How teachers can help their students spot fake news

Fake news is a term that has become both ubiquitous and a matter of heated debate over the past year, particularly in politics (it was, in fact, named 2016’s word of the year). As we’ve seen first hand, fake news and manipulating information online has the power not only to shape public opinion but also to affect the outcome of national elections.

As a result, teaching media literacy skills has quickly become a top concern for K-12 educators. As students increasingly access news online from nontraditional sources, teachers are tasked with building the skills their students need to recognize bias in the media and verify what they read on their social media news feeds.

Are our students digitally naive?

A recent Stanford study showed that otherwise digitally-savvy students are lacking in the critical thinking and digital literacy skills needed to weed out fake news stories from real ones.

The study concluded that “overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

As a teacher, there are many strategies and techniques you can use to teach your students the media literacy skills they need to distinguish fact from fiction and combat the growing problem of fake news. The following are some tips to help your students navigate the current media landscape and discern what online information is legitimate or fake.

digital literacy lesson plan

Make fake news a teachable moment for you, as well as your students

You don’t have to be a media expert to teach media literacy to others. Technology and media are concepts that are often unfamiliar territory for many teachers, and this is totally understandable. Our digital world is changing by the minute, making everyone a student. Organizations like The News Literacy Project have begun to create curriculum that responds to this growing problem.

There is also a digital literacy training course designed to help teachers update their teaching practice for the 21st-century classroom. Fake news is becoming harder to detect, even for adults, so teachers must be open to learning along with their students.

digital literacy quiz

Bring social media into the classroom

Discussing current events that students are interested in is a great opportunity for additional analysis. Trending topics on social media is a key to engaging your students in an active discussion about what’s happening online and helping them decode what could be spin, bias or outright lies.

Teach your students effective Google search skills

While the internet is a source for misinformation, it can always be a great fact-debunking tool. There are many useful fact-checking resources online, like and PolitiFact. Teach your students how to do a Google reverse image search, as well, so they can quickly verify for themselves which images are factual and which have been fabricated or manipulated in some way.

Show your students how to evaluate the source

Help your students spot fake news by encouraging them to ask questions and critically evaluate what they read and see online. Before they can determine whether a source is credible, they need to know the right research techniques to help them evaluate online media. Some questions to pose when investigating news that is fact, opinion or potentially something else can include the following:

  • Is the media outlet a well-known source of traditional news?
  • Is the site secure?
  • Does the formatting look off?
  • Are there grammatical errors?
  • Can you find reports of the same event on other news outlets?
  • Do the dates match up?
  • Who wrote the news piece?
  • How credible is the author?
  • Does the piece cite primary sources?
  • What personal reaction is the news piece attempting to elicit in the reader (remember, propaganda is usually written with the intent of making the reader feel strong emotions)?
  • Is it pushing a narrow point of view in an overt, or subtle, way?

By asking these questions, students can begin to reach their own conclusions on what is satire, clickbait, biased news or entirely fake.

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Foster an atmosphere that encourages open communication

In addition to promoting their reasoning skills, providing students with opportunities to acquire media literacy will also prepare them to make informed judgments on the issues that will shape their lives. First, though, students need to feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and questions when analyzing media and decoding fake news.

When discussing political or controversial issues in the classroom, for example, conversations may get heated. Our brains are wired to seek out information that agrees with our current beliefs. Everyone is likely to have their own conscious or unconscious bias when it comes to certain issues (including yourself!), so make sure you keep an open mind and encourage your students to do the same.

If a student does not feel comfortable, they may think twice before bringing up an important point that will help them challenge the validity of a news piece. Rather than creating an atmosphere that encourages students to choose sides, consider the opinions of every student. It’s vital that teachers keep the classroom atmosphere lighthearted and positive. Looking at the media through a clear lens is the only way to come to a real conclusion on its validity.

It’s official - fake news is here to stay. Now, more than ever, students need our help to better navigate the web and be able to detect what is fake and what’s real. Please share your top teaching strategies and tips for helping your students develop essential media literacy skills in the comments below!

digital literacy course