Digital literacy is a key 21st-century skill that sometimes gets overlooked by teachers. Though many of our pre-teens and teens were practically born with a phone in their hand, they’ve a lot to learn about digital tools and the internet. I don’t think anyone doubts the importance of digital literacy skills. However, as teachers of English we often have a syllabus to follow and lots of skills to practise. Isn’t it enough for us to balance the different receptive and productive skills and language systems like vocabulary and grammar?
Is it also our job to train students to be better digital citizens?
I think so!
Well, first of all, just because many of us teach online. It’s a bit like having a little spy camera in our students’ homes, in their private living spaces. With online teaching prevailing, most of us have started using more and more diverse tech tools, too, which need to be safe and accessible for all our students.
Also, many teachers believe in the value of group work and pair work. Just as we would set norms and teach our students to work in groups in a face-to-face classroom, we mustn’t forget that this should be facilitated in an online environment too.
Lastly, we often get our students to do projects, give presentations, make posters and conduct other research tasks. However, do we give them the tools and skills they need to look for credible, reliable information online? I think we often don’t.
How to approach teaching digital literacy
In many respects bringing digital literacy into the classroom is very similar to bringing environmental issues into the classroom. In the past, most coursebooks would have a unit on the environment in which students would learn about climate change, recycling, green energy and environmental justice. Of course, environmental issues are much more complex than just listing three ways to be green, and they are intertwined with all areas of our lives, from food, through fashion, to travelling. Therefore, many teachers have recently started the following: instead of teaching a lesson or a couple of lessons on this topic, they would make sure that they integrate it into multiple topics throughout the course.
Digital literacy could be dealt with in a very similar way. If we are talking about photos and describing pictures in our lessons, why not have a conversation about what kind of photos are OK to be shared online and where? When we are talking about fashion, why not check out a couple of make-up tutorials on YouTube, and have a discussion about whether this is an honest review of the products or a sponsored one?
What are digital literacy skills?
Digital literacy skills can be defined in many different ways, but the concept basically means teaching our students to be safe, efficient and confident online. ‘Digitally literate’ students know how to look for information, choose relevant information critically and collaborate with others, while also staying polite and following the norms of digital culture and netiquette.
Here is a chart summarising these skills. It’s from the WEBWISE website, which I highly recommend to you because it has lots of infographics, videos and resources to help teachers wrap our heads around the topic and to train our students too.
Of course, these skills are quite complex and could be dealt with in almost every lesson you teach. In this post, I’d like to focus on 3 of these skills and give you some practical ideas for each.
Online safety skills
The Webwise website – among many other useful tools – offers freely downloadable fact sheets and infographics. I have recently found a really good one which focuses on the rules and norms for sharing things online:
This is great, but how can we turn it into a lesson activity?
Do you know the game ‘Scattergories’ or ‘Just-a-minute’?
This is the original version of the game. Students get a chart like this without the situations in the first column. The teacher gives them one situation, for example ‘in a library’ and they have to think of things you should/shouldn’t/must/mustn’t do in a library, e.g. You mustn’t eat. When they are checking their answers, students read their ideas and if anyone else in the group has the same (or a very similar) answer, they have to raise their hand. Each correct answer is worth one point but only if no-one else has written it!
I really like this game because it’s engaging, competitive and promotes out-of-the box thinking by rewarding students that come up with ideas that nobody else has.
To integrate online safety, you only need to ’smuggle’ in some internet situations, e.g. sharing a photo or posting a TikTok video.
By the way, this activity works with higher level students too; you just need to change the modals for more challenging ones.
Netiquette and communication
The Real World coursebook series has plenty of activities focusing on digital literacy. This activity for example is from Real World 4 and focuses on the differences between face-to-face and online communication and how messages can be very easily misunderstood without facial expressions and hand gestures.
This task is a great basis for a discussion, why not take it a step further?
This can be turned into an engaging writing task if you only show them the first message, in this case ”I’m here for you”. Tell the students that this is the first message of a misunderstanding and they have to write the rest of the conversation. Then they share their answers with each other and choose the best ones. After that, you can reveal the original exchange and talk about why the misunderstanding happened.
If you want the messages to look real, you can also use this online text generator to create fake text messages.
Critical thinking can be easily integrated into our lessons, even with younger students or lower levels.
Here’s a video that I used in one of my pre-teen lessons (watch up to 0:29).
We used the video to describe what they could see and to practise the present continuous , which was the target language of the lesson, e.g. The man is talking about the penguins. The penguins are walking in a group. They are probably looking for food.
Once we have discussed what they saw in the video, I asked my students to tell me how they know that this video is a reliable source of information. They were convinced that it was, referring to the BBC logo, the quality of the video and the narrator being famous.
As the next step, I asked them to watch the rest of the video:
This video was an April Fool’s joke on the BBC. It really is a harmless piece of ‘false information’. However, it’s a good way to show students that not everything they see online or on a screen is true.
With this activity, we didn’t devote a full lesson to digital awareness but it was a fun way to show how sometimes we need to think critically with online content. This is a good example that any topic that we deal with can be combined with these skills.
Here’s another example from Real World focusing on critical thinking:
The task is about websites and as the next step, students have to write a short review about their favourite website. This again can be used to promote writing but you can also take it a step further and make students think a bit more carefully about online content, websites and apps that they use. Just tell them that they need to find at least one thing they don’t like or something they would change on the site. Again, we are not losing sight of our teaching aims. You can also include grammar points like comparatives (if you get students to compare two websites), adjectives (brilliant, user-friendly, etc) or functional language for reviews e.g. I was impressed by…
However, if you do decide to devote more lesson time to digital literacy and give more focus to these skills, there’s a fantastic game that I can recommend to you. Have you heard of Factitious? Let me show you how it works!
I hope I have managed to give you some ideas and also show you that digital literacy training does not have to be something that takes away precious class time, nor something that requires a lot of effort from teachers. With a little change here and there, we can tweak our classroom activities to help train the future generation of digital citizens!
To find out more about Real World, the course which opens the door to a fascinating world of English language knowledge and skills for the 21st century teenage learner, click here.