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Media Literacy Tips

Media Literacy Tips

Our Media Literacy Tips highlight a resource, activity or curriculum intended to assist educators teach media literacy in the classroom. This page is an archive of past tips that were structured around classroom exercises.

  1. Critical Viewing Skills
  2. The Film School Experience
  3. How to Write a Film Review
  4. Internet Technologies (in Plain English)
  5. Same Song Different Genre
  6. Scores and Soundtracks in Film
  7. Double Speak
  8. Movie Poster Design
  9. Mini-Festival of Flip-Book Animation
  10. Critical Viewing Skills
  11. Story and Character Development
  12. Reflecting on your Media Diet

Critical Viewing Skills

Here are a series of questions teachers can pose to students to help them to develop critical viewing skills. Though the old saying “everyone's a critic” may have some truth to it, the term critical viewing does not refer to criticizing or critiquing what is viewed in this sense. Rather, the term refers to the process of viewing to attain a greater and more detailed awareness beyond that which is literally presented to the viewer. Through the act of consciously analyzing compositional elements in any given media text, the critical viewer attempts to gain insight into any deeper (or perhaps hidden) meaning and intention introduced by the author(s). Identifying compositional elements and knowing how they can be used to provoke response in viewers benefits students by providing an increased ability to deconstruct the meanings and intentions behind the ever-present streams of information directed at them in advertising, television shows, films, videos and websites.  Following are some examples of critical viewing questions that can be posed to students before or after a screening to promote a more active viewing experience:

  • Did you notice any brand names in the film? List reasons a filmmaker might decide to include brand names or logos within a film. 
  • Did the main characters in the film have to overcome a problem or obstacle to achieve their goal(s)? Would you have tried to solve their problem differently? Why? 
  • Did the actors use facial expressions or gestures to convey any messages? 
  • Did this film have an intended audience? Do you feel you might be included in its intended audience? Why?  
  • Briefly describe the key scenes of the film.  
  • Were music or sound FX used? How did this change the dramatic mood of the film or add to what was happening in a given scene?  
  • Did you make any observations regarding the lighting? Did the use of lighting, shadows or graphics enhance the mood or add to any scene?  
  • Did all the speaking roles make sense to you? Did any of the actors or characters say anything in the film that you didn't expect, or that surprised you?
  • Were there any lines in the script that you would have written differently?
  • Did you learn anything new in this film? Try to remember and write down five interesting visual elements or ideas that were presented in this film. 
  • What interested you most about this film? This does not have to be central to the film or intentionally presented to you by the film; rather this could be anything that you in particular found interesting or stimulating.  
  • Where and when does the film's story take place? Were there any elements of this story which could have taken place in any other time or place? 
  • Is there anything that could have been added or taken away from this film that would have made it better?  

The Film School Experience

An integral part of Sprockets for students in grades 10 and higher is Future Frames, a presentation of the latest and greatest works created at post-secondary film schools across the country. An extensive post-screening panel discussion allows high-school students to interact with the filmmakers and discuss various Canadian film schools and the filmmaking experience. Nicholas Wong, director of the live-action short, My Dad Ralph, joined us early to give Reel Learning Newsletter readers a glimpse into life as a student filmmaker:

Nick, thanks so much for joining us. Can you please share with our readers what school you attended and briefly describe the application process and programme?

I attended Ryerson University in the Image Arts – Film Studies programme. Image Arts is divided into three streams – Film Studies, New Media and Photography. The application process was fairly straightforward. I think the only academic requirement was a 70% in English. Non-academic requirements were a portfolio, resumé, a written statement on why you want to become a filmmaker and a project outline. There was no interview process. It's a four-year programme. I remember in first year there weren't many electives that you could take; most of them were required such as Film History, Film Theories, Concepts and Theories, Film Production and Film Tech. In the later years, you can choose a few professionally related liberal courses i.e., screenwriting, directing, lighting, animation, art history, etc.

