The University of Iowa

News You Can Use: Student Journalism Instruction and Effects on Literacy Skills

Student journalism conference workshop

In addition to writing instruction in class, high school journalism can lead to further literacy learning opportunities, such as journalism workshops like this one at the Iowa High School Press Association Fall Conference in 2017 (photo courtesy IHSPA).


Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: April 3, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on student journalism and literacy learning.

There are some characteristics of journalistic writing discussed previously, such as writing for an authentic audience and the opportunity to write about topics that interest them, that provide motivation to write for students participating in high school journalism. Beyond motivating students to practice writing, working for the school newspaper, yearbook, website, or broadcast medium through an elective or extracurricular (or hybrid approach) benefits students’ literacy development by providing instruction from a teacher.

Explicit Instruction and a Student Journalism Curriculum

Just like other literacy-related classes, journalism electives involve explicit instruction from a teacher (also referred to as an adviser for newspaper and yearbook). High school journalism teachers see writing instruction as having the utmost importance, with 86% of them saying that improving students’ writing skills was “very important,” making it their top curricular goal (Glick, 2017). Teaching writing is a goal in other language arts courses, too, though it may not be occurring that often. In schools that were known for their excellence in teaching writing, a combined 16% of English class time was spent teaching explicit writing strategies, studying writing models, or evaluating writing including discussion of rubrics or standards (Applebee & Langer, 2011). To put it another way, teachers would spend on average just 3 minutes teaching explicit writing instruction during a 50-minute class.

During introductory elective journalism courses, explicit writing instruction is substantial, says Kyle Phillips, journalism and English teacher at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and current Iowa High School Press Association president (personal communication, November 12, 2017). Teachers provide models of good journalistic writing, says Phillips, and break down what the writer did to make the story successful. They also provide outlines and other techniques to help students craft good journalistic pieces.

In the more advanced newspaper and journalism electives, less time is spent on explicit instruction as students are predominantly working on producing the publications. However, Phillips says teachers continue to provide exemplar models. In addition, students are getting a lot of instruction in the form of constructive peer and instructor editing, and continued drafting of articles using that feedback to improve the writing.

Figure 1. Instructional approaches and topics being taught by journalism teachers

Word cloud representing journalism education topics
This represents how often various verbs and nouns describing instructional aspects of journalism and topics that are directly related to literacy appeared in the “Standards for Journalism Educators” written by the Journalism Education Association (2012). Note: some synonyms were consolidated, and all words from the standards not directly related to literacy were removed.

Figure 1’s word cloud represents how often each word appears in the Journalism Education Association’s standards for journalism educators. The words should look familiar in describing what is taking place in any quality literacy teacher’s classroom (though frequency of each activity or topic taught is variable and not necessarily represented in the word cloud). These standards call for journalism teachers to offer individualized instruction on skills such as synthesizing information, language use, and questioning; and to do so using a student-centered curriculum involving various forms of formal and informal assessment and intervention (Journalism Education Association, 2012).

Another way to assess journalism instruction and its ability to improve literacy skills is to compare the kind of instruction taking place in journalism classes to overall best practices for literacy instruction. The following recommendations identified in the evidence-based “Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively” practice guide (Graham et al., 2016) would be part of any effective journalism instructor’s teaching methods.

Selected Writing Instruction Recommendations (Graham et al., 2016) That Align With Journalism Instruction

  • Explicitly teach strategies for planning and goal setting, drafting, evaluating, revising, and editing.
  • Instruct students on how to choose and apply strategies appropriate for the audience and purpose.
  • Use a variety of written exemplars to highlight the key features of texts.
  • Assess students’ strengths and areas for improvement before teaching a new strategy or skill.
  • Analyze student writing to tailor instruction and target feedback.

There is a lot of crossover between journalistic writing and other types of writing, so instruction and practice also have benefits outside journalism. For example, journalistic writing also can help students write better essays. The beginning section of both a journalistic article (the lede or lead) and an essay (the thesis) is the most important part, grabbing readers’ interest and setting up the rest of the piece. Alana Rome, an English teacher and newspaper adviser in New Jersey, says in a blog post that learning how to write a lede helps students decide the most important information to include first, and how to use active voice to make clear the angle or purpose of their writing (2016).

