Secondary and undergraduate
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to
- identify components of a source that can establish its credibility or bias
- identify the difference between how professional fact-checkers assess information online and how a general audience evaluates information
- use online search techniques to assess a source
- evaluate a source’s credibility or bias through lateral reading techniques
- assess a source’s usefulness given the task at hand, after careful and thoughtful questioning of an author’s stance
Background and Context
This lesson draws heavily on the work of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), especially its 2019 study Students’ Civic Online Reasoning, written by Joel Breakstone, Mark Smith, and Sam Wineburg, which showed that “young people lacked basic skills of digital evaluation.” Other studies, such as one by Sarah McGrew, Teresa Ortega, Joel Breakstone, and Sam Wineburg, have identified an important technique to support students’ evaluation skills. The technique, modeled after source-evaluation strategies used by fact-checkers who work for news organizations and outlets, is lateral reading—that is, according to McGrew and colleagues, “hopping off an unfamiliar site almost immediately, and investigating outside the site itself.” The MLA Guide to Digital Literacy suggests calling it “cross-referencing” a source, a term with which most of us would be more familiar. One reason digital sources are difficult to evaluate for bias is that the bias is often intentionally hidden in a practice called astroturfing: masking the true intent (be it political, religious, commercial, or social) of the organization by making it appear more widespread and organic in origin.
Total Estimated Class Time
Two 80-minute class periods
Sequence of Activities
First Class Period
- Review bias and have students identify why it matters. Introduce the concept of a stoplight for decisions about whether to use sources in research; green = can safely use; yellow = use cautiously; red = don’t use.
- Find an article by an organization with a clear bias but one that does not identify its stance, such as “Bullying at School: Never Acceptable,” by the American College of Pediatricians, which the SHEG used in its lateral reading study.
- Have the students work in pairs to evaluate this source and to answer the following questions: If you were writing an evidence-based essay on school bullying, would you use this source? Why or why not? Note: at this point, we have not taught the students about lateral reading techniques.
- When partners are done evaluating the source, ask them to use stickers provided by the instructor to create a class graph assigning a color (green, yellow, or red) that aligns with their answer in step 3. Use an 11 x 17 sheet of paper with the labels red, yellow, and green and have students create a line graph by placing their selected stickers under the correct heading.
- Ask students to work as a class to analyze where class members have placed the stickers. Then ask students to share answers to the following questions:
- What do you notice about where on the graph students have placed their stickers evaluating the source?
- What about the source made you place the sticker where you did?
- What criteria should we use when evaluating a source for potential use in our research?
- Introduce the concept of lateral reading, sharing results of the SHEG study, and explain the concept of astroturfing. In our classes, we have shown student-appropriate excerpts from a segment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on the topic, available on YouTube. You may also want to show students an example of an article from a fact-checking website, such as Politifact, published by the Poynter Institute.
- Assign a different article and provide students with the following lateral reading instructions, modeling the steps for them:
- Research the website’s author or organization. Identify any possible bias or messaging associated with the organization.
- Identify keywords in your source and complete your own web search of that topic. Compare the results with your original source.
- Find a quotation attributed to specific people. Conduct your own research to verify the quotation and confirm it has not been taken out of context or misconstrued.
- Look for hyperlinks or citations to other organizations or sources. Conduct an online search of those organizations to determine any possible bias or messaging associated with the organization or sources.
- Look for any advertisements or sponsored content on the website. Conduct a web search to identify possible bias.
- Instruct partners to conduct a second evaluation of the same source from step 2. This time, they should conduct as many lateral reading moves as possible before coming to a conclusion. Use a second graph to record students’ evaluations of the source, offering the same stickers: green, yellow, and red.
- Possible extension activity: Have students laterally read a source they have used in an evidence-based assignment or hope to use for an upcoming assignment. Ask them to post the results of their lateral reading in a class discussion board or personal journal and to indicate if the lateral reading has affected their impression of that source’s reliability.
Second Class Period
- Revisit the stoplight metaphor but talk about the importance of context. Have students imagine they are at a stoplight. Ask them to consider, in pairs, the following questions:
- When might it be wrong to go, even if the light were green?
- Yellow signals caution. What are some things to consider before deciding whether to proceed through the light or stop?
- Even red lights can be safely disregarded. Can you think of a time when you might be safer running a red light rather than obeying it?
- Share the continuum (Scaled Rating System) in Lesson Materials below. Review the work on lateral reading from last time and the question they were given: if you were writing an evidence-based essay on (source’s topic), would you use this source? Ask partners to use context to designate a color on the continuum.
- Ask students to work as a class to analyze where class members have placed themselves on the continuum. Then ask students to share answers to the following questions:
- What did you find in your lateral reading that influenced where you placed your source on the continuum?
- What other context should we consider when determining whether to use a source?
- Why might a writer still choose to use a source even if lateral reading has identified a potential bias?
- What might you be able to do as the writer to contextualize the biased information and use it skillfully in your own arguments?
- Share a model text of evidence-based writing. We placed this lesson at the start of a unit on Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and students had already read chapter 1, “The Matthew Effect.” The website of The New Yorker contains several articles by Gladwell that could be used instead. Have students work together to complete a simple chart, like the one in Lesson Materials below, that records their thoughts every time they see an outside source used as evidence for the author’s argument.
- Together with the students, choose a source that the author uses in the model text and conduct a lateral reading of that source.
- Ask students to work in pairs to find a second source from the model text and have them laterally read it with their partner.
- Given what they are discovering about the author’s use of sources in their lateral reading, have the students identify on the continuum how reliable they feel the author is.
- Ask students to share in a large group answers to the following questions:
- Did you find instances when the original source contradicted or made you question the way the author used the source?
- Did you find instances when the source strongly supported the author’s argument, even after lateral reading?
- How might authors introduce their own bias in using and integrating outside evidence?
- Do authors always acknowledge when they are introducing such bias? How does lateral reading help you see that potential bias?
- Conclude the lesson by having your students write a journal response or a comment on the class discussion board, considering how lateral reading might help people when using social media.
Possible Follow-Up Activities
- Have students, using an informational text of their own choosing, write a review of the argument’s effectiveness, according to both their reading of the text and their lateral reading of the sources.
- Have students conduct lateral reading for three sources about a topic of their choosing. After writing an argument on the topic, students must write a “Dear Reader” letter explaining why the sources were used correctly and were good sources for their purposes. They should include evidence of lateral reading in the letter.
- Continue to have students practice lateral reading by asking them to use the continuum graphic and to write a quick explanation when they conduct short research projects in class.
- Instead of having the students evaluate the sources according to the spectrum with stickers, you could have students use a program such as Screencast-o-matic or QuickTime, which allow them to record their screens while they narrate the process of evaluating the source on the website.
- Practice lateral reading with your students. When using a nonfiction text, you can ask the students to laterally read the text by finding the author’s sources or new information that would help the students to evaluate the argument provided by the author.
- Ask students to identify astroturf organizations and to write memes exposing their bias and demonstrating why knowing that stance is important.
- Ask students to look at several professional fact-checking websites and to record evidence of lateral reading they found on the websites.
Overhead projector and slide presentation to guide your direct instruction in the lesson
Digital or print copies of an article that does not reveal the organization’s stance on the topic
Digital or print copies of a short article for you to model lateral reading before releasing students to laterally read in pairs
Stickers in red, yellow, and green and a class graph to record partners’ responses
Digital or print copies of a mentor text using evidence-based argumentation
Colored copies of the Scaled Rating System
Digital or print copies of the Model-Text Reading Chart