What advice would you give a students applying to film school?

My advice is to be prepared and be honest in the application. Whether you're into experimental films, or B-horror, art films or teen comedies – don't be afraid to say it. Film schools aren't looking for filmmakers who are only interested in art films. There were many students with very different backgrounds in my class, which I thought was really interesting. Write from the heart and write what you know – that's where the best stuff comes from.

Having both pursued and excelled at film studies, did you come up against any unexpected challenges in the courses? What should a high-school student be aware of when thinking of film school?

The production-oriented streams of film school are expensive (not as much as in the United States though). On top of tuition and books, you have to pay for film to do your projects on. I remember in first year, we worked with 16mm black-and-white film and it cost about $24 for 100ft roll which yields about three minutes of footage. And then transferring and printing that film was equally as costly. In total, it costs about $50 for three minutes of footage! And then in the final year, you have the opportunity to make a thesis film, which can be very expensive. It really depends on the project because some films made in my final year cost over $30,000 and some were less than $3000.

Having completed school, do you feel like you are prepared for a full-time career in the film industry?

I don't think film school alone can prepare you for a career in the film industry. It is an incredible resource and it provides a great technical background but I think half of the preparation for working in the industry is simply to start working in the industry. I think I was very lucky to have both. While I was still in school, I worked part-time at a Toronto production company that shoots Degrassi: The Next Generation. I consider that my second film school. I learned about the corporate structure of the industry. I learned that besides having the creative ability, the industry is ultimately a business, and it is about making money. That's something you don't really think about in film school. Marketing and promotion is a big part of making films. After a film is done, you have to get it out there. I'm still learning that now, trying to submit my film to festivals. It's a full-time job. I’m not saying that film school doesn't teach you this; it does touch upon it, but you get a better sense of it, when you are experiencing it first hand. So just a word to aspiring filmmakers: film school is a great tool to have but you don't need it to succeed. It's incredibly hard to get in, so you shouldn't be discouraged if you don't.

In closing, are there any great blogs, books or resources you can recommend to aspiring filmmakers?

I remember having to buy The Filmmaker’s Handbook when I was in school. I thought it had some really good technical information about film (some of it may be outdated though). I also like to read scripts of movies at so I can see how they were formatted. And sometimes, just to get some inspiration, I would read bios of interesting filmmakers just so I can say “hey, they were just like me.”

If your students are interested in pursuing film studies, they may benefit from searching the Film School Consortium website. The Film School Consortium is an association of Canadian film schools dedicated to the advancement of educators and emerging filmmakers.

Students aged 17+ seeking hands-on exposure might also consider volunteering at TIFF. Our volunteers have the opportunity to enrich and develop their interests in film and many go on to pursue film school further!

How to Write a Film Review

This tip offers a simple exercise to introduce students to the concept of writing a film review, adapted from the How to Write a Film Review document hosted on the Reel Learning website. Special thanks to Barbara Csenge and Mike Bann for creating this resource.

As you will see in this exercise, successful film reviews are composed of several common components, such as a summary of the story, character insights, production values and theme. These and other elements are essential, but it is often the personal observations and opinions expressed by the author that can make a film review most interesting to the reader, so encourage your students to express themselves.

How to Write a Film Review

  • Have students choose their favourite film, and perform basic research to find out the following: 
  • Year of production, principal cast and crew
  • Other films the principal cast and crew have been involved with – are there noticeable trends between this film and any other films, such as similar genre or plot?
  • Is the film an adaptation of a book or play? Is it a remake? Is it a sequel? 
  • Was it intended for a specific audience or age group?  
  • Discuss the purpose and basic elements of a film review. You can find detailed information on how to write a film review by clicking here.

Lead/Introduction: Film reviewers call this a lead and use it to draw the reader into the body of their review. A lead provides a broad picture of the importance of the film.

