Critical Media Literacy Resources for JK-Grade 12: Addressing Violence in the Media

Critical Media Literacy Resource CD Cover PageIntroduction: Overview and Background

Although most parents and professionals working with children and adolescents are concerned about the potential harmful effects of media violence, there has been little societal intervention other than classifying material that may be inappropriate for children to watch. Recent publications such as the Action Agenda: A Strategic Blueprint for Reducing Exposure to Media Violence in Canada, published by Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General in 2003, have offered a compelling review of the literature. This review points out the extensive nature of media violence in the lives of children with access to violent material through multiple sources including the internet, video games, television, movies, sports and music. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in speaking to a 1997 US Congressional public health summit, summarized the concern in these words: “The level of violence to which children are exposed through media has reached such horrific proportions, health professionals, parents, legislators and educators agree that something has to be done.”

What is to be done? Beyond controlling what younger children are exposed to, censorship has little support in public policy and legislation. However, there is some consensus that potential strategies include enhancing the critical literacy skill of students, as well as providing public awareness initiatives and education programs and resources to assist parents and teachers in confronting the issue of violence in the lives of children. Our priority is to provide children with the critical literacy skills to improve achievement in school and to develop healthy relationships free of the influence of media violence.

Critical literacy involves the active analysis and critique of texts and is an important part of the Ontario policy curriculum for student literacy. Students taught to approach media and print texts from a critical literacy perspective understand that all texts are constructions and that texts are not neutral. They have specific purposes and target audiences. Critically literate students are able to question text: they ask questions about language, power, social groups and social practices. They ask questions about the author’s intent, about images used in texts, how those images represent various groups and relationships, and what effects those elements may have on themselves and those around them. Critically literate students look for issues of fairness in what they read and see, and are prepared to challenge textual constructions of reality that marginalize individuals or groups, or that privilege or suppress views for specific purposes.

When teachers teach critical literacy skills in the classroom, they equip students to adopt a questioning stance to texts and to work toward changing themselves and the world around them. Unlike censorship approaches to the teaching of media literacy which presume a defensive strategy on the part of teachers, critical literacy teaching approaches are proactive, going beyond critical thinking to challenge students to take on social responsibility and social action.

Teachers and educators need to be aware of what currently is being marketed to children, and to inform parents of the impact of violent media on children’s development. The need to promote critical media literacy in the classroom is of paramount importance. Resources that can be integrated easily into the curriculum, through a critical literacy approach about the effects of media and ways that media distorts the reality of violence, must be readily available to teachers. These resources and lessons can help reduce the many negative effects of exposure to media violence.

Violence in The Media Coalition

Dr. Jaffe of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children is a member of a coalition that was formed in 2005 to take action on the role  that media in all its forms plays in the acceptance of violence and desensitization to violent acts in our schools, on our streets and in society at large. While there are many educators in our group, we have operated from a shared understanding that dealing with violence is not just a school issue, or a family issue, or a community issue.

We want to take action to prevent the negative effects that violent content in media has on children, on their behaviour, attitudes and view of the world. This is about education, not about censorship; it’s about providing critical skills, not limiting freedom of expression. It is about recognizing that 30 years of research show that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviour, particularly in children. The effects are measurable and long-lasting. It is known that prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics brought to us the U.S. Congressional Public Health Summit seven years ago. In 2006, psychologists at Iowa State University released the results of the first study that uses objective physiological testing to demonstrate that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal and aggressive behaviours, while decreasing helpful behaviours. Research findings released by Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington, Seattle indicate that preschool boys exposed to violent television, even cartoons, are more likely to become aggressive later in life.

The review of the literature points out the extensive nature of media violence in the lives of children. They can easily access violent material through many, many sources including the Internet, video games, television, movies, sports and music. “Gangsta” culture is a predominant theme of a whole genre of music and music videos. Cyber-bullying in all its forms – from Facebook insults to You Tube ambushes – has skyrocketed to become the number one non-academic problem facing classrooms. There is no question that parents and professionals who work with children and adolescents are gravely concerned about the potential harmful effects of media violence. Among the factors that link the kind of school shootings we have seen at Columbine, Dawson College and Finland, is the intensive involvement the young shooters have with violent video games and violent representations of themselves on internet sites.

When young people – children really – pick up a gun and make their way down a school corridor, stalking and ultimately killing other children, what is going on inside their heads? It is tempting to draw comparisons with one of the many “first person shooter” video games too easily available to very young children still learning to distinguish fantasy from reality. The correlation isn’t that simple, but can we ignore the level of desensitization our children build up in the daily bombardment of violence masquerading as entertainment?

There is a huge industry making millions of dollars from pushing increasingly sensational images of violence into our lives. The most popular entertainment for boys is video games. The fundamental theme of many of these games is violence; in over 90 percent of video games the object of the game is to kill or maim human beings – women, police officers and people belonging to another race. The best-selling games on the market today show the most graphic violence and feature a first-person shooter perspective where the player is the killer.

Researchers point to the repetitive activity in these violent games and compare it to the training available to police and the military. The outcome is accurate shooters who practice their skills and can become desensitized to the impact of real violence. This correlation is at the center for Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill: A Call to action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence, a book co-authored by Colonel David Grossman, Professor of Military Science at West Point.  That is the background to the work our Violence in the Media Coalition has undertaken. We know that one of the most effective actions we can take to reduce aggression in schools today is to educate children about the destructive effects of violent videos, music and television programs, and to help students to become more informed and critical users of media.

The focus of our Coalition is on prevention, especially early prevention. Critical literacy includes the ability to actively analyse and critique texts. When teachers teach critical literacy skills in the classroom, students learn to question more deeply, and begin to look at the impact of media on themselves and the world around them. Critical literacy teaching approaches are proactive, and go beyond critical thinking to challenge students to take on social responsibility and social action.

Teachers and educators need to be aware of what is currently being marketed to children and be able to share information with parents on the impact of violent media on children’s development. Children today are bombarded with an astonishing array of media. Now, more than ever before, we need to give critical media literacy an important place in every classroom. We can help reduce the many negative effects of media violence by giving teachers resources that can be easily integrated into the curriculum, resources that take a critical literacy approach on the effects of media and the ways that media distorts the reality of violence.

We know there are no quick fixes. The solutions to violence among youth have to come from many places. We believe that educators and parents together are deeply concerned about addressing the inescapable role played by media violence. Together, as a society, we have to face the impact of media violence in individual homes and schools, and in the broader community. Solutions to the problem of media violence and its consequences rest, in large part, in prevention and education, and in working strategically to make sure that the power of media to negatively influence our young people is seen as a serious factor in the problems we all want to solve.


The Critical Media Literacy resource was developed with the assistance of a grant from the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. Reproduction of these resources for use by publically funded schools in the province of Ontario is encouraged. For anyone other than parents, students and educators associated with publically funded schools in Ontario, no part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any other means, electronically, mechanically, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.  Every reasonable effort has been taken to trace the owners of copyrighted material and to make due acknowledgement.

Project Directors:

  • Peter Jaffe, Ph.D., Professor, Faculty of Education, UWO and Academic Director, Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children, UWO
  • Ray Hughes, M.Ed., CAMH Centre for Prevention Science and Thames Valley District School Board

Project Coordinator:

  • Carolyn Wilson, M.Ed., President of the Association for Media Literacy and Instructor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto


  • Neil Andersen, Author, Consultant, Mediacy Skills, Toronto
  • Katie Cole, Media Studies Teacher, Medway High School
  • Barry Duncan, Media Education Consultant
  • Linda-Beth Marr, Keewatin-Patricia Occasional Teacher, ETFO
  • Ken Pettigrew, Instructional Leader (English & Literacy, K-8) Toronto District School Board
  • Dede Sinclair, Elementary teacher, Association for Media Literacy Board Member
  • Sylvie Webb, Instructional Leader for English/Literacy, Toronto District School Board
  • Carolyn Wilson, President of the Association for Media Literacy; Instructor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Reviewers & Editors:

  • Connie Bray, Ph.D.
  • Shanna Burns, B.A.
  • Pat Gibbings, M.A.
  • Clare Leaper, B.A., B.Ed.

