “I had students create videos explaining the situation in Ukraine and relating it to the Cold War. In United States history, I often had students look at political cartoons and think about current examples of imperialism and how they’re represented in media.” Similarly, another social science teacher described a memorable moment of teaching critical media literacy (CML) as: “When students could make the connection between yellow journalism in Spanish-American War and media sensationalism during the War on Terror.” An elementary school teacher wrote:

My students began to think critically about history after showing them the spoken word poem ‘History Textbooks,’ which talked about world history being American Propaganda. Through this poem, they began questioning: who gets to write history and whose stories are told? It was a really powerful lesson we returned to over and over again throughout my course.

Analyzing media texts by acknowledging their historical continuity is vital because marginalization and exploitation are historically bound. Discovering these historical connections helps teachers and students learn how dominance and ideology are perpetuated, transcending time and space. Bridging the gap between the past and the present enables students to identify the common thread of hegemony across various spheres of social life. This instructional approach of CML promotes critical thinking with a social justice emphasis.

Another topic on which respondents commented was using CML to teach about environmental issues, especially the climate crisis. This is an important area for CML, since so many media messages about climate change distort the scientific evidence and mislead the public (Beach et al., 2017; Share & Beach, 2022). A high school science teacher reported, “My class analyzed the politics behind climate change denial and how climate change is represented in the media. It was very easy for my students to see the connection between the message and its creators.” Exploring the connection between media ownership and media messages, another high school science teacher commented that a memorable moment was having a “discussion with students about where they were getting their information about environmental issues, and talking about who owns and controls Univision.”


In addition to becoming more aware, being engaged in critical analysis and creating counternarratives, some respondents noted that their students had engaged in political, environmental, and social media activism. A high school science teacher mentioned:

My class was looking at environmental justice and one student took that information and used it for an English project she was working on and that project transformed into a petition to the city council to plant more trees as her contribution to offsetting pollution in the inner city.

Another science teacher reported about how his “students created social media campaigns to raise awareness about animals affected by climate change. Different groups created the ‘Puffin Dance’ and #peekatmypika to help their campaigns get going.” A kindergarten teacher wrote about her students creating a video with opinion posters for change they shared with their school community.

Activism can be enacted in multiple ways; some efforts are more explicit, like petitions and protests, while others are more subtle, such as creating alternative media. Teacher responses reflect their students’ activism related to social, environmental, and political issues materialized through local and issue-specific efforts.


In analyzing the responses, we found many encouraging and hopeful comments about how critical media literacy (CML) has helped teachers rethink their pedagogy and increase student engagement. However, the responses also highlight challenges for implementing CML, such as limited resources, support, and clarity about how to integrate it into the curriculum. An elementary teacher wrote about the scarcity of technology at the school and how that “makes it difficult to do anything around critical media.” From the answers to Question 7 (incorporating CML into my teaching is difficult), secondary teachers reported more difficulty teaching CML (35% VF/F) than elementary teachers (26% VF/F). This is another place where the potential for CML in the lower grades surfaced, since they seem to have less difficulty incorporating it than secondary teachers. The design of most elementary classrooms, which requires the same teacher to cover all subject matter to the same group of students throughout the day, opens the potential for integrating CML pedagogy through thematic teaching, project-based learning, or problem-posing pedagogy.

A first-year middle school social science teacher shared wanting to use more CML, but had little departmental and administrative support. An elementary teacher shared about an administrator who “is reluctant to have me teach how to be critical of all media.” Three responses focused on wanting more resources, instructional strategies, and school-appropriate material in order to be able to implement CML in their classrooms. These qualitative statements of lack of support can be seen in the quantitative responses to Question 10 in which respondents rated the statement: “I feel supported by people at my school when teaching critical media literacy”: 36% VF/F, 24% occasionally, 18% rarely, 6% never felt supported, and 17% not applicable.

The group that shared the most challenges for implementing CML consisted of five teachers who taught secondary math and science. Their qualitative responses broadly discussed the difficulty of integrating CML into their content and finding only limited application. One of these responses from a high school math teacher mentioned:

I remember how when I was in the [CML] class, it seemed all over the place. I was unable to fully find the purpose of the class and how we can use it in a math class. In a traditional math class, such as Pre-Calculus or Calculus, it was rather difficult to find ways to incorporate the idea of CML.

This same person also commented that once he began teaching statistics, he was able to find ways to integrate CML. Of the 34 math teachers who answered Question 7, 59% of them reported that incorporating CML into their teaching was difficult VF/F. This is about double the VF/F responses from the other subjects.

A high school math teacher saw the value in teaching students CML but limited its application to challenging students’ misinformation about math and who is or is not a mathematician:

Critical Media Literacy is pretty important for students, especially in an age where they’re exposed to various forms of media, a lot of which is very skewed in one way or the other, and usually takes a reductionist viewpoint of the issues it addresses. I try to use CML to help students understand the misinformation about mathematics, the nature of mathematics, and challenge stereotypes of who is or isn’t a mathematician (examples: Not all mathematicians are white or Asian, there are Latino and African/African American mathematicians, there are mathematicians from faith backgrounds, mathematics isn’t just about calculations, etc.).

Two additional respondents also acknowledged the benefits of CML but felt challenged by the additional work needed to integrate it into the curriculum. A high school science teacher shared:

When I took the Critical Media Literacy class, it felt like it was more geared towards the humanities and not necessarily for the sciences. While it would be great to come up with lessons that connect chemistry and critical media literacy, it is immensely time-consuming when I can’t find other people to brainstorm with.

Another secondary science teacher also felt CML was important but struggled to find ways to integrate it into the classroom:

It was a great shared learning space and I got a ton of inspiration from taking the class; however, it has been difficult to use CML when direct instruction does focus on the explanation of scientific concepts. That’s not to say it is impossible, it just does take one more step of planning and student buy in.

Researchers in Canada found that after teaching CML concepts and skills in a Language Arts methods course, their preservice teachers felt enthusiastic about teaching media literacy, but challenged when designing CML lessons (Robertson & Hughes, 2011, p. 51). Robertson and Hughes (2011) list five reasons why teaching CML was so challenging for their students: (1) when these preservice teachers were K-12 students, most did not experience CML lessons; (2) the majority of their mentor teachers did not teach CML or know much about it; (3) critical analysis practices are not easy; (4) few resources are available; and (5) some schools have little technology and technical support. These are many of the same challenges that our teachers reported.

Intent and Importance of Incorporating Critical Media Literacy

Numerous teachers wrote about how meaningful, vital, transformative, and important this class was for them. A high school science teacher shared that the critical media literacy (CML) class, “was transformative! I’m still working on ways to fully integrate what I learned, but I have had my students creating media ever since.” A middle school English teacher commented about how the CML class “gave us techniques, projects, lessons that we can incorporate in our classrooms. Teaching students how to be critical of information related through the media is highly important because student[s] gain that critical awareness necessary for a technology-based society!”

A desire to bring more CML into the classroom surfaced throughout many of the qualitative responses. When asked to indicate any additional comments, 16 out of 64 respondents (25%) expressed their intention to integrate concepts related to media literacy or CML. A high school math teacher who wrote about having students create ads to represent data in graphs stated, “I wish I could incorporate more. I’ll keep trying.” A kindergarten teacher commented, “I wish I had more time to engage my students in this topic. As I grow in experience and expertise, I incorporate it more and more. Teaching in urban areas is a challenge but I do find the ideas of the course to be valuable in the classroom.”


The data and voices of these teachers raise practical, theoretical, and policy implications for future work in supporting teachers in adopting a pedagogical approach that can ignite engagement, make learning relevant, and deepen critical thinking with media, technology, and all information. In order for this to happen, teacher education programs need to address some of the challenges and limitations highlighted in the study.

The teachers surveyed reported challenges for implementing critical media literacy (CML) such as limited access to resources, lack of support, and a struggle to understand how to integrate it into the curriculum. This was especially evident for the math and science teachers. CML courses need to help teachers in all content areas rethink the silo approach to separate subject matter instruction and recognize the ways literacy is used in all areas and how information is connected to students’ lives through issues of power, privilege, and pleasure. To help teachers integrate CML into the curriculum, it is important for them to see content and grade-level examples while also receiving ongoing support and resources.

One way to support teachers in various subject matter is to create groups or projects modeled after the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) or the Center X professional development projects.4 The SHEG is a research and development group that provides free online resources and lesson plans for history teachers to support students in developing historical thinking skills. In a similar way, the Center X projects provide resources, lesson ideas, and professional development to support working teachers and administrators, while also creating curriculum, providing trainings, and engaging in research. The creation of a CML project or research and development group could provide ongoing professional development for new and experienced teachers in order to sustain CML implementation and support the growth of CML as an important field of investigation.

