Tackling the topic of fake news in English lessons

Hannah Jenkins, English teacher at Maesteg School in Wales, explains how she’s tackling fake news in her classroom…

“Miss, did you know World War 3 is going to start this week?”

“Sylvester Stallone died this morning.”

“School is closed tomorrow because of the burst water pipe.”

During your teacher training, you are taught how to plan well-structured lessons, how to give pupils feedback and how to ask meaningful questions. But you are never taught how to help pupils navigate and question the world of social media and fake news.

Last year, I set up a BBC School Report club in my secondary school. When we started to talk about critical literacy and the topic of false information online, one pupil said “I didn’t know it existed or mattered. I just used to believe everything I read on social media.” Increasing amounts of young people are now using social media as a news source, but how can we help them decode the vast amount of information available to them on the internet?

We decided to start with raising awareness. The School Report team created an assembly and presented this to the whole school. They addressed some of the reasons why fake news was such a popular topic and then explained the negative effects of these types of stories. This was an effective way of getting young people talking about the topic and considering whether they had ever fallen into the trap of sharing false information. The following week, I heard some pupils questioning their friends about whether a story they had read online fell in to the category of fake news.

When I asked one class about their understanding of critical literacy and evaluating texts, one pupil said “we don’t learn enough about critical literacy. There should be more of a place in the curriculum for it.” It became evident that pupils were not satisfied with simply understanding the concept of fake news, but they needed an opportunity to practise and develop the skills required to decipher the plethora of stories that they read online.

I decided to create a scheme of work aimed at Year 9 pupils that introduced them to the process of gathering and producing news stories so that they could have an insight into the world of journalism and broadcasting news. In a series of 24 lessons, pupils explored bias in news texts, investigated social media as a news platform and evaluated the reliability of various news stories.

In one lesson, pupils were asked to create a success criteria for a fake news story and then used their criteria to analyse and annotate a range of articles. In a survey conducted after the lesson, pupils felt more confident in identifying whether a news story was real or fake. Some pupils commented that they wanted to make a TV advert to share what they had learnt with the rest of the school community.

I now try to embed these skills in other lessons with other year groups. If pupils are conducting their own research on a topic, we discuss how to find reliable sources and how to tell if a news story they encounter is legitimate. It’s not a question of stopping pupils from reading the news online, but rather providing them with the skillset and tools to help them distinguish between fiction and fact.

Naturally, pupils are immersed in the online world and surrounded by news sources on social media, but they need to be asked questions and encouraged to ask questions themselves about what they read.

Find out more about the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools.

BBC School Report is a media literacy project for 11–18 year olds, which has produced online resources and a programme of events and workshops to support young people to identify real news and filter out fake or false information. Contact them for more information.