Plot: Think about the beginning, middle and end of the film and select the key events that shape the story. A film reviewer should summarize the key events but leave some mystery so that the reader is interested in seeing the film.

Characters: Evaluate the most interesting characters in the film. Include major roles but also select some of the minor characters who are especially interesting. Consider how the characters develop and interact with other characters.

Technical elements: Editing, lighting, special effects and camera work are all considered basic technical aspects. Students should learn basics about each of these and be aware of how technical elements can communicate a different message and elicit a different response from viewers.

Sound: Music and foley (sound effects) will be the most noticeable sound elements to students. Both score and sound effects are important elements that can strongly influence the impact or tone of a scene.  Students should make observations about whether the music helps convey certain emotions or adds meaning in key scenes.

Theme: The theme is the message or recurring idea in the film. There can be both major and minor themes that students may also choose to discuss. Students should evaluate how effectively the director communicates the theme by commenting on specific scenes and characters.

Conclusion: The conclusion should balance the whole review by returning to the broad comments presented in the lead or introduction. The conclusion should summarize the overall effect of character, plot, sound, technical elements and theme, and return to the issue presented in the lead.

Have students complete the following checklist before submitting their review:


  • I have included a title for my film review.
  • I have summarized the plot without giving away the ending.
  • I have included a strong lead/introduction.
  • I have discussed significant characters and actors.
  • I have discussed important technical elements.
  • I have evaluated the sound and/or movie soundtrack.
  • I have stated and evaluated the theme.
  • I have included a strong conclusion summarizing my ideas.
  • I have edited my review for spelling and grammatical errors.

If you have a media literacy activity you would like to share, please contact us ( We would be thrilled to highlight you and your class as we share your media literacy insight or tip with the rest of the Reel Learning Newsletter readers.

Internet Technologies (in Plain English)

During a recent brainstorming session with our Educational Advisory Committee, we explored ways in which teachers could utilize Internet technologies to introduce youth and students to new academic opportunities and social experiences. The point was repeatedly raised that, in order to effectively engage with students, teachers need to not only be aware of the internet and a growing array of media technologies, but also how to use them to engage students. Prevalent in this discussion were technologies often used by internet-savvy students such as wikis, social-networking websites (such as MySpace and Facebook) social bookmarking and Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

This Media-Literacy Tip aims to help educators by guiding them toward some simple explanations of these three technologies. We invite teachers to watch the videos listed below, which were created by a company called Common Craft, which offer explanations of wikis, RSS, social networking and social bookmarking. Please note these links are not intended as an endorsement of Common Craft, or any views, products or services offered on their website.

  1. Wikis in Plain English
  2. RSS in Plain English 
  3. Social Networking in Plain English 
  4. Social Bookmarking in Plain English

We would like to remind educators that conflicting claims exist concerning both the validity and intent of many forms of "user-generated" content, especially in institutional learning environments, and that is why it is important to have a fundamental understanding of both the pros and cons of these technologies.

Same Song Different Genre

This tip is a simple exercise to help address interpretation of media forms and conventions used to create meaning.

Objectives: To examine different interpretations of a song and explain how different production techniques were used to create different meanings. 
: 15 minutes
: Listen to two versions of the same song and analyze the differences between each interpretation. Does one interpretation of the song appeal to a different audience over the other? Does the audience react differently to the interpretations? 

Scores and Soundtracks in Film

This media literacy tip comes courtesy of Stefan Luciani, former high-school student at Parkdale Collegiate Institute and co-op student with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Youth Learning department. Stefan created a simple exercise focusing on the use of music in film. A film’s soundtrack is an important component of a film, helping to reflect the mood and emotion of the story. The exercise below will demonstrate how music can change the viewer’s assessment of the characters, circumstances and overall meaning of the storyline.


Materials needed

  • Television
  • DVD player and DVD
  • CD player or iPod
  • A selection of at least three different songs representing three different music genres


  • Choose your film.
  • Choose a scene from the film that has a clear score or soundtrack
  • Either compile a selection of your own, or have students bring in a variety of genres of music to play during the exercise.


  • Hold a brief discussion with students about the use of music in film, discuss the importance of music in helping to create the mood and tell the story.  As an example, consider a boy running down a road looking back over his shoulder. When there is no music playing we see only a boy running and are given no other suggestions about the scene. However, if suspenseful music is introduced, the boy may appear as though he is being chased.  Alternatively, if there is inspirational music playing it may look like the boy is running with a sense of achievement, possibly winning a race. Ensure that students do not confuse the soundtrack with the use of sound effects or foley (which are sounds added to enhance the already apparent actions taking place in the scene).
  • Next, screen a scene from a film with the volume turned on.
  • Then, replay the same scene with volume turned down and in conjunction with a different song playing in the background. Ask students if their perception of the characters and plot changed depending on the music introduced.
  • Repeat this one final time playing a new song in the background.  Again, ask students if their perception of the characters and plot changed depending on the music introduced.
  • As a homework assignment, ask students to describe a scene in a film in which the music influenced the mood and emotion of the scene.

Double Speak

This tip is a simple exercise brought to you by Angela Moritsugu; a former student at Northern Secondary School who participated in an exercise on doublespeak. This exercise addresses the Media Literacy component curriculum of the Ontario Language Arts curriculum.

Doublespeak is a type of language that is deliberately ambiguous or misleading. It is becoming increasingly popular, especially in politics and the business world. For example, instead of a tax increase, there is revenue enhancement. Instead of firing an employee, redundancies are eliminated in the human resources sector. Some doublespeak terms can also be heard on the news and through other media outlets; bombing becomes air support and a presence mission is a military attack. It is important that students can recognize when doublespeak is being used, as well as its role in supporting one perspective over another, and that they develop the awareness that they need to question and investigate the media outlets to which they are exposed to. 

Here are some common terms and their doublespeak counterparts, a few of which were invented by students in my class. High-school students can try to match pairs, and will also enjoy coming up with some of their own terms.  Both exercises address the curriculum requirements for the Media Studies course. 

  • Cashier: Price integrity coordinator
  • Vinyl: Vegetarian leather
  • Junkyard: Reutilization marketing enclosure
  • Toothpick: Wooden interdental stimulator*
  • Gas Station Attendant: Petroleum transfer engineer
  • Pencil: Portable hand-held communications inscriber*
  • Acid Rain: Poorly buffered precipitation
  • Bag of Ice Cubes: Thermal therapy kit
  • Hammer: Multidirectional impact generator
  • Plane Crash: Controlled flight into terrain*
  • Plastic: Synthetic Glass
  • Air Pollution: Human engineered atmospheric additions
  • Shoplifter: Inventory displacement specialist
  • Armed Robbery: Equipped financial withdrawal
  • Contagious Disease: Public immunity challenge
  • Explosion: Unplanned rapid ignition of solid fuel*

*source: U.S. military

Movie Poster Design

Film posters come in a wide range of styles and can be found practically everywhere, from billboards to the sides of buildings and vehicles, and on websites. Although many films are intended to be transformative or educational experiences made for reasons unrelated to profit, it’s important to remember that the posters marketing them are purely advertisements. Like all advertising formats, film posters use some recognized design techniques that have proven to be effective at persuading audiences to spend their money.

This Media Literacy Tip offers students a simple exercise to help them both parse and deconstruct this pervasive marketing tool. Due to the graphic nature of some posters, this activity is recommended for senior high-school students, but could easily be adapted for younger students if posters were pre-selected.


