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The Media Literacy Ladder

The media literacy ladder is a visual organizer to help teens identify, analyze, and evaluate media messages. The information presented in the ladder can empower your teen by helping him or her to become a critical consumer of information. Each step on the ladder introduces teens to one of five basic principles of media education. Ask your teen to pick any media message—it can come from a movie, a magazine article, a TV or magazine advertisement, a T-shirt, or song lyrics. Next, starting at the bottom of the ladder and working to the top, ask your teen to answer the questions at each step on the ladder. The first two steps (identifying form and purpose) require your teen to identify details in the media message.

For example, a TV news broadcast presents information differently than a billboard or a bumper sticker does. Those differences in form help shape not only what is said but also how it is said.

The top three steps encourage your teen to analyze information in the media message. In other words, your teen can make comparisons, link cause and effect, distinguish fact from opinion, and investigate bias and slant. In doing so, her or she may begin to understand how messages are constructed to shape meaning and how the construction process itself is shaped by assumptions about culture, gender, race, social class, and age.

Finally, when your teen has reached the top of the ladder, encourage him or her to evaluate the media message. That is, ask your teen to draw conclusions and form opinions about the media message. Is the message accurate and complete, or is important information missing from the message? You and your teen can “climb the ladder” together to discuss the latest movie, breaking headline, a favorite music video, hit song, or advertising campaign.

Want To Know How To Climb the Ladder?

Here’s a script that shows how you can talk with your teen about media literacy. Our script uses Lumpy Coal as a madeup name for a music group. Your child very likely has a name or two that will work in the script.

Identify - Analyze - Evaluate

Media messages represent (someone’s) social reality. What is the message maker’s point of view?

People interpret media messages differently. How does the message make you feel?

Each media message is a construction. What words, images, or sounds are used to create the message?

Each media message has a purpose. Who created the message and why?

Media messages come in different forms. Through what medium is the message delivered?

Climb the Ladder

You notice your teen singing along to a music video on TV. You could initiate a conversation that may go something like this (P is for parent and T is for teen):

P: Wow, it looks like you are really into that. What are you watching?
T: It’s Lumpy Coal’s latest music video. (This is step one, identifying the message form.)

P: Who is Lumpy Coal? (Step two: Who created the message and why?)
T: They are a band, and they have a cool new song.

P: What is the video about?
T: It’s about partying and having fun with your friends.

P: Oh. How do they party in the video? (Step three: What words, images or sounds are used to create the message?)
T: Ummm. It looks like they’re drinking alcohol, dancing, and flirting a lot with some really good-looking people.

P: So why do you think those things are in Lumpy Coal’s video?
T: They have to make it look cool so people will be into it and buy their CD.

P: So, is drinking alcohol and smoking cool? Is that what really happens when young people get together to have a good time?
T: No, but they make it seem that way in the video.

At this point, you can congratulate your teen for coming to this conclusion. You can use the opportunity to explain the basic fundamentals of media literacy and take a more academic approach to analyzing other media messages in the future.