In-service teachers in our survey reported higher rates of integration of CML, perhaps because experienced teachers have figured out issues of classroom management, lesson planning, and how to balance work and life expectations. As a result, they are better situated to build and expand their curricula and teaching practices to bring CML into their classrooms. While creating a site modeled after the SHEG or Center X projects will require a significant investment of time and money, a more immediate and economical way to provide support for preservice teachers could be through integrating CML across various teacher preparation courses, especially in methods classes. This integration would require working with teacher educators to explore the CML theoretical framework and co-construct new practices and curricula for integrating these ideas throughout different content areas.

Despite the challenges reported by our teachers, the data also suggest promising possibilities for CML. While we do not claim causality between their teaching and the CML course, the data provide a window into how our preservice and in-service teachers have supported critical engagement with the information, entertainment, and social media embedded in the lives of students.

The similarities between elementary and secondary teachers suggest that CML can be just as appropriate for lower grades as it is commonly assumed to be for older students. The work in critical literacy by Comber (2013) and Vasquez (2014) offers support for the notion that young children can engage deeply in critical thinking and social justice education. The elementary teachers in our study demonstrate these ideas through the work they have done to engage their young students with media analysis and critical media production from kindergarten on up. While some teachers reported deep levels of critical analysis more often than others, many expressed their belief in the importance of CML and their desire to teach about social justice. Vasquez (2017) reminds us that critical literacy should not be a topic to teach: “Instead it should be looked on as a lens, frame, or perspective for teaching throughout the day, across the curriculum, and perhaps beyond. What this means is that critical literacy involves having a critical perspective or way of being” (p. 8). Developing social justice educators who internalize a critical way of looking at the world and questioning systems of power is the project for which CML provides a pragmatic framework and pedagogy.

It is impressive to see the majority of teachers reporting that using CML encourages critical thinking, something more important than ever in the age of fake news and alternative facts. There is hope in the teachers’ voices as they describe the activities they have been doing with their students, the successes they have encountered, and the challenges they have struggled to overcome. The comments about their intentions to teach CML and the importance they attribute to teaching these concepts provide encouragement for teacher educators to embrace CML. More than anything, the data demonstrate the potential for teaching CML in elementary and secondary settings with preservice and in-service teachers and in all content areas, even though some are more challenging than others. The use of media and technology offers opportunities for teachers to build on students’ prior knowledge, create a bridge to connect the outside world with school learning, and provide the raw material to examine everyday experiences of power, marginalization, and resistance.

Simply integrating media into the curriculum is not enough to develop critical literacies given the changing and multiple literacies associated with new digital information and communication technologies and practices. In the contemporary moment, there is a pressing pedagogical need to navigate the increasingly consequential artificial intelligence (AI) systems that collect, collate, process, predict and disseminate information determined by algorithms. Data from the survey suggest that our teachers are teaching more with media than critically analyzing it. Further studies are needed in order to better understand how to develop teachers’ CML frameworks and support more implementation.

Preparing educators to teach CML is not easy, and unfortunately, few institutes of higher education are attempting the challenge. However, it is possible, and in fact, it can be highly rewarding. By listening to the voices of teachers who have taken a CML course, we see the potential. As one high school science teacher commented, “CML changed me, changed my teaching, continues to change my students.”

While information communication technologies are integrating into all aspects of our lives, we are also witnessing increasing divisions between the haves and have nots, out-of-control climate change, and the weaponization of information and media. In order to create a socially just democratic society and sustainable planet, we must have people who can critically read and write the word and the world (Freire & Macedo, 1987). The need for CML has never been greater. A high school English teacher wrote, “there is no literacy without media literacy. There is not critical pedagogy without critical media literacy.” It is our hope that this article serves as a resource to continue exploring the potential that CML offers to transform students, schools, and society.


We would like to thank the following educators who helped us design and teach this critical media literacy course: Shani Byard, Peter Carlson, Steven Funk, Antero Garcia, Mark Gomez, Clifford Lee, Elexia Reyes-McGovern, and Martin Romero. We are grateful to Megan Franke for her guidance with the creation of the survey. We also appreciate the assistance of Jarod Kawasaki, Jose-Felipe Martinez, and Brandon McMillan with helping to organize the survey data.

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