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Digital Citizenship | Information Literacy | 21st Century Skills

5 Essential Steps to Teach Information Literacy in Middle School

June 29th, 2022 | 7 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through his own teaching background, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for AES, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students through listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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Information literacy is quickly becoming one of the most important topics to cover in schools across the United States. It sharpens their minds with critical thinking skills, and it empowers them to separate fact and fiction.

However, if you don't have the right tools to teach information literacy, your students won't understand one of the major 21st Century skills they need to succeed.

But how do you teach something so technical and complicated?

There are the five essential steps to teach information literacy in middle school:

  1. Define information literacy
  2. Show examples of trustworthy and untrustworthy information
  3. Define what makes an online source trustworthy
  4. Encourage critical thinking
  5. Introduce other 21st Century skills

In this post, we'll share how to take each step to help your students hone their information literacy skills!

1. Define Information Literacy

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The Internet isn’t going away, so students need to know how to keep themselves safe from misinformation for their entire lives.

When you teach information literacy, make sure you use language that's appropriate to your audience. The younger the students, the simpler the terms should be.

If you start talking about information literacy before middle school, you have to water down your definition. You may have to explain information literacy as “understanding what’s true and what’s a lie.”

During middle school, you could explain it in terms of “identifying fake information and understanding real news.”

If you discuss information literacy in high school, you can get much more complex by discussing information literacy in history, pop culture, journalism, academia, and much more.

However, the scope of these definitions doesn’t mean information literacy is difficult to understand. Anyone who knows about the Internet can learn about information literacy. The best place to start is with examples.  

2. Show Examples of Trustworthy and Untrustworthy Information

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Examples are the best way to show the real-world applications of information literacy. The more extreme the examples you provide, the clearer you can make your point.

For example, the New York Times has built a reputation on integrity and open information. It’s earned 122 Pulitzer Prizes for excellence, and it’s been in business since 1851.

They also talk extensively about their hiring processes and requirements, which means their standards for personnel are high.

While some charlatans may lie during their tenure at NYT, they’re few and far between. As a result, the New York Times website is one of the most trusted sources of information in the world.

You can contrast that with social media, most notably Facebook or Twitter.

The open-ended nature of these social networks means it’s easy for someone to make an unfounded claim. That misinformation — especially when it’s made to look legitimate — is dangerous, especially to young minds.

That’s why it’s so important to clarify that students shouldn’t trust everything they see on a social network at first glance. They need to learn how to verify that a source is trustworthy for themselves.

To do that, students need to know what qualities make an information source trustworthy.  

3. Define What Makes an Online Source Trustworthy

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There’s a knee-jerk reaction for everyone (not just students) to believe something they read, especially when it comes from a friend or reinforces an opinion.

But that’s a dangerous way to live. Believing too much misinformation will leave someone just as ignorant as if they had no information in the first place.

So what qualities make a source trustworthy to begin with? Below, you'll find specific criteria that suggest that a source is credible.

The Author Is Listed on the Information

While notoriety doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a “good source” of information, it’s helpful to see that an author is listed on an article or blog post.

If there is an author, that means an individual is claiming personal responsibility for the information in the article. If it's inaccurate, the author's reputation and career will suffer.

Finding an author’s name should be easy: it’ll either be at the top or bottom of a page. If your students can’t find an author for an information source, that’s a major red flag.

The Author Has a Positive Reputation

In the event your students can find an author’s name, the next step is to verify the writer's reputation.

Students can do this in an instant by searching the author’s name on Google or another search engine. The results should show that author’s record of published works and their social media accounts. If either seem biased or inaccurate, then you have to question the author’s credibility.

But if the author appears to have a clean career, an objective stance, and a long-standing reputation, you can feel more comfortable in trusting their work.

A Date Shows the Information as Current

On the internet, information can change quickly. This is why it's important to use current sources when verifying information as credible.

If an article is out of date, students should check the information in a more recent article to see if it's still relevant.

Likewise, if there isn't a date at all on an article, they should think twice before being sure it's a reliable source.

But if a student can easily find a recent date on a webpage, then they can feel more confident that the information is current and reliable.

The Domain Is Credible (.com, .edu, .gov)

Domain names say a lot about websites.

The most credible domain endings for websites include .com, .edu, and .gov.

On the other hand, .club, .xxx, .info, .site, and other variations are much less credible.

This is as easy as checking the URL name. If any of those three options end a URL, it speaks to that website’s credibility.

The Website Is Well-Designed

Web design is surprisingly important in verifying a website’s credibility.

Sloppy, outdated appearances mean the information may not be trustworthy. If someone didn’t put work into their website to make it look good, you can’t trust that they’ve put the necessary effort into verifying their information.

On the other hand, websites that look sleek, modern, and easy-to-use are more credible. This is especially true for websites that display properly on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets.

Someone has worked hard on that website. It’s in their best interests to keep the information credible so people keep coming back.

The Writing Is Grammatically and Linguistically Correct

Last, students need to evaluate the way information is written, especially with spelling and grammar.

Poor grammar, slang, and misspellings are all red flags that mean someone isn’t relaying reliable information. If the writer didn't bother to use proper spelling and grammar, chances are the information isn't accurate either.

In that respect, students should learn how to “grade” information they read much like an English teacher grades a paper. If the spelling and grammar wouldn’t get an A+, then chances are the authors aren't taking the time to ensure their information is correct.

But all of this knowledge doesn’t work for students if they just follow a checklist. Teaching information literacy is more complex than that.

That’s why you should also encourage critical thinking.

4. Encourage Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking is the process of evaluating information, questioning it, and determining if it’s worthwhile.

Clever students will quickly pick up on these concepts and immediately start questioning everything they hear — and that probably includes your class.

But everyone should know how to think critically.

When you teach information literacy, students can practice critical thinking by asking these questions:

  1. Does someone or an organization benefit from this information?
  2. Does this information sound biased toward one side or another?
  3. Can you tell the author has an opinion?
  4. Does the heading or headline match the information in the body?
  5. Does the information conflict with something the student knows to be true?

These questions are only the beginning. Critical thinking activities will lead students to question and investigate any detail they believe will help them understand and verify information better.

The earlier students learn to think critically, the better they’ll be at spotting misinformation.

But this is just one piece of a much bigger idea. If you really want to nail home the concept of information literacy, you have to talk about digital citizenship. 

5. Introduce Other 21st Century Skills

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Information literacy is just one of a dozen 21st Century skills that you can teach your students. All of these skills help students understand technology, its role in their lives, and how they can use it responsibly.

Most importantly, you can teach media literacy, technology literacy, and digital literacy in addition to your information literacy lessons.

Media literacy teaches students how to identify publishing methods, outlets, and sources. So when they look at a webpage, they can immediately tell if they’re looking at a blog, newspaper, conspiracy theorist, or some other option.

Technology and digital literacy takes that information a step further and introduces students to the machines that empower the Information Age. They learn about computers, servers, and even how the Internet works.

This helps unmask the mystery that lies behind modern machinery — it reveals how a lot of the world’s modern systems work. You can even throw in a quick introduction to concepts like coding and hardware.

After all, if you don’t understand how technology works, it might as well be magic!  

Teach Information Literacy Today

With so much misinformation freely circulating on the internet, it's paramount that students can discern reliable sources and information.

Fortunately, the Internet is packed with helpful resources to teach information literacy in your middle school classes.

Most notably, you can start by teaching digital citizenship to ensure your students understand the most important parts of using the Internet.

Want to start today?

Check out the lessons and assessments on digital citizenship from AES!

Discover the Digital Citizenship Module