NewsWise in Primary Education: News Literacy and Civic Engagement

by Elli Narewska, The Guardian Foundation, UK.

The rise of generative AI and other emerging technologies is increasing the quantity and pace at which mis- and disinformation can be spread online. In a vital year for democracy, where 2 billion people across at least 50 countries are voting in elections, there is a critical need for engaging and effective news and media literacy education.

New research has found a link between news literacy and civic engagement in children aged 9-11 for the first time. So young people who can critically engage with and understand the news are potentially more likely to vote, get involved in their communities and participate in society in other ways. This shows the potential societal impact that teaching news and media literacy skills can have.

Park Hill, Primary School, UK

“We should really know about the news because we need to know what’s happening in our community.” Pupil in a focus group.

The research, funded by The Nuffield Foundation and conducted by academics from the Universities of Birmingham and Liverpool involved almost 2,000 participants from 40 schools across the UK, taking part in NewsWise.

Key findings in the report include:

  • A strong positive relationship between news literacy and civic engagement among 9-11-year-olds was found for the first time.
  • The NewsWise programme improved 9-11-year-olds’ ability to detect fake news and this improvement sustained over time.
  • Qualitative analysis in the study found that after taking part in the news literacy intervention, pupils were more aware that not all news stories can be trusted, and have strategies to spot misinformation.
  • 9–11-year-olds in the UK believe the news should be truthful and balanced, but less than half know how to spot fake news and only three in ten are interested in the news.
  • 9–11-year-olds in the UK have extremely positive attitudes towards civic engagement. However, only five in ten think that they will vote when they grow up, and only 35% talk about politics and social issues with their parents.
Park Hill, Primary School, UK

“Sometimes people will spread fake news because they want people to think a certain way. For example, let’s say, voting for president, they say that one candidate has done this bad thing, but the other one hasn’t. But not in reality.” Pupil in a focus group.

The NewsWise programme (developed by The Guardian Foundation in partnership with the National Literacy Trust and the PSHE Association) was designed to equip primary school children aged 9-11 in the UK with the news literacy skills they need in order to thrive in the digital age. The programme comprises teacher training, classroom workshops and a complete set of lesson plans linked to the curriculum, as well as Q&As with journalists. The programme has three key themes: understanding news; navigating news; and reporting news. It uses an immersive approach to develop children’s critical engagement with news, with children as journalists, producing their own news reports about subjects important to them and their community.

Focus groups interviewed in the trial expressed that the most engaging elements of the programme for both teachers and pupils were those on identifying mis- and disinformation (and its consequences) and taking part in media by producing news reports. Alongside the analysis of the randomised controlled trial, this suggests that the model used by NewsWise is an effective way of developing both critical skills and civic engagement.

Park Hill, Primary School, UK

“My favourite part of it was seeing different types of stories, and […] finding out if they are true or false. And then when we wrote about our story that we were going to do, it was, like, fun because we got to find out what had been happening all around our area…” Pupil in a focus group.

Most research in this area until now has focused on older children; a further important outcome of the trial is that new sets of measures for evaluating news literacy and civic engagement with children aged 9-11 have been created and validated. These provide a valuable tool for designing and analysing new interventions with younger age groups, which may aim to develop not just news and media literacy, but also civic engagement.

Key recommendations of the report are that policymakers and educators should support news literacy and civic engagement from an early age; that they should consider integrating the news literacy and civic engagement measures into educational assessments and curricula; and that the NewsWise programme could be used by media literacy practitioners to develop primary school children’s news literacy.

This can all help to foster news literacy and civic engagement more effectively in our young learners, which is vital in an era of rapid technological transformation.

Elli Narewska, Head of primary education, The Guardian Foundation, United Kingdom.