Research Assistants:

  • Shanna Burns, B.A., CAMH Centre for Prevention Science
  • Kimberly Fleet, B.Ed., Clarke Road Secondary School, Occasional Teacher

Coalition Members:

  • Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness
  • Centre for Prevention Science, Fourth R Project, University of Western Ontario
  • Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario
  • Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Government of Ontario
  • Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association
  • Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association
  • Ontario Federation of Home & School Associations
  • Ontario Principals' Council
  • Ontario Provincial Police, Crime Prevention Section
  • Ontario Public School Boards' Association
  • Ontario Student Trustees' Association (OSTA-AECO)
  • Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation
  • Ontario Teachers' Federation
  • Thames Valley District School Council
  • Valerie Smith, Media Violence Activist

Critical Media Literacy Resources

The Critical Media Literacy Resource features sample lesson plans that are integrated with Ontario’s curriculum from Kindergarten to Grade 12. These easy to use lessons were designed to enhance the critical literacy skills of students and to make sure our children and youth have critical skills in their consumption of media. They were developed by teachers for teachers.

We have included integrated lessons for grades JK-8 and specific lessons for the following high school courses: Canadian Politics and Citizenship (CPC30), Leadership and Peer Support (GPP301) and Media Studies (EMS301).

Elementary Lessons

Kindergarten/Primary Unit

The purpose of the Kindergarten/Grade 1 Unit is to develop the critical literacy skills needed by young students to recognize and evaluate violence in the media. Media violence material often is contained in moving-image texts (i.e. material that is viewed on screens). The Kindergarten/Primary Units provide solid foundation skills in decoding and creating still-image and moving-image texts. Students who have a good understanding of the codes and conventions of visual imagery are capable of bringing sophisticated analysis skills to any kind of visual text they may encounter. Since moving-image texts exist primarily beyond the classroom, it is important that all students can take these analytical skills with them for every engagement with visual media.

Primary Unit – Grades 2-3

The purpose of the Grade 2/3 Unit is to develop the critical literacy skills needed by young students to recognize and evaluate violence in the media. Media violence material often is contained in moving-image texts (i.e. material that is viewed on screens). The Primary Units provide solid foundation skills in decoding and creating still-image and moving-image texts. Students who have a good understanding of the codes and conventions of visual imagery are capable of bringing sophisticated analysis skills to any kind of visual text they may encounter. Since moving-image texts exist primarily beyond the classroom, it is important that all students can take these analytical skills with them for every engagement with visual media.

Junior Division – Grades 4-6

This Junior Division Media Unit is designed to assist teachers in delivering a program that will help students develop their Critical Literacy skills. Children in grades four to six are bombarded daily with media images, messages and manipulations. They need assistance to recognize their own media habits, and to become more aware of the subtle and overt ways in which merchandisers are trying to attract them. Because these young people are impressionable, it is important that they be made aware of the differences among heroes, celebrities, stars and role models.

Intermediate Unit – Grades 7-8

This Intermediate Division Media Unit is designed to assist teachers in delivering a program that will help students develop their Critical Literacy skills for dealing with violence in the media. The students in Grades seven and eight are of an age where they have very strong opinions of their own. They have reached a level of maturity where their opinions may differ from those of their parents and teachers, and it is unlikely that lecturing them or setting down rules will change their minds. What is needed to influence or change their attitudes and behaviours is open dialogue and discussion, and further education about topics crucial to their healthy development. The Critical Literacy skills that are developed as a result of these discussions are essential if these young people are to recognize that violence is not acceptable, and that they have choices about how to behave.

Secondary School Lessons and Materials

Leadership and Peer Support, Grade 11, Open

This unit in the Leadership and Peer Support course will focus on developing students as leaders in violence prevention and media literacy in their school and community. With the increasing exposure to media violence, teens need critical thinking skills to help understand such media and thereby defuse its harmful effects. Multiple sources, including television, music, movies, sports, Internet and video games, include violent images and messages that promote aggressive behaviours and unhealthy attitudes in impressionable audiences. With media as a contributing factor to bullying and violence, the implementation of media literacy strategies in schools is necessary for awareness, prevention, and action. By studying these mediums, students will become media literate and then can share their acquired skills with their peers.

