Elementary school teachers may not be familiar with the literacy terms lateral reading or vertical reading. These reading descriptions are more common in secondary and higher education as it pertains to the understanding, analysis, and verification of the facts with informational and persuasive writing.

News stories are the best examples of text that require both lateral and vertical reading to understand facts and bias. It is an especially important reading skill today as “fake news” now inundates social media feeds and online content that are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

News and information are presented in many new forms today, which make it essential for students to have a strong comprehension of both digital literacy and media literacy. Understanding the difference between the two styles of reading will help readers determine how to identify bias, distinguish among credible sources, understand current events, and become a more savvy reader.

What is Vertical Reading?

Vertical reading takes place when a reader is simply looking at one source, and many times on the first glance, to gather information. The reader is relying solely on the source itself to determine the reliability or validity of information. Readers often quickly look at logos, references, the website domain, and the About Us page to determine its legitimacy. This is usually the initial step when it comes to reading research or news stories. It is a very simplistic way to evaluate resources and digital media.

Unfortunately, vertical reading does not always provide the most comprehensive, valuable, or reliable information. It is more of a method of scanning and scrolling one article or the same piece to determine false credibility. Vertical reading does not lead to deeper reading or valuable research because it is such a basic process.

What is Lateral Reading?

Lateral reading is much more of a deep reading experience that allows students to find answers to questions they are looking for and to gather facts. In this case, readers are explicitly reading multiple sources from a variety of outlets and publications to gain information. This type of reading forces readers to actually look at the presented facts in the documents and locate the research behind everything they find. This form of reading provides an in-depth analysis of numerous texts.

In lateral reading, readers are truly fact checking the information in the articles and pieces they are reading. Readers are seeking knowledge and looking for credibility and validity, which is why lateral reading is essential in the research process.

What are the Benefits?

While vertical reading is often the initial step students use to recognize, read, and evaluate sources, the benefits of lateral reading are far greater for readers. Librarians and English teachers are primarily the educators responsible for teaching students how to research and access and interpret digital or media literacy. In fact, many juniors in high school spend a semester analyzing persuasive text. Students read two articles, one for a topic and the other against a topic, and must decipher the language used to share perspective and identify bias. Through the process of lateral reading, students can learn how to recognize bias in publications, verify the sources, and confirm their validity.

How do students recognize bias?

Students should identify certain words or phrases that may convey a particular feeling on a topic to try to persuade the reader to believe what the writer thinks. When a piece of news is trying to convince a reader of something rather than just presenting the facts, a bias exists. Readers also need to determine who the intended audience of the publication may be and if there are any solid facts that are not included in the article. Understanding the author’s purpose and background information behind the source will also help students recognize bias.

How do readers verify the source?

Verifying sources to determine what is credible and valid is the next step in the process of lateral reading. Students should locate multiple sources on the same subject matter to compare and contrast the facts and content within the text. Students should observe the authors and publishers of each source and research the perspective behind each source. This process helps students learn how to confirm validity.

How do you determine credibility?

Credible sources are most likely written with a neutral narrative and unbiased perspective with the sole purpose of simply providing information on a topic. To determine if sources are credible, ask the following questions.

  • Who is the author?
  • What is his or her expertise in the subject matter?
  • What sources has this writer previously been published in? 

Scholarly articles or pieces written by educational organizations with a good track record of credibility are always considered the best sources to analyze and interpret during lateral reading. When student readers implement this sequential process of analysis through lateral reading and vertical reading, they increase their knowledge on a subject matter and fully comprehend how to identify real facts.