Primary approaches to news literacy

Jun 30, 2020 5:00:00 AM

There is overlap between how news literacy and PSHE education help pupils to make sense of the world around them. While PSHE focusses less on actual news stories, it shares an aim with news literacy to develop pupils’ analytical skills and their ability to empathise with others, while exploring how the news can affect their feelings and mental health.

That’s why the PSHE Association is delighted to be involved in NewsWise alongside The Guardian Foundation and the National Literacy Trust – a free, cross-curricular news literacy programme for 9- to 11-year-olds across the UK, funded by Google. NewsWise resources include three specific PSHE education lessons on ‘managing feelings about the news’, ‘spotting fake news’ and ‘understanding that news is targeted’ as well as a wealth of broader news literacy materials.

Here NewsWise Director Angie Pitt introduces the project and explains how teachers can begin to explore the news in a healthy and safe way in the primary classroom.

Exploring the world

A year 5 pupil comes to school anxious and upset about a headline he has seen that morning: “Is world war 3 starting?” He asks. “What will happen to my family?”

Pupils in your class are discussing coronavirus. “Our school is closing! Hand sanitiser doesn’t work! Can I catch it from my friends?”

In situations like these, what is our responsibility as teachers? We can’t be expected to have an in-depth knowledge of every news incident, and to debunk every piece of fake news. We can’t control the horror of some events, or the inappropriate nature of others. But this shouldn’t stop us watching, reading or discussing news with our pupils. In a world where half of all 10 year olds own a smartphone1, where young people are exposed to news and online media from the moment they are born, where children have so many questions to ask, schools can be a safe space for young people to address questions and discuss their feelings about what they are seeing, reading and hearing.

So here are NewsWise’s seven steps for supporting children to become happy, healthy, engaged news consumers:

  1. Ground rules
    Establish ground rules at the outset to develop a safe climate for learning about the news. For example: This is a safe space to talk about the news. We’ll listen to others’ opinions respectfully, and we won’t share fake news, rumours or guesses as if they were facts. We’ll only share news stories we know are true, and we’ll use our critical thinking skills to debunk disinformation. We can put questions in a box if we don’t want to ask them out loud, and we’ll respect the privacy of our classmates, families and teachers. If we’re unsure or worried about a news story, we will ask an adult that we trust.
  2. Feelings
    When we think back to iconic news stories such as the moon landing, London 2012, the Boxing Day tsunami or a terror attack, what we mostly remember are the emotions associated with those moments, whether they be joy, sadness, shock, excitement or fear. Our PSHE quality-assured lesson on Managing Feelings about the News provides lots of strategies for you to use in the classroom, to help your pupils to recognise and manage those feelings, for example talking about concerns, not dwelling on that story and exploring more positive stories to give perspective and to rebalance their worldview. We know from recent research that many children never have an opportunity to discuss news at home2. And we’ve seen some brilliant examples of teachers providing that safe space in their classrooms to ask questions about specific news events such as a local crime, or on a larger scale the Manchester Arena bombing, so we know that this can work. One pupil told us: ““Thank you for helping me realise that there is no reason to be scared of reading the news.” Children don’t need you to have all the answers, they just need a safe space to articulate their concerns.
  3. Think critically
    Fake news is designed to manipulate our feelings. It is deliberately hard to spot, and it is created to make us think and behave in different ways. Some fake news is comedic, other fake news is upsetting or difficult. All fake news impacts our wellbeing and destabilises democracy. Two-thirds of teachers (60.9%) believe fake news is harming children’s well-being, increasing their anxiety levels3. Governments, global organisations and tech companies are all struggling to contain the flow of disinformation. And yet research tells us that nearly all teachers (98.8%) believe it is their responsibility to support children to identify fake news4. What a task! Working with the PSHE Association and the National Literacy Trust, NewsWise is supporting teachers by providing free, quality assured lessons written by news, PSHE and literacy experts. Simple techniques in our lesson on How to Spot Fake News, eg : to make simple checks like questioning the source of a news report, and identifying other trusted news sources sharing the same story, are now being used by teachers and children across the UK. By understanding why fake news can be harmful, and giving pupils the skills to identify disinformation, rumour, and opinion, you are giving children techniques to manage their own well being around fake news.
  4. Fairness
    Use scenarios and characters to distance news stories, both for wellbeing (don’t encourage children to imagine they are caught up in a distressing incident) and for their own privacy, for example imagine three individuals with their own values and opinions are reading a particular news report: how might they differ? Why? At NewsWise, like in all news organisations, we have our own values: news should be truthful, fair, balanced and interesting. Fairness means that we should respect others' privacy and ensure that children do not report on, or reveal personal information about themselves or others.
  5. Burst the bubble!
    There is so much news in the world, but we know that news doesn’t naturally provide us with a balanced range of views. Editors and tech companies use values and algorithms to decide what news we should access, based on our preferences, loyalties and demographics. But how healthy is it for us to only ever to hear one point of view? One of our most popular activities around targeted information is ‘Hook the Reader”, a great game (and quite addictive for the staff too!) that helps children to begin to unpick the concept of targeted information. We also cover issues around privacy and how to search safely, mapping directly to statutory health guidance on becoming a discerning consumer of information online. Developing a climate in the classroom where children can explore different viewpoints, can debate issues and can respect different opinions can be practised by exploring different points of view about news stories.
  6. Age-appropriate news
    So you’ve decided to introduce news into the classroom. Where can you find age-appropriate content? Firstly, let’s not dumb down the news reports we share with children. We’ve seen that young people aren’t just interested in football and cats...actually KS2 children respond brilliantly to issues such as climate change and the Windrush Scandal when they can access those reports with age appropriate language. As well as all of the examples in our free resources, there are an increasing number of brilliant sources of free and subscription news for young people, including BBC Newsround, First News, The Week Junior and many more listed here on our website. And every Tuesday @GetNewsWise and other organisations share an appropriate story with questions to use in the classroom…#TuesdayNewsday.
  7. Fun!
    Most importantly, keep news authentic, and keep it fun. At NewsWise we ensure that the news production experience is as realistic as possible. Pupils are briefed into Journalist Training School, with press passes, newsroom terminology, specific roles and teams, and teachers of course overseeing activities as the Chief Editor! The more you can model interest in the news: by incorporating news discussions into the school day, sharing breaking news stories where appropriate, including tight deadlines and timers, holding newspaper or online news scavenger hunts, organising press conferences, the more you will encourage children to explore age appropriate news reports and engage with the wider world.

News literacy provides an opportunity for primary schools to embed PSHE and English learning in a real-world setting.

So much of what NewsWise brings up in its delivery is to do with exploring what sort of person you want these children to become: compassionate, interested, resilient, critical, brave, truthful.

Primary teacher



1 Ofcom, 2020: 2 NLT, 2019: NLT, 2018: NLT, 2018: