• Read this short article. It shouldn’t take longer than a couple of minutes.

  • Test your new skills in lateral reading and assess a sample source of information. Ask youself: is it credible?

  • Wait for a perfect occasion to show your kid how to read laterally! I promise, it won’t take long.

How often do you hear your kid asking “Please, help me with my homework”? Don’t blame yourself if your inner voice responds immediately: “Haven’t you heard about the Internet?”. It’s understandable that you assume all the answers are already there. Are you sure, though, that your child is well-equipped to verify online sources? Yes, they might be of a generation born with mobile devices in their hands, but frequent scrolling and fast thumbs don’t necessarily go hand in hand with critical thinking and verification skills. Keeping that in mind, next time you are asked the same question, use an opportunity to teach your kid lateral reading.

What is lateral reading?

Searching for a reliable piece of information on the web might be confusing. There’s no way you can go through all search engine results pages – some choices have to be made. For topics that you are familiar with it shouldn’t be a big deal: you can probably name a couple of trustworthy news sources related to, e.g., your professional work. But is it equally easy with other issues discussed at your child’s school like, let’s say, genetically modified foods or climate change? With lateral reading – it surely will be.

Lateral reading is a very effective way to evaluate the credibility of a source or – to put it even more bluntly – to learn who is behind a given piece of information. All you have to do is follow these steps: instead of staying on an unfamiliar website, leave it and open new browser tabs to see what other websites, including those you already consider trustworthy, say about the original site (it’s the opening of new tabs that makes the reading lateral). Once you know more about an organization or author, you can make an initial judgment about its trustworthiness and return to reading the information it has provided. Pretty easy, right? Although the technique itself seems rather obvious, research shows that it is not commonly used. In 2017, scholars from the Stanford History Education Group assessed competencies of three distinctive groups: fact-checkers, historians and Stanford undergraduates. According to the study, the fact-checkers proved to be the fastest and most accurate, while historians and students were easily deceived by unreliable sources. The key to success of the former was lateral reading, contrary to the vertical reading strategy applied by the latter.

Although there are a plenty of different checklists that supposedly help with confirming the credibility of a source, please, forget about them. What they encourage you to do is to stay on an unfamiliar website and we have already proved it ineffective. Focusing on specific elements of a website, such as the URL, graphic design or the “About us” section can be ever so misleading. Imagine trying to determine if you can trust a given insurance company: you probably reach out to some other sources than the firm itself.

Wikipedia – a friend, not an enemy

Sometimes the best starting point for lateral reading is Wikipedia. Yes, I know you’d rather keep your child far away from a website that “can be edited by anyone”, including your neighbour who shares conspiracy theories whenever he meets you. But that’s a simplistic picture of the largest online encyclopedia. First of all, Wikipedia has several rules that help ensure the accuracy and fairness of its articles. Secondly, although public editing is a default option for most of the articles, some of them are protected (you can find more details here).

The most useful part of a Wikipedia article while reading laterally lies in its References section. It consists of the links to the sources that the article refers to. Let’s take a look at an example. While searching for information about the 5G technology, you come across a piece of news on a website sputniknews.com. You haven’t heard about this page before, so you use lateral reading to assess its credibility. Typing “sputniknews.com” in the search tab would be an obvious choice, but you can go directly to a Wikipedia article related to this website. What you learn is that Sputnik News is owned and operated by the Russian government and described by many as its propaganda outlet – not a good source if you look for unbiased information.

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Test new skills

Now, it’s your turn. Check if the following website is a reputable source of information about the coronavirus and the current pandemic: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en. Read laterally and answer the question “who’s behind the information”?

Once you learn to read laterally, don’t hesitate to help your kids with their next homework. Instead of simply sharing the answer, show them how to verify trustworthiness of an online source. Who knows, maybe it’s the last time when your support is needed?

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about lateral reading, check out the following sources:

Author: Patryk Zakrzewski (Demagog Association, Poland)

Background illustration: Photo by Robert Kneschke from Alamy Stock Photo / Alamy license