Lead students in a discussion about some of the basics of film poster design:

  • Posters often display the film title in a large font in bold, eye-catching colours.
  • Typically, film posters either frame images from the most interesting scenes or show the faces of the most famous actors in the film. The more famous the actor, the bigger and more prominently placed his or her head tends to be.
  • The majority of posters contain imagery from the film, but sometimes promotional artwork is created that is unique to the poster and does not appear in the film itself. Students should ask themselves why this might happen and why the artwork might make a film look more appealing.
  • Some film posters deceptively illustrate events or situations that do not happen in the film, for the sole purpose of increasing the chance that someone will want to view it.
  • Film posters often employ tag lines or slogans that sum up the film’s plot or most interesting element. Again, these are often created for the poster only and are not derived from the film.

Have students review movie posters on the websites listed below. Students should choose one poster they feel is particularly effective at enticing people to watch the film, and one they feel is not effective. Students should then write a comparison of both posters, outlining why the posters are, or are not effective at selling the film.

As a cross-disciplinary extension of this exercise, students can attempt to design a movie poster for their favourite film.


  1. Internet Movie Poster Database
  2. IMDB Poster Search
  3. Posteritati
  4. Posterwire
  5. Movie Poster Art Gallery
  6. Richard Amsel Movie Posters

Mini-Festival of Flip-Book Animation

Host your own mini-festival of flip-book animation!

Even if your class wasn’t able to attend Sprockets, this Media Literacy Tip about flip-book animation can help you bring a festival experience into the classroom.

Flip books are one of the earliest and easiest-to-create forms of interactive media. In a flip book, pages containing a sequence of images are bound together on one side in chronological order, then viewed by flipping through the sequence rapidly, creating the illusion of motion. They have been widely used as a cheap, engaging form of storytelling and as an advertising tool since the late 19th century.

Here is a simple activity in which students create their own flip books and then hold a small festival to flip through each other’s animations.

Activity: Flip-Book Festival
Age recommendation: Grades 2 to 6
Pencils, pens, pads of sticky notes or sheets of paper and bindings to create custom notepads

  1. Students first create small notepads using sheets of white or light-coloured paper or sticky notes. Clips, staples or any other binding can be used to create the books, but the pages must stay firmly together on one side and have at least two inches of space on the other side where drawings will be easy to see. Using thinner paper and a greater number of illustrated sheets or “slides” will result in smoother animation. Every second of flip-book animation requires at least five slides, so a 10-second animation would require 50 sheets. (Note: yellow or white pads of sticky notes work particularly well for this exercise.)
  2. Before students choose a subject or object to animate, explain that this exercise is intended as a study in creating the illusion of motion, and as such, advanced drawing skills are not necessary. They need not create characters or complicated plotlines – even something as simple as clouds floating, a ball bouncing or abstract drawings will suffice.
  3. Starting on the bottom page of the notepad, students should begin by drawing the final slide of their animation. This may seem counter-intuitive, but by starting at the bottom and working toward the top, students will be able to see the next slide through the paper they are drawing on, making it easier to perceive the transition. Students should first draw everything in pencil so they can erase and redraw any errors. Only when the animation is complete should they trace each frame in pen to make the lines stand out.
  4. When students have finished their flip books, the festival can begin! There are many variations on how students can view each other’s creations, but in this activity, students leave their flip book on their desk and make their way around the classroom viewing all of the other animations. To expand the festival experience, consider inviting another class to participate in tandem. Each class can create and view its own works, switching classrooms when all the animations are ready.

Students in grades 2 to 6 who are interested in learning more about animation should begin by visiting a library or searching the Internet under adult supervision. Tools for creating basic slide-based animation are widely available on most home computers and on the Internet free of charge.

Critical Viewing Skills

This media-literacy tip offers teachers an activity focused on developing critical viewing skills for students in grades 6 through 12. In this exercise, students will build critical viewing skills as they view a film or television programme in conjunction with reading the accompanying script.

