Lateral reading

Digital boosting toolbox at the Long Night of the Sciences 2022 at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Berlin)

Lateral reading

Quick start

This short video from the Stanford History Education Group explains how to use lateral reading and outlines the research behind it. Source: Stanford History Education Group (2020).

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Lateral reading: Where it came from

Lateral reading is part of the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum. It was developed by researchers at the Stanford History Education Group, who conducted a study with Stanford undergraduates, university professors, and professional fact-checkers to determine the best strategies for evaluating the credibility of information online. Undergraduates and professors stayed on an unfamiliar website to decide whether it was credible. Fact-checkers, however, opened new tabs and verified the website’s credibility by checking other, trusted sites. The professional fact-checkers knew that the best way to learn about a website is though lateral reading: leaving a site to see what other sources say about it.

How does lateral reading work?

Lateral reading begins with a key insight: You can’t tell how trustworthy a website or a social media post is just by looking at it. Without relevant background knowledge or reliable indicators of trustworthiness, the best strategy for deciding whether you can believe a source is to look up the author/organization and the claims elsewhere (e.g., using search engines, Wikipedia).

Three questions are at the heart of the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum:

  1. Who is behind this information?
  2. What is the evidence?
  3. What do other sources say?

These three key questions can be represented in a simple fast-and-frugal decision tree “Can you trust this information?” and used as a simple tool for deciding whether or not to trust a piece of information encountered online

Fast-and-frugal decision tree "Can you trust this information?"
  • Brodsky, J. E., Brooks, P. J., Scimeca, D., Todorova, R., Galati, P. Batson, M., Grosso, R., Matthews, M., Miller, V., & Caulfield, M. (2021). Improving college students’ fact-checking strategies through lateral reading instruction in a general education civics course. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 6, Article 23.

  • Standford History Education Group. (n.d.). Online Reasoning.

  • Wineburg, S., Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M. D., & Ortega, T. (2022). Lateral reading on the open Internet: A district-wide field study in high school government classes. Journal of Educational Psychology.

  • Wineburg, S., & McGrew, S. (2019). Lateral reading and the nature of expertise: Reading less and learning more when evaluating digital information. Teachers College Record, 121(11).