Get 'em Thinking!
Using the “3 Rs” of Media Literacy

Sue Lockwood Summers


“Media literacy” is slowly becoming part of the educational vernacular, but many people in our schools and communities are unaware of the topic. How can this field of inquiry be introduced in the classroom, given the demands already placed on teachers and on instructional time? Is there a quick and logical approach that would enable students to get started in the process of becoming media literate?

This article provides an introduction to the “3 Rs” of media literacy -- review, reflect, and react -- and focuses on how to facilitate students' critical thinking within a cultural blur of messages.

What Is Media Literacy?

Media literacy encompasses the skills and knowledge needed to question, analyze, interpret, and evaluate the messages of the mass media. In essence, media literacy is the application of critical thinking to the messages of print and electronic media.

Critical thinking extends beyond the ability to restate and reconstruct a situation; it encompasses higher level thinking that involves the ability to analyze or deconstruct and then to examine all of the ramifications. For example, after reading a short story, a student must be able to do more than explain what happened, name the central characters, and describe the style of the illustrations. To reach a full comprehension of the text's meaning, he or she must be able to use higher level thinking. Questions teachers can ask to stimulate such thinking include

The term media literacy refers to this higher level thinking as it is applied to images and messages of the media. Media literacy covers a gamut of topics for discussion and deconstruction. In my book Media Alert! 200 Activities to Create Media-Savvy Kids (Summers, 1997), I attempted to consolidate these topics into a manageable number. They are presented as 50 “digestible” concepts, including point of view, fact versus opinion, celebrities and heroes, the power of images, historical accuracy, the computer's role in society, tobacco and alcohol advertising, and violence in the entertainment media.

My intention with this approach was to create a structure through which to integrate media literacy into schools, homes, churches, and communities, but it was soon apparent that 50 topics is still overwhelming to a newcomer to media education. I have therefore undertaken to design a more basic approach through the “3 Rs of media literacy.” Using this method, the essence of critical thinking can be modeled for those new to media education.

Becoming Media Literate Through the 3 Rs

Effective teachers already teach critical thinking within their curricula, encouraging students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the items presented to them. Whether any of these higher level thinking skills are then applied to messages received outside the classroom walls is questionable. Media literacy instruction focuses on just that: helping learners apply critical thinking about the everyday messages conveyed in advertising, movies, television programs, music, radio talk shows, newspapers, magazines, posters, clothing, and the Internet.

The 3 Rs -- review, reflect, and react -- can be applied to any message from any medium. Consider each of these verbs.

Now consider how these verbs can be applied to an examination of a media message. First, review the actual content of that message. After viewing a television comedy program, for instance, take time to think about the story, its message, the characters, the setting, the dialog, and so on. Some appropriate questions to ask are

Next, reflect on both the content and the format of the message. Writing in a journal can encourage this aspect of critical thinking. Take time to consider what the message was and why you reacted to it the way you did. Our personal beliefs, ideas, and opinions come into play when we evaluate any incoming message. After reading a magazine ad, for example, consider

Finally, react to the message. Take a stand or decide on an action to take in response to it. After watching a newscast, for instance, you may find that your opinion on a social issue has changed. Perhaps this will cause you to vote for a particular political candidate or against a new ordinance. Reaction to a message might merely reaffirm an existing idea or opinion. After reading an editorial you may feel more convinced than ever about your opposition to a new shopping mall in your area. At this stage, some considerations might be

The 3 Rs in Action

As an introduction to the application of critical thinking to the messages of the media, I have found that the 3 Rs model allows educators to get involved without the need to span the entire scope of media literacy topics or to discuss Bloom's taxonomy for higher level thinking. For example, in the following sample exercise, use of the 3 Rs prompts layers of thinking that can bring about questions, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation.

A television commercial for a fast-food restaurant shows scenes of a family eating together. In the short 30-second scenario, the family's interaction is positive and focused. The son peels off a small label from his soft drink cup and discovers he has won a large prize in a contest the restaurant chain is sponsoring. The prize is then shown and details about how to enter the contest are given by an unseen announcer.

Let's review this commercial.

At first there are direct observations: The family is spending time together; the restaurant food is part of this pleasant experience; the boy is a winner in the contest; the prize is desirable and attainable.

Go further and review what else is shown in this commercial: The restaurant is clean; the food is appealing; the family appears to be happy; there is a contest that does not require any effort or thought; one can enter the contest merely by purchasing food and drinks at any of the restaurants in this chain.

Now review at a more detailed level. Examine the clothes, hairstyles, ages, language, and apparent socioeconomic level and ethnicity of the people featured. Listen to the announcer's voice, noting tone, appeal, and dialect. Think about the background music. Speculate about the location of this restaurant.

In sum, the review portion of the exercise focuses on the actual content of the messages and images. At this stage, viewers can also identify whether the commercial is familiar or new to them, summarize the story line, note during which television program the commercial aired, and specify what was learned about the featured product. The purpose here is to use the who, what, and where questions as a springboard to the why -- the purpose of the commercial and its intended audience. Time must be available to analyze the elements and state all of the facts.

Next reflect on the commercial.

At this stage in the exercise, consider viewers consider their personal attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. The idea that some people will be attracted to the commercial while others will immediately click to another channel when it is shown indicates the importance of the audience in the media experience.

Each of us has individual likes, dislikes, ideas, tastes, experiences, and expectations. Therefore, it is important during this component of the 3 Rs process not to expect consensus. As individuals personalize their thoughts, they will evaluate the impact of the commercial. Perhaps one viewer has seen this commercial so many times that she immediately dislikes it -- not because of its content or the product advertised, but merely because she has seen it too often. Perhaps the portrayal of the happy family causes instant pain for an individual as he reflects on his own parents' recent divorce. Or perhaps an individual has had an unpleasant experience at a local fast-food restaurant and there's some residual anger that might trigger a negative reaction to the commercial. On the other hand, the girl featured in the commercial might look like a favorite neighbor and could therefore spark a pleasant feeling, again not related to the restaurant or the food featured. There are so many layers that make up the human psyche that there is no way to predict any individual's emotional response.

Now reflect on the attitudes and values embedded in the commercial. Evaluate its implied cultural messages and discuss personal feelings related to it. Think about Neil Postman's (1985) words:

The TV commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of products. Images of movie stars and famous athletes, of serene lakes and macho fishing trips, of elegant dinners and romantic interludes, of happy families packing their station wagons for a picnic in the country -- these tell nothing about the products being sold. But they tell everything about the fears, fancies, and dreams of those who might buy them.

Based on Postman's statement, continue to reflect about the “character of the consumers.” What are we, as consumers, looking for in a fast-food restaurant experience? What stereotypes are depicted in the commercial? What materialistic messages are sent? If this advertisement is not just about fast food, what else is it about? What generalizations could be made about the culture it depicts?

Now consider some words from Marshall McLuhan (1964): “The historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our times are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.”

Through the study of television commercials, much can be learned about what we value. Reflecting on commercials gives insight into more than just advertising techniques and the newest products. It is a truly a sociologist's dream: focusing on the bits and pieces of our cultural quilt. Commercials supply ample opportunities to reflect on what is important in our society.

Last in the exercise is the react component.

Based on the total content of the commercial and the ensuing personal responses, reactions can be investigated. This is the essential “So what?” part of the critical thinking process. If all of the viewer's analysis is true, what difference does it make? At this point it is time to accept or reject the commercial's premise -- whether the merits of the actual advertised product or the implied messages about our culture. It may be that the musical background is so appealing that the tune catches on and becomes part of our cultural environment. Perhaps the family portrayed in this particular commercial is so hokey that a parody of the commercial will show up as a segment on Saturday Night Live or some other comedy program on television.

Reactions may span the range from positive to neutral to negative. It may be that after some consideration, one viewer decides that the message in this commercial is insignificant -- merely filler. Or after viewing this commercial, the reaction may be to plan to stop at one of the restaurants soon to buy some food and drinks with the hope of winning a prize. Or the reaction may be more active, leading to contact with the television network, the producers of the program that aired the commercial, or the sponsoring fast-food chain.

Today's Students, Tomorrow's Engaged Citizens

The media literacy process of engagement that moves viewing this commercial from a passive experience to something to consider and react to changes the viewing experience. Being a critical viewer of commercials is a starting place for critical thinking about all messages. The active consideration of all of the elements of the media message, the personal contemplation of its meaning, impressions, and implications, and the ensuing reactions exemplify the 3 Rs approach to media literacy.

Have students use this 3 Rs approach to think critically about a local news story, a controversial billboard, a current movie, or even the emergence of commercial messages within their school. The following activities will encourage students to be critical thinkers through application of the 3 Rs model:

For many students the curriculum of today's schools just doesn't seem relevant to their lives, but by studying media literacy and developing critical thinking skills, they can evaluate their personal worlds and become healthy skeptics and discerning citizens.

In a society that has grown dependent on television news, 30-second campaign ads, and e-commerce on the Internet, it is necessary to help individuals travel through the daily maze of constructed messages they encounter. The 3 Rs of media literacy -- review, reflect, and react -- are easy to embrace and apply to all media messages of today and those coming tomorrow. This approach can become a lifelong strategy for higher level thinking, both within and outside of classrooms.

Copyright ©2006


McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: New American Library.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death. New York: Penguin.

Summers, S.L. (1997). Media Alert! 200 Activities to Create Media-Savvy Kids. San Jose, CA: Hi Willow.

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