Why critical literacy skills are vital to Year 6 pupils

We need to give young people the skills to critically analyse what they read and hear about – now more than ever, says Victoria Baker from the National Literacy Trust

Victoria Baker

Fake news: We need to teach students to identify false information online, says Professor Daniel Willingham

As pupils begin a phased return to school, teachers will be able to get a sense of the level of information they have been exposed to surrounding Covid-19 and how this may have affected their wellbeing. 

There is a high chance many children will have been exposed to misinformation about the situation without knowing it.

A huge amount of debate, opinion and speculation is being circulated every day online that children and young people have access to.

Ofcom reports half of 10-year-olds own a mobile phone and 21 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds have a social media profile.

What’s more, we also know that only 2 per cent of young people have the critical literacy skills to identify whether a story is real or fake.

Uncertainty about who and what you can trust, especially in the current crisis, inevitably leads to anxiety. 

Confidence to speak up

On top of this, Year 6 pupils are also preparing for the transition into secondary school. This big change is challenging and unsettling enough under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic.

Strengthening Year 6s' critical literacy skills can support this key transition as it builds pupils' confidence in being able to analyse and evaluate new information both on and offline.

It also supports them in developing and voicing their own opinions and ideas about what’s going on in the world, which is something that can be especially daunting when entering a new environment with new people. 

We can’t control the news and its potential to cause harm, but there are ways we can help support children’s wellbeing and equip them with the critical literacy skills they need to flourish. 

1. Open the discussion around wellbeing and news

The classroom is a safe space for pupils to talk about current news, share their concerns and ask questions with their peers and trusted adults.

There’s a handy guide on how to establish a safe climate for these discussions, which also encourages the use of question or worry boxes so pupils can share their thoughts anonymously.

Children don’t need their teachers to have all the answers, they just need a safe space to articulate their concerns.

Help children understand that everyone reacts differently to news because everyone has different lived experiences. But when news makes you feel anxious, there are steps you can take to help you feel better.

A helpful technique is to look for positive and uplifting news stories, as well as from pupils’ own lives, to rebalance their worldview. 

2. Help pupils work out what information they can trust

When discussing Covid-19 with pupils, focus on the known facts to help challenge any misinformation they may have picked up and refer to official sources of information to reinforce the importance of listening to trusted and professional guidance. 

Helpful resources from The Economist Foundation can help pupils to think more critically about information surrounding Covid-19. 

An important lesson for Year 6 pupils to learn is how to spot the difference between rumour, opinion, speculation and fact.

The NewsWise Navigator can help with this. It asks pupils to question the source (is this a legitimate news organisation?), check other coverage of the story (is this story reported by other known news sources?) and then decide if this is something to be trusted.  

3. Give pupils a voice and a platform to share stories that matter to them

There aren’t many news outlets sharing the experiences of 10-year-olds in the UK and what it is like to be 10 and living in lockdown.

Giving your pupils the opportunity to report news stories from their own communities is an important way to help them better understand news, empower them to engage in global conversations and exercise their own voice. 

Writing their own reports can also help support pupils’ wellbeing.

Not only is it motivation to engage in journalism, reporting stories that matter to them, but it can also provide a further opportunity to focus on positive news.

The Happy News project gets Year 6 pupils working in teams to research and report a positive news story to share within their school communities, in turn helping to spread joy.

Following this, they can continue sharing stories at secondary school supported by projects such as the BBC Young Reporter project which provides secondary school pupils with the skills they need to create and understand media.

The latest issue of Tes (12/06) takes an in-depth look at the issue of fake news and how teachers can best supply their students with the tools and techniques to work out what's real and what's not in the mass information age. To find out more, go to our magazine homepage.

Victoria Baker is a former primary school teacher and English subject specialist, and currently programme manager of NewsWise, a children’s news literacy programme from the Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust and PSHE Association. NewsWise is also part of the News Literacy Network

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