Activity: Using scripts in the classroom to teach critical viewing skills 

Materials required:

  • An excerpt from a film or television script (if you’re looking for sample scripts check out the Film Reference Library [],  which archives over 2000 film scripts spanning a myriad of genres. Or you can try searching for film scripts online; for ideas of where to find sample scripts, see below under “Resources”)
  • The film or television programme that accompanies the script.
  • Exercise steps:

  • Read the excerpt from the selected script aloud with the class.
  • Note the description written in the script, such as the location where the scene takes place, the characters involved in the scene or the time of day.
  • Have students review the script and follow along while screening the film or television programme. It may be for an entire film or just a scene. The process of watching a film while reading the script can be a welcome opportunity for visual learners to understand concepts surrounding the structure of a scene or story.
  • Host a discussion about what the students noticed about the script and the film. Were there any changes from the script to the actual film? How long did the actual scene last? How did the actors add their own perspective to the scene? How did lighting, music and props convey the meaning and purpose of the scene?

Resources: Here are some useful links should you or your students want to learn more about scriptwriting and script format.

Reel Learning  Film Production Resources: Using Screenwriting in the Classroom webcast. Guest presenter youth television writer Vera Santamaria.

The Internet Movie Script Database Note please see the disclaimer for copyright information.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Screenplay Resources: Movie Script Structure and Examples: A Guide to Screenplay Structure and Formatting Standards  

Open Directory Project: “Screenwriting: Scripts”

Story and Character Development

This Media Literacy Tip presents a fun-filled activity that lends an interesting twist to the story and character development process. This activity is suitable for all grades and skill levels.


  1. Distribute four cue cards/index cards per student.
  2. On the first card, the student writes a character name (for example “Pete”).
  3. On the second card, the student devises a basic character description (for example “Old man with a cane and a toucan he calls Flappamaki”).
  4. On the third card, the student records the setting or destination (for example “farmhouse on the moon”).
  5. On the final card, the student creates an activity for the character (for example “dancing a jig”).
  6. The teacher then collects the cards and sorts them into four piles according to name, description, setting and activity.
  7. The teacher shuffles each pile and again distributes four cards to each student. This is most effective when students receive a set of new cards they haven’t seen.  
  8. The students then take turns reading aloud their character's name, description, setting and activity. This offers students fresh and funny ideas for characters and scenarios that they can use as quick and easy inspiration for writing a script after the exercise.

The Youth Learning Department of the Toronto International Film Festival Group tested this activity and got this result:

  1. Emily
  2. Is 111 years old and has seven cats
  3. Lives in the city but moves to a different house every week
  4. Plays the piano all day while amazed onlookers throw flowers at her feet

Reflecting on your Media Diet

Grades 4-6 Language Arts, Media Literacy Strand.

This exercise is a simple first step in getting students thinking about their media intake, and could make for a fun, easy-to-discuss homework assignment.

Using categories such as Film/Movies, Television, Books, Internet, Newspapers, Magazines, Comic Books, Podcasts and Theatre Performances, teachers can have their classes create ‘Media Diet Charts,’ similar to a Food Nutritional Chart outlining the basic food groups.

When students have analyzed their media-intake habits and grouped them into the different categories, have them consider some of the following questions:

  • Looking at your charts, do you feel you are nourishing your mind?
  • Do you consume a particular type of media more than others?
  • What might be some reasons why certain people predominantly consume one media type such as newspapers, while other people consume, for example, television predominately?  Do factors such as age, location or access play a part?

Create a basic list of the effects this consumption might have on your life. For example:

  • Does it affect what you wear?
  • Does is affect the types of music you prefer to listen to?
  • Does is affect how you speak to your friends?
  • Are there any other likes or dislikes you have which you find are reinforced by the media you consume?

The diet choices we make in regards to food are important, especially when considering that we must try to keep a healthy balance of different food groups.

  • Do you feel there is merit in balancing your ‘Media Diet’? 
  • Do you feel there are good reasons to get information from different sources?
  • What difference does the type of media make on how they consume it?
  • Did they have to sit somewhere in particular to consume it?
  • Did it make them want to do something before or after consuming it?
  • How much interactivity on their part does each media type require?
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