How Teachers Can Disrupt Fake News

Photo credit: Kayla Velasquez

There is almost an infinite amount of information available to us, and more created every second. With such volume confronting us, it’s no surprise that we may have at times become less critical of a text than we probably should be. It can be embarrassing to share an article that we learn contains false or fake news, but worse, it can quickly spread harmful, dangerous and factually incorrect information. If we struggle with this, as critically literate, savvy adults, how do we make sure our students are leaving our classrooms armed with the tools they need to navigate this world?

The major problem with simply telling kids what they need to know is that, for the rest of their lives, there will be a great many people happy and eager to do precisely that. –Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

It is essential that we help our students strengthen the muscles that allow them to break through the surface of a text and dig deeper, to learn to determine what information is real and what is not; what sources can be trusted and which are dubious; to understand the difference between news that feels right, and news that is factual; to sniff out the satire from the journalistic from the purposefully deceptive; the truth from “truthiness.”

To be critically literate consumers of information, students must be given strategies, and shown how to employ them with a variety of texts. Through regular practice and teacher support, students learn to ask pertinent questions of informational texts. In Reading Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst introduce readers to three “Big Questions” as a way for students to get beneath the surface of the text and identify their own thinking.

1. What surprised me?

Students determine what information was new to them, information that seems suspicious, information that clarified something they already thought, or where the author offers a different perspective.

2. What did the author think I already knew?

Students determine what background knowledge the author assumed the reader was beginning with, including vocabulary, concepts, history. This question helps students identify confusion and set about solving it.

3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I already knew?

This last questions helps students identify whether or not a text supported what they already knew about the subject. “If nonfiction is going to come knocking on the door to our lives, then once it has intruded, something ought to happen. Something we know should be challenged, changed, or confirmed”. Sometimes the change is slight, where a student’s understanding on the subject or problem becomes sharper, slightly honed.

We are required to read beyond the four corners of the text; we are required to let nonfiction interlude; we are required to wonder what it means on the page, in our lives, and in the world. –Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

If taught explicitly, the strategies presented in Reading Nonficiton help students approach informational texts (or those purporting to be such) with a critical eye and give them the tools to decode any text they might encounter.

These three questions are only the beginning. They help students become even more nuanced readers and to identify attributes such as author bias, intended audience, aim, and purpose. Beers and Probst go on to introduce the nonfiction signposts, which help students to think of the Big Questions with more specificity. When students can identify devices that authors use: contrasts and contradictions; extreme or absolute language; numbers and stats; quoted words, and word gaps, it gives them the tools necessary to move beyond simply identifying the feeling of being surprised and toward understanding the why of it.

A students’ ability to read critically is essential for them to write critically. If they can develop an understanding of how informational texts are constructed, those critical skills will deepen as they create their own arguments through their writing. This requires a shift from identifying elements of informational texts to building with them. Writing argument supplements students’ reading of informational texts by illuminating the choices authors make surrounding audience, voice, genre, and the research used (or not used) to support their texts.

Argument in the Real World, the new book by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks, covers topics essential to creating argument in contemporary society — a society that expects digital. At times we may convince ourselves that our students navigate this digital world with greater aplomb than ourselves. Whether or not this is actually the case, it is certain that without the essential critical literacy skills, students are even more vulnerable than ever in this world rife with junk opinion and baseless claims.

Individuals often respond emotionally to what they read in social networks, posting or reposting without critically analyzing the argument being made. Often, we don’t recognize that the simple act of sharing information itself makes a claim, positioning us in certain ways — and that those who read what we share can engage in the argument. While sharing misinformation is becoming a societal problem, there are ways to help students become mindful, critical users of social media as well as active producers of accurate information. It may not save the world, but it is a step toward a solution. At the heart of this work, we believe, is the ability to deconstruct and compose arguments in these socially-networked spaces. — Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks in Argument in the Real World

When Students do not know what kind of evidence to seek in texts, and are not equipped with strategies for analysis, they can become susceptible (as we all can) to the blight of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias — where people read arguments and look only for data that supports their preconceived notions — is an issue that we can tackle from the classroom. The solution, we know, is that we must teach our students to become vetters of information. We can control the spread of misinformation within our communities by engaging in social media as readers and writers of argument. — Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks in Argument in the Real World

At the point where students are creating their own digital texts, students will also benefit to keep in mind what Turner and Hicks outline as the attributes of well-supported digital text:

  • Makes a claim that is easy to understand
  • Uses evidence from a variety of credible sources, included as hyperlinks and in a list of sources at the end. Students should keep in mind the five types of evidence introduced by the authors: scientific law, statistical data, expert opinion, opinion of noted individual, and anecdotal evidence.
  • Connects the evidence to the claim with effective warrants.
  • Acknowledges readers (and possible other viewpoints) with direct address and appropriate tone for the writing situation.

When students write argument, have them examine their own writing in regard to the signposts introduced in Reading Nonfiction, and note where the writing needs clarification, supportive details, or edits to any absolute language, contradictions, or word gaps. By asking students to think of writing as essentially the mirror image of reading, you can use writing time in the classroom to further develop them as critical readers while also guiding them to be more attune to their audience as they write.

“We must teach our students to be vetters of information and mindful readers and writers. It is necessary to consider what we want our students to do when they view and compose texts, especially in digital forms and particularly social media. We must acknowledge how we want them to monitor their reading and writing, analyze arguments, and to think carefully before sharing with other readers.” (Turner/Hicks, 2016) If we can give students concrete tools for reading and writing informational texts, help them develop a sensitivity to bias, author intent, to ask for evidence and to know what good evidence looks like, then students will be on their way to establishing their own incorruptible critical literacy. In doing so, students will become not only college and career ready, but also critical, discerning, well-informed, curious, mindful and participatory citizens.

Texts Referenced in this article:

Beers, Kylene and Robert E. Probst. Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Signposts and Strategies

Turner, Kristen Hawley and Troy Hicks. Argument in the Real World: Teaching Adolescents to Read and Write Digital Texts

External links in this article:



More information and resources:

From NPR via KQED: The Honest Truth About Fake News…and How Not to Fall for It (With Lesson Plan)

From School Library Journal: Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit for a “Post-Truth” World

From On the Media: Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition

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