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Teaching Strategies to Detect Fake News

Jordan Catapano

During his farewell address in Chicago, President Obama stated, “Increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” He wasn’t just speaking about social media echo chambers and fervent emotional appeals. He was speaking about fake news. Fake news is news that is explicitly made up. A lie. False information passed off as though true. While President Obama warned against fake news stories being spread, President Trump has consistently decried the “Mainstream media” as agents of “Fake news” as well. What is fake news? Who gets to say what is fake or real? How can we tell the difference for ourselves?

The advent of smartphones and tablets allows students more access to information than any generation of humanity ever before. But it also allows anyone – absolutely anyone – to publish anything they want to and pass it off as truth. But do students know the difference between what’s true, biased, and a complete lie? It might be hard to tell the difference at first, but it is becoming the responsibility of schools to help students discern between fact and fiction.

Thankfully, teachers have responded to the fake news epidemic in droves. Here is an overview of teaching strategies, lesson plans, resources, and ideas you might find valuable as you teach your students about the dangers of fake news and the means to counteract it.

UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson tops my list of must-reads for teachers. This handy guide is written by the founders of FactCheck.org, and serves as an extremely articulate how-to guide for spotting the false, misleading, and biased statements of politicians and advertisers. While no specific teaching strategies or lesson plans are included, this savvy text delivers loads of examples and step-by-step advice our students will benefit from reading.

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Lesson Plan: Fighting Fake News by Rachel Roberson is a PDF lesson that helps students understand what fake news is, asks them to engage in source credibility testing, and guides a discussion that helps students understand what they ought to pay attention to when evaluating sources. This also comes with links to additional sources that talk about fake news in a way students can connect to.

Challenging Learning Fake News Lesson Plan. This lesson plan approaches fake news from a wide variety of angles and will likely take multiple days of focus to complete. It first challenges students to consider what “News” is and how they consume their information in the first place. It further asks students to examine related terms, such as click bait, satire, and propaganda. This lesson culminates with activity cards teachers can cut out and use for discussion activities and reminders with students.

Hoax or No Hoax? Strategies for Online Comprehension and Evaluation. This lesson from ReadWriteThink.org focuses not just on news, but on all online information. It helps students think about their digital literacy skills, and only then transitions into source evaluation using (one of my personal favorites) the Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website as a sample for practicing using their “Is This a Hoax” evaluation tool. What I like about this, in addition to the loads of links and worksheets included, is that it asks students to intentionally design their own hoax website, which encourages them to critically think through how to identify fake information in other sources.

Evaluating Sources in a “Post-Truth” World. The New York Times jam-packs this article with link after link to stories, examples, and lessons regarding fake news. The main components of this series of lessons helps students consider why fake news is a problem, look at various forms of fake news, follow an example to learn how easily fake news spreads, consider fake news’ impacts on democracy, and gain some tips on how to properly evaluate sources of information.

Lesson Plan: How to Teach Your Students About Fake News. This PBS NewsHour lesson takes one 50-minute class period, or possibly more depending on the quality of student engagement and discussion. At its core, this lesson helps students examine articles published during the 2016 election season, then links them to Snopes.com for examples of how to critically think through the validity of a few sample articles.

Five Ways Teachers are Fighting Fake News. From NPR’s education page, this source is written more like a story than a lesson plan, yet it summarizes five creative ways teachers are helping their students become more media literate. Ideas like “Fake News Simon Says” and teaming up with other classes across the country to investigate sources are included in this resource, offering teachers engaging methods for helping their students evaluate the validity of online sources.

Battling Fake News in the Classroom. Our friends at Edutopia developed this savvy piece that reminds us of one important factor: Talking about fake news is not just “One more thing” to squeeze into our curriculum, but rather it can be “Surprisingly easy to incorporate these skills in even a simple class assignment.” This piece emphasizes the importance of teachable moments; plus it uses the term “Crap detection” as a way of defining what effective evaluators of media ought to be doing.

Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Nearly every source I examined featured a link here, to the Stanford History Education Group’s research and recommendations related to the fake news epidemic. In short, this document reports on a “Bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning – the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.” This resource might not have direct use for lessons in the classroom, but serves as a powerful guide for teachers wrought with examples, research, explanations, and sample student work.

The Oxford English Dictionary made a startling announcement at the end of 2016: their Word of the Year was “Post-truth,” a word connoting the culture of an era that considers truth an afterthought. Fake news has unfortunately been spread by humans through every generation and location, but today’s digital landscape has led to a tragic proliferation of false information. As teachers, it is essential we help students become critical evaluators of the information they find so they can better separate fact from fiction.


Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.