Meeting Iowa Core Standards

The National Council of Teachers of English confirms that journalism classes have the ability to meet core standards (2004). Based on a review of the Iowa Core standards, journalism instruction can accomplish several learner expectations. For example, Phillips (personal communication, November 12, 2017) points to Reading Standards for Informational Text (RI.9–10.7) which reads:

Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

This multimedia aspect of journalism continues to emerge, Phillips says, and journalism provides a great discipline in which to work on this core skill. It also will benefit those students who continue with journalism in college or professionally, as the ability to tell a story across multiple mediums is now a must-have skill, Phillips says (personal communication, November 12, 2017).

Literacy Skill Improvement and Increased Readiness for College

Explicit instruction, exposure to different types of writing, and other aspects of the student journalism experience play a role in producing students who are more skilled at writing and arguably more prepared for college than non-journalist peers. A study from the Newspaper Association of America Foundation (2008) shows that 20% of students worked for their high school newspaper or yearbook, and those student journalists displayed the following characteristics.

Ways High School Journalism Students Performed Better Than Non-Journalist Peers

  • Higher high school grade point average
  • Higher ACT Composite score
  • Higher ACT English score
  • Higher ACT Reading score
  • Better college freshman English grade
  • Better college freshman grade point average

Journalism students also displayed more confidence in their own literacy skills. According to the interest inventory and student profile sections of the ACT as described by the Newspaper Association of America study, significantly fewer journalism students were concerned about their ability to express their ideas in writing, their reading speed, and their comprehension levels compared to their peers who did not participate in journalism (2008).

In addition to the explicit instruction provided, Phillips (personal communication, November 12, 2017) says journalism classes provide a large dose of independence, which helps prepare students for life after high school. Students are given more freedom and control over the finished product than in any other high school class, Phillips says, and the resulting environment is very similar to college. Students also gain a lot of experience with and understand the importance of meeting deadlines, which Phillips says is imperative for the post-secondary world, whether in college or in the workplace.

Developing an Engaged and Informed Citizenry Through Journalism

Experience with high school journalism can help students develop media literacy skills as well. A previous blog post addressed the growing prevalence of false information, often presented in the form of “fake news,” and its impact on comprehension. Students are exposed to this false information as much as anyone is, and without media literacy instruction, can fall victim to it. Students in journalism classes are exposed to the kind of explicit instruction, formative exercises, and practice in identifying and avoiding false information needed to improve their media literacy skills.

According to a study involving interviews with high school journalists, some high school student journalists will find great importance in presenting unbiased facts in their own work, wanting to contribute to an informed citizenry to the benefit of society as a whole (Clark & Monserrate, 2011). This is one way in which high school journalism helps to counteract egocentrism that can lead to a diminished collective identity. Student journalists experience a collective and shared public culture, and they may empathize and identify with others in the community about which they are writing. These are all important aspects of becoming an engaged citizen, the study authors suggest.

The Student Journalist Experience

Phillips (personal communication, November 12, 2017) says all of his students show noticeable gains in their literacy skills, thanks to their experiences with high school journalism. However, it is the students who put forth extra effort to grow as learners and journalists that stand out to him most. One such student joined the newspaper staff with a solid foundation of literacy skills. Molly Hunter also had a desire to learn and become a better journalist. She asked questions and wanted to learn from Phillips and her editors. She eventually became editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, was named Iowa Journalist of the Year, and now is a journalism student at the University of Iowa, while also working for The Daily Iowan and Iowa Watch.

Not every student journalist will end up pursuing a career as a professional communicator. However, many will be enthused by the newfound freedom and responsibility to write for an authentic audience, telling stories that deserve to be told while growing as writers and as young citizens. If their experiences are anything like mine were, some of their best times in high school will take place in the newsroom.


Applebee, N., & Langer, J. A. (2011). EJ Extra: A snapshot of writing instruction in middle schools and high schools. The English Journal, 100(6), 14-27. Retrieved from

Clark, L. S., & Monserrate, R. (2011). High school journalism and the making of young citizens. Journalism, 12, 417-432. doi:10.1177/1464884910388225

Glick, J. (2017). High school journalism resource study (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Digital Repository at the University of Maryland. doi:10.13016/M2N589

Graham, S., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L. D., Greene, K., Kim, J. S., & Olson, C. B. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE 2017-4002), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Journalism Education Association. (2012, August). Standards for journalism educators. Retrieved from

National Council of Teachers of English. (2004, November 20). Resolution on the importance of journalism courses and programs in English curricula. Indianapolis, IN: National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from

Newspaper Association of America Foundation. (2008). High school journalism matters. Arlington, VA: Newspaper Association of America Foundation. Retrieved from

Rome, A. (2016, May 5). Why journalism matters #1 getting to the heart of the matter: Thesis vs. lede [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Core Standard: