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Six Questions with Cathal Coyle, author of: Identifying ‘Fake News’: Critical Literacy and the School Library

13 March 2020 Share

While ‘Fake News’ isn’t a new phenomenon – the manipulation of information and the use of false stories that appear to be news has been around for centuries - there's still no clear definition of what it is, or isn't.

The theme of Critical Literacy, a whole-school, cross-curricular approach that has the school library at the centre, has recently come into sharp focus. It is not simply about the ability to evaluate information for features such as relevance, accuracy, currency, credibility and potential bias. Instead, critical literacy addresses more fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge.It can be challenging for primary and secondary school pupils to analyse and understand what ‘Fake News’ is, and Critical Literacy is one approach that can help. This new guideline by Cathal Coyle examines the historic and current contexts of ‘Fake News’; the definition and practice of Critical Literacy; and includes case studies by Critical Literacy practitioners and recommended resources for school librarians.  An online supplement for SLA members that contains appendices and figures accompanies the publication. This latest publication in the SLA Guidelines series is now available through the SLA website: https://www.sla.org.uk/publications


1) What is your professional background in this area?

I’ve been a school librarian since 1999, and have witnessed many changes in our profession, both in terms of the technological advances (especially the Internet and social media) and various information literacy approaches during this time.  My school, St. Patrick’s College Dungannon in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, places a great emphasis on the school library as being central to our promotion of literacy.  I have co-ordinated our school’s participation in The Irish News ‘Young News Readers’ Critical Media Literacy Project for the past four years and this project has been really important in providing a tangible example for pupils in viewing newspapers as an information source – in tandem with news sources on the web or social media.  


2) Why do you think that critical literacy is so important? 

The National Literacy Trust defines ‘critical literacy’ as a ‘whole-school, cross-curricular approach’ that encourages readers to be ‘active participants in the reading process as opposed to passive absorbers of information’.    Critical literacy also differs from other approaches to resource evaluation because it places more emphasis on the student’s own interpretation. In contrast to more conventional approaches, with critical literacy there is no single ‘correct’ way for students to read and respond to a resource.  Just like authors, all readers (or viewers) bring their own experiences and knowledge. Critical literacy therefore values the experiences of young people themselves, whilst also encouraging them to recognise and question their own assumptions. Critical literacy can be applied to any type of resource and increasing awareness of ‘fake news’ has highlighted the importance of critical digital literacy – which emphasises the importance of learning to understand the underlying messages in digital resources.  In this context, critical literacy is an intrinsic part of primary and secondary education throughout the world. 


3) What are the most recent books you have read – and did you enjoy them?

I am a big fan of biographies and autobiographies, I received one for Christmas which I thoroughly enjoyed.   Behind the Headlines by award-winning Irish Journalist Alf McCreary is a magnificent account of his life and experiences as a writer, and at times very poignant given his reporting on ‘The Troubles’ for The Belfast Telegraph.  The other book that I read quite recently is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne. This is another powerful story for all ages by the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; and while focused on a  young person’s gradual decline into intolerance and racism during World War Two, it has eerie parallels with the current era. 4) Can you provide a practical example of how critical literacy can be applied in a school library setting?There are two case studies as well as interviews with a range of critical literacy practitioners  in this Guidelines publication. My sincere thanks goes to all of the contributors for sharing their expertise on how critical literacy can be applied specifically in a school library setting, they have provided many outstanding examples – which librarians and teachers will find useful. One contributor cited the example of the popular children’s book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein (1964), a picture book about a tree that selflessly gives to the protagonist, a boy, throughout his life. The message the book teaches children is one of sharing with and loving others. On a second reading pupils are asked to listen, paying attention to gender issues such as which gender is implied for the tree? Who is always giving and who is always taking? What message does the story suggest for girls/women and for boys/men? Pupils might then be tasked to explore other popular children’s texts for same or similar gender issues so as to become aware of the extent to which this world-view is perpetuated in mainstream patriarchal culture and as a way of thinking that goes beyond the seemingly natural, inevitable order of things.

5) Is ‘Fake News’ still a problem in 2020?

This guideline ‘Identifying Fake News: critical literacy and the school library’ looks at the historic context of ‘fake news’ as well as the current one. Unfortunately, ‘fake news’ has been around for centuries, and essentially we are simply in a new phase.  Much of my research has pointed to 2016 as being a seminal year for the ‘re-birth’ of ‘fake news’ with events such as the U.S. Presidential Election and the Brexit Referendum that year leading to the term being popularised. I am a believer in freedom of expression, and how we process information as citizens is crucial, so in many respects it has become much more important to critically examine information given the extent of so-called ‘Fake News’ in modern society. We are living in an era where libraries, literacy and information are vital in trying to make sense of the events over the past decade that have impacted on all of us, whether it is the Banking Crisis, or Brexit or climate change, for example. To this extent, school libraries are absolutely crucial in shaping young people’s approaches to analysing information – an important life skill.  To quote the author Neil Gaiman, a strong advocate for school libraries:“Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education, about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

6) In the publication, you mention The Irish News ‘Young News Readers’ Critical Media Literacy Project, what is it?

This is a project that I would highly recommend to any primary or secondary school based in Ireland. Our entire Year 8 group participates in the project for eight consecutive weeks in the Spring term and we co-ordinate it with the English Department as the pupils have been learning about the role of newspapers and other forms of media in term one. The cost per pupil is only £1 for the entire duration of the project – which is excellent value for money, and as well as developing a greater understanding of newspapers and critical literacy throughout the eight weeks, the tasks are tuned to specific learning outcomes. One example is a ‘scavenger hunt’ of The Irish News which directs pupils to make inferences about why different messages are placed in different sections of the newspaper. NewsWise is a similar initiative that covers the United Kingdom curriculum.

Cathal Coyle was interviewed by Alison Tarrant, Chief Executive of the School Library Association