Making the News: Canadian Politics and Citizenship, Grade 11, Open

The media often are referred to as a “window on the world”, but it is important to ask questions about what we are seeing through this window. How are news and information presented to us? What does the “frame” of this window allow us to see? Who is deciding what stories will make the news of the day, and who benefits as a result? How does the news media affect values, beliefs, and behaviours of Canadians?

This lesson series can be used on its own as a brief investigation of the role of news reporting in politics, or it can be integrated into other units of study in the course. Students will learn that the news and information communicated by media are powerful influences on the attitudes and values of Canadian citizens, and can shape as well as reflect events.

Internet: Safe Sharing with Social Media, Grade 11, Open

The Safe Sharing with Social Media unit is intended to be part of the Media Studies, Open course. The following lessons use course expectations listed in the Ontario Curriculum (2000) to promote student development of critical literacy skills. These skills will help students understand, use and critically evaluate information and a variety of communication technologies.

Resources for Teachers

The Association for Media Literacy provides visitors with articles and reviews; resources for teachers; and news about upcoming events, conferences and initiatives being undertaken by the AML. It also provides visitors with a connection to media education initiatives around the world through national and international organizations. The AML is the official subject association for Media Literacy in Ontario.

Canadian Teachers’ Federation and Media Smarts partner annually to promote Media Literacy Week in November. Learn more:

The CBC contains program schedules and streaming audio listening opportunities, but also offers transcripts of interviews and programs, as well as original writing by Canadian authors.

Center for Media Literacy is an educational organization that provides professional development and educational resources nationally in the United States.

Don’t Buy It – Get Media Smart is a website designed for elementary students. It features interactive activities for students, as well as informative sections for both teachers and parents.

The English Language Arts Network provides ongoing support for teachers looking for new ideas.

Film Education (UK) produces feature movie study aids for UK teachers.

British Film Institute supports film studies in the UK with a variety of quality resources, including courses, print, and online.

Independent Media Centre, Alternet, Adbusters provide students with alternatives to mainstream media for news and information. Media studies promote a multiple-perspective approach to reading and viewing the media.

Media Awareness Network features a wide range of resources – in English and French – including lessons and resources for teachers, information for parents, educational games and student modules.

Media Ed is the UK media and moving image education site for teachers, students and anyone else who is interested in media and moving-image education.

Media Education: A Kit for Teachers, Students, Parents and Professionals - Written by several media educators for Unesco, it provides a balanced account of the field.

Media Literacy Clearinghouse is a site that contains ongoing support for media education, primarily linked to U.S. initiatives.

Media Smarts is Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy offering teacher resources and current research on topics such as sexism, racism, and representation of people with disabilities in the media.

MuchMusic Media Education.  This site provides visitors with information on MuchMusic’s media literacy and social issues programming. Broadcast dates for programs are listed and teachers are welcome to tape programs off-air. Study guides for the programs can be downloaded free of charge.

National Institute on Family and the Media (Mediawise) is a website that seeks to educate and inform the public. The site also offers ideas and kits for purchase by educators.

National Public Radio offers similar features to those indicated for the CBC, but in an American context.

Newseum is a site that archives mainstream news and includes today’s front-pages, where students can examine and retrieve hundreds of front pages from 40 countries.

Pulse 24 contains both writing and video news stories.

Think Literacy: Cross-Curricular Approaches, Grades 7-12. Ministry of Education.  This document contains practical ideas and strategies for the implementation of media literacy in the classroom.

Resources for Parents

Understanding Media Literacy: A Guide for Parents

Media literacy means understanding and using mass media objectively. It is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and are sold to us every day. Youth learn to make informed decisions about what is being presented to them by understanding the nature of mass media, the techniques used, and the impact of these techniques. They learn to decipher the strengths, weaknesses, biases, tricks, artistry, priorities, roles and impacts of mass media.  This guide offers parents information on how children are using media, possible impacts and how parents can become involved in their children’s media use.

A printable version of this brochure is also available here.

TVO Parents.

Everything you wanted to know about… Media Literacy.

This website offers information for parents to help their children develop media literacy skills.

Critical Media Literacy – 10 Tips

A series of videos presented by educators with the Thames Valley District School Board which focus on the various forms of media in our lives, how to bridge the gap between ourselves and our children, and how to manage media consumption in a healthy way.