ABC's of Media Literacy: What Can Pre-Schooolers Learn?

This article originally appeared in Telemedium: the Journal of Media Literacy, Spring 2002 and is reprinted with the permission of the author.


Three-year-old Hannah looks up from the television and announces that she wants to invite Cassie (the youngest dragon from Sesame Workshop's cartoon, Dragon Tales) to her upcoming birthday party. Her mother, a teacher recently trained in media literacy, tries out all her best strategies to convince Hannah that Cassie isn't real, but no matter what she does, Hannah doesn't seem to understand.

That's because the vast majority of media literacy materials and strategies have been designed for middle and high schoolers and, more infrequently, elementary level students. Rarely are those resources developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. So mom's efforts might have worked wonderfully for her fourth graders, but they demanded skills that were developmentally beyond the reach of her three-year-old daughter.

The common concept of media literacy as the ability to analyze, access, and produce media seems completely out of reach for preschoolers. For example, while we reasonably expect thirteen year olds to be able to look at news with a critical eye, many people don't want three-year-olds to watch the news at all, let alone analyze it. And we rightly hesitate to place expensive media equipment in hands that have only recently graduated from using a sippy cup.

So if preschoolers can't analyze or produce media, and it is inappropriate for them to have access to things we know they can't understand, what might media literacy mean in the context of early childhood education? Formal research on the teaching of media literacy to preschoolers is almost non-existent, so no one can yet suggest a definitive answer. However, what we know about print literacy might suggest some initial strategies.

We don't expect preschoolers to be able to understand the nuances of Shakespeare or write an essay. We do expect that if we start them with simpler building blocks they will someday master these skills. So we introduce toddlers to the alphabet and read aloud their favorite books and offer crayons. By themselves, none of these things enables junior to analyze Macbeth or write a sonnet, but they provide the foundation on which more complex skills are built. So what do we do for young children if we want them to become fluent in non-print media? Is there an "ABCs" of media literacy?

Media-Inspired Materialism

It might seem natural to start our quest for an answer by trying to solve common media-related problems, such as the in-store-"I-want-it-now" whine sparked by something the child (or the child's friend) has seen on TV. We can engage older children in a discussion about why they want something and how companies whose job it is to sell things might have influenced their desires. But preschoolers are not capable of the abstract thought necessary to comprehend motive. In other words, they won't be able to understand that people who produce their favorite TV programs or websites or videos may be trying to sell them something. This inability to understand motive is one of the reasons that preschoolers often don't distinguish between "programs" and "commercials."

It also means we must temper our expectations that preschoolers can be taught to resist commercial messages. For example, very young children tend to focus on one thing at a time and they don't always make links between things that adults see as related. So we can show a young child the contrast between an actual toy and the version shown on TV, and they will probably understand the differences as they relate to that toy, but they may not apply what they learned to the next appealing thing they see on TV.

We can also introduce youngsters to the concept of advertising by playing the "What are they trying to sell?" game whenever commercials come on. See who can be first to guess what the ad is for. The game is not only fun; it will help young children learn to distinguish between different kinds of programming.

However, because media literacy that centers on consumer education ultimately requires understanding the motives of media sponsors, it isn't the best approach for early childhood audiences.

Real of Pretend

Another common issue that tends to de-rail early media literacy lessons is the "it isn't real" syndrome. Whether it is trying to explain to Johnny that he can't copy his favorite wrestling hero and body slam his little sister because in real life people get hurt, or Hannah's mom trying to explain why Cassie won't show up at her daughter's birthday party, parents of preschoolers are destined to fail if they base their strategy on trying to get their child to understand that what they see on the screen isn't real. It's not that preschoolers don't understand the difference between "real" and "pretend"; it's that they define "real" differently from adults. That definition takes two forms. The first relies on the concrete. If they can see it, or touch it, it is "real". So to a preschooler, Barney the dinosaur, who they see on TV several times a week, is "real", while their Great Aunt Zoe, who sends birthday cards from another state but never actually visits, is not "real."

The second definition has to do with emotional attachment - what adults would likely label "realistic" rather than "real". If a character's experiences ring true to a child - if they relate to the character emotionally - they will see the character as real. So rather than trying to convince a child that a dinosaur can't really talk or that Elmo only lives on screen and can't come over for a play date, it is more productive to discuss with them which of the character's experiences or feelings seem real to them. Rather than trying to convince children who are copying inappropriate behavior that their actions have consequences that media ignore, simply set boundaries. Just as toddlers learn that there are things they can do at home that they can't do at preschool or at grandma's, they can understand that some things are just for TV or the computer.

So if neither commercials nor "real vs. pretend" are appropriate starting points for an early childhood media literacy curriculum, what is? I suggest that there are three areas with which we might begin:

  1. Identifying Storytellers

  2. Knowing the perspective and motive of media makers is essential to being able to analyze media's messages, but preschoolers aren't developmentally capable of mastering such knowledge. What they can do, however, is answer the question: "Who is telling this 'story'?"

    The answer to that question will vary according to developmental stage and literacy level. At the most basic level, preschoolers are likely to identify a character they can see or one who is the center of the action. In a television program like Theodore Tugboat, for example, they would tend to name Theodore as the storyteller. A slightly older child might notice that the show also has an on-screen narrator who voices all the characters in the story. A six year old can understand that the narrator is the storyteller. By the time a child is eight they can begin to understand things they can't see. This ability allows them to understand that a TV show has writers and that writers are the storytellers. By middle school, children can understand that what writers write is shaped by the people who pay the bills. They should be able to name producers and sponsors as storytellers.

    These stages can be applied to nearly any medium. In the case of a babysitter reading aloud a book, the youngest children will identify the babysitter as the storyteller because she is most immediate and concrete. Slightly older children might identify one of the characters in the book. Elementary school students might look on the book jacket for the names of the author and illustrator. And the most media literate students would add the publisher to the list of storytellers.

    It is important to note that all these are correct. The different answers represent different levels of sophistication in understanding. In doing media literacy education with preschoolers, the idea is not necessarily to nudge them towards the next most sophisticated level of understanding. That will come naturally as their cognitive abilities develop provided they continue to ask the question. So media literacy education for preschoolers starts with getting them in the habit of asking the question, "Who is the storyteller?"

  3. Understanding Stories

  4. One of the most traditional ways to analyze or reflect on stories is simply to talk about them. Like adults, preschoolers make their own meaning from what they see, read, and hear, so asking them to re-tell a story is more than a way to check comprehension. What they choose to focus on tells us a lot about who they are and what is on their minds. Re-telling stories also places children in the role of storyteller, giving them a taste of making, not just consuming, media.

    By asking children questions about what they see and genuinely listening to their answers we encourage the habit of thinking and talking about media. The goal is not to replace conversation with a quiz; asking preschoolers to re-tell media stories is not primarily about checking for accuracy (or more precisely, our vision of what is accurate). Rather, the purpose is to provide children with an opportunity to practice talking about what they see and hear.

  5. Learning the Language

  6. As authors use words, film and video makers use shots. Zooms and close-ups and fades are the ABCs of image-based media. Just like emerging print readers begin to identify letters and sight words, emerging image readers can begin to identify shots. Even preschoolers can learn that when King Friday (the reigning monarch in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood's Land of Make Believe) fills the screen we call that a close-up and when we can see the whole castle we are looking at a wide shot. They can also begin to understand perspective. If they see their favorite dragon flying in the sky and the next shot looks down at houses on the ground, they understand that the second shot is from the dragon's point of view. This can eventually help them learn to better identify who is telling the story.

    Though we don't want to make every TV viewing session into a formal lesson, occasionally naming shots can help preschoolers develop a vocabulary they can use to talk about video. It can also help them understand that someone is making choices about which shots to use and give them a sense that the pictures they see are constructed.

    In addition to naming shots we can help preschoolers become aware of the constructed nature of what they see by helping them notice the things in the background that make up the set. Keep crayons and paper handy to let them practice drawing their own "sets". They might draw a favorite show or something familiar like the place they sleep. In either case, adults can enhance the learning by prompting children to include details that would help a viewer know that the picture was of their bedroom and not someone else's bedroom (or that the dog in their picture was Clifford and not Blue).

    Finally, the language of television includes not only pictures, but also sound. For preschoolers, this may be the easiest part of media language to understand. Asking how music makes them feel or inviting them to dance and pointing out that they move or feel differently when they hear different kinds of music, or playing sound games (listening for sound effects, listening to sounds with eyes closed and guessing what makes the sound, imitating sounds or voices, etc.) can help young viewers see that media storytellers use sound to help tell their stories and that the sounds they choose influence what we feel.

Some people will see the suggestion to include media literacy in early childhood education as anachronistic because they believe that young children should not be watching television or using computers at all. While that belief is based on genuine concern for children's well-being, it is based more on inference than actual research and it begs the pedagogical issue of how to develop literacy skills without exposing people to the materials we hope they will learn to "read."

We don't wait until children are capable of deciphering the intricacies of a Toni Morrison novel before introducing them to the alphabet. It makes no more sense to wait until children are developmentally able to fully comprehend media messages before introducing them to media literacy skills. To the contrary, if we see media literacy as vital to life in the "Digital Age," then we should begin the acquisition of that literacy as early as possible.

Author Bio: 

Faith Rogow, Ph.D, founding national president of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (, is an educational consultant specializing in children's educational media and diversity issues.