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Media, information literacy and fake news: Using the skills of your school librarian

Following on from our last article written for Headteacher Update around literacy and reading promotion Clare Brumpton and I moved on to Information and media literacy please click the link to read the original article.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions school library guidelines (IFLA, 2015) outline five core instructional activities of the school librarian and in this series of articles we are looking at how your school's librarian might be able to support each of these key areas.

  • Literacy and reading promotion

  • Information/media literacy.

  • Inquiry-based learning (problem-based learning, critical thinking).

  • Technology integration.

  • Professional development for teachers.

In our recent article (Hutchinson & Brumpton, 2022), we spoke about the core activities of the school library and specifically focused on literacy and reading promotion, the first of the five activities listed above.

This time, we would like to focus on media and information literacy (MIL) instruction, looking at what it means and how school librarians can play an important role within the curriculum as the MIL expert.

What do we understand by media and information literacy?

UNESCO states that “MIL constitutes a composite set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, competencies and practices that allow students to effectively access, analyse, critically evaluate, interpret, use, create and disseminate information and media products with the use of existing means and tools on a creative, legal and ethical basis” (UNESCO, 2022). This is something we believe should be taught in school in a methodical way.

We know that there are pockets of this going on throughout the curriculum but there is often little coherence. What would it be like if someone had an overview of what was being taught while also having the skills to support and teach MIL where it was needed? We believe that this person should be your school librarian.

When should MIL lessons start?

MIL should be taught from the beginning of school – Reception in primary school and year 7 in secondary – so that it becomes part of learning and the curriculum and is not treated as an add-on or peripheral to the education process.

As you can see in the UNESCO definition above there are many competencies that makeup MIL. However, starting at the beginning, it is vital for your students and teachers to know and understand how to use and access library resources.

Basic things like library inductions for all new pupils and teachers are a great way to introduce MIL education and show how the school library can support this across the curriculum.

Once students and staff know how they can use the library, it is then important for them to be able to access the resources on offer, including the online resources. An information-literate student knows where to find the best information quickly and knows how to verify the information they are presented with. However, they can only do this if taught how and where to go.

This is crucial when so many students use Google – or indeed ask Siri or Alexa – as their first port of call. It is important to teach them how to find and access robust online resources to verify the information they find. As Ron Starker states in his book Transforming Libraries (2017): “Librarians should transform from gatekeepers into innovators and entrepreneurs. Likewise, libraries need to shift from simply warehouses storing information into centres of innovation and experimentation.”

Why should school librarians teach MIL and how does it link with the curriculum?

Most staff are linked to specific subjects or departments. The librarian as an educator is, by their very nature, cross-curricular and as such can establish good practice in all subjects. This is why librarians should be line-managed by a member of the senior leadership team and removed from focusing solely on English subject priorities as is the case in too many schools.

Teaching information literacy is a great way of showcasing librarians’ cross-curricular skills for students and staff. These skills are best passed onto the students from someone trained in these skills themselves and contextualised within the subject framework. Librarians already have expertise in doing this and in co-teaching with subject teachers. It makes sense for librarians to model these skills in conjunction with a subject teacher.

In our experience, this can lead to the teacher then seeking out more opportunities to collaborate with the librarian and library and for more students to benefit from the shared expertise. It can also lead to teachers becoming more confident in building some of the skills into their own lessons, freeing up the librarian to collaborate with other teachers and classes.

The ultimate aim is for the librarian to embed their expertise and specialisms across the curriculum and to be recognised as fellow educators within the school. This will lead to an increase in students seeking out help and support from them directly as they start to view the librarian as a highly skilled individual. The librarian can also use the opportunity to promote other services and resources.

Examples of lessons that school librarians can co-teach using MIL skills

There are many examples of great lessons that librarians can co-teach using information literacy skills. There are so many different skills to cover under the MIL umbrella. We are going to focus on a few here based on our own experiences and what has worked particularly well.

Investigating famous people

This project was instigated by a teacher who had brought their class to the library for a start-of-year library induction. The teacher approached the librarian to discuss the possibility of each class having a series of lessons in the library to use the book and online sources to explore a range of famous people.

Each student chose a person to focus on and used the information sources available to complete a piece of work (written and oral presentation) about their famous person.

The topic was introduced by the teacher in the library and the parameters of the work were set. The librarian then introduced a range of pertinent information sources that the students could use. These included books, subscription databases, and free-to-access online sources.

Students were given a brief introduction to each of the resources and were allowed time to explore. Over the next few lessons, students selected the person, gathered information from a range of sources (one of the criteria was to collect information from several sources), and collated this into a written piece with citations of sources and an oral presentation.

Academic honesty and integrity

These sessions are typically run at a key moment during completing a piece of work. It is rarely beneficial to run theoretical sessions on these issues, but it can be effective when undertaken in the context of work the students are doing – it has the most impact when students can apply what they are taught directly to their assignment.

The workshop involves a short introduction as a reminder of what academic integrity is and why it is important, followed by a few tips on what should be cited and a summary of the citation styles that are acceptable within the parameters of the assignment.

Short online guides and videos to illustrate these citation styles are useful and students can refer to them when needed. Students then get an opportunity to practise citing correctly and creating a bibliography.

Developing a great research question

Questions are an important part of any research and need to be taught. Many students find this very difficult and practising this skill is important. School librarians can support teachers in coming up with great research questions that can inspire students to think more deeply.

One example is a year 4 class doing a project on India. In previous years the students just collected general information about India, such as food, religion, culture, clothing etc. After some planning with the school librarian, the overarching question became: “Would I still be me if I was born in India?” This question put the students central to the research project helping them to engage more. The FOSIL Group has created some great examples of topical, entry or overarching questions (see Toerien, 2022).

Students can also be encouraged to develop research questions of their own. This could be around an extended project or essay, or in many different areas of the primary and secondary curriculum. The session would begin with some exploring of ideas, and some reading around the topics being discussed, before narrowing down to the specific ideas that the students want to know more about.

Before finalising their decision, students should show that the question is of good quality and meets a range of criteria. An example of such criteria can be found in a useful guide published by the University of California’s Merced Library (see further information for a link).

Fake news or fact-checking media reports

Many media organisations have produced guides, resources and lesson plans to help young people to recognise fake news and to be critical of what they read online.

Examples include the BBC’s recognising fake news resource or France 24’s “Truth or Fake” videos (see further information). These resources can be built into a lesson or used in their entirety alongside websites such as Full Fact and Common Sense Education. Other ideas in include:

  • Keyword searching: Good practices, effective searches and advanced search techniques.

  • General induction sessions with follow-ups in specific areas (Intro to Britannica, JSTOR, Google Scholar, etc).

  • How to be critical when gathering and using information (double sourcing, questioning the motivation of the writer, etc).


Students are bombarded with information every day and as such the role of the school librarian has become even more important. Their expertise and knowledge should not be something that is hidden away within the four walls of the library. A school librarian's role across the curriculum can and should be varied – from teaching skills and finding resources to help teachers, to helping students access and find the resources they need.

The essential focus for every school librarian are the students – they want them to succeed and can only help schools achieve this if they are part of the educational process.

Now What?

Interested in finding out more about how school librarians can support teaching through inquiry? My membership supports both teachers and school librarians. More information can be found here

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