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English teaching in the post-truth era
People are understandably confused. Who can we trust, is it politicians with vested interests or the media with an inherent bias? How do we know what we are being told is real?
It seems that this relationship is being tested in a way it never has before, although there are numerous examples of these same issues occurring since the invention of mass media a few centuries ago. For example, the newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer (nowadays ironically associated with high quality journalism due to the prize in his name) and William Randolph Hearst were both infamous in the late nineteenth century for their sensationalist newspapers that often had a tenuous connection to the truth.
But there is no question that today media consumers face an onslaught of media content that makes it difficult not only to know who to trust, but perhaps to even find someone trustworthy in the first place. It is clear that the public need a high level of media literacy in order to unpack what it is true from what is not, but they also require digital literacy to use the Internet appropriately. And this brings us to education, which is surely the place for this knowledge to be cultivated, and more specifically English language teaching, which I would argue provides the perfect venue for these skills to be developed.
But before I argue in favour of this, I will offer this important caveat. Of course our primary objective is to teach the English language, and our lessons must have this at the front and centre of our lesson aims. But that said, I see no reason why these kind of subjects and skills cannot be taught in an ELT lesson. Many of the topics that occur in English learning materials tend towards the bland and often don’t ask the learner to use higher order thinking. Of course the learners need to be able to talk about travel and shopping, especially at lower levels when they do not have the linguistic ability to express more complex ideas, but as they progress, so the subject matter should too.
The good news for any English language teachers who are persuaded by this idea is that there are many resources available, and a number of interesting materials that will result in motivating and useful lessons. Here are my suggestions for how teachers can approach the teaching of post-truth and the ability to spot the truth in their classes:
There are numerous organisations that offer lesson plans and other resources that can be adapted by English teachers for the language classroom. These include Project Look Sharp, a media literacy initiative of Ithaca College, the Global Digital Citizen Foundation, a “non-profit organization creating exceptional resources for educators and dedicated to cultivating responsible, ethical, global citizens for a digital world”, and Common Sense Media, a “non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century.”
A website I have used with adults and teens, and could be used with younger learners too, is Help Save The Endangered Northwest Pacific Tree Octopus From Extinction! A brilliantly designed site, its is extremely useful in teaching digital literacy and the concept of reliability. You can read more about how the site has been used for research into this on Wikipedia.
Scott Bedley, a fifth grade teacher in Irvine, California, is a great example of how it is possible to teach children the skills required to check the validity of an online news story. He created a checklist which he gave to his 10 and 11 year old students and trained them how to critically read texts. You can create your own checklist with your learners and give them a mixture of articles which they can decide if they are true, false or somewhere in between. You can read more about Scott Bedley and his approach here.
The Twitter account UberFacts is a great source of facts. However, these tweets are never verified and they provide absolutely no source material at all. Challenge your students to do some research and decide if they think the facts is true, false or unproven.
You can use stories that you know are false as a part of a reading skills lesson. As part of the lesson procedure, you can include follow-up questions that will check to see if the students are suspicious of the text’s content or if they have taken it at face value. For example of how I have taught this, see the end of this lesson plan I created for BrELT. Snopes is a great resource for these kinds of stories.
Some other potential sources of interesting materials for this topic include urban myths, April Fool’s jokes, satirical news sites, the Dihydrogen Monoxide website, using the life cycle of fake news, and Facebook on fake news. As you can see, there is huge potential in this topic.
You may have noticed that I haven’t specifically mentioned any language objectives in this article, but I do believe that these activities are rich in linguistic learning opportunities. But even more than this, you will be teaching your learners, whatever their age and level, a vital skill that is essential at this time.
If you would like to see an example of how I have taught this subject, there is a lesson plan available on my website which includes many of the resources I mentioned above and more resources. You can find it here.