Activities & Lessons
Learning to distinguish fact and opinion is one of the most important skills students can learn in school. It serves students for a lifetime and in all aspects of life—from knowing how advertisers get them to buy products to analyzing news stories and the sources. No matter their political leanings, students need to know how to analyze information and differentiate between fact and opinion. They need to be able to pick reliable sources when conducting their own research as well.
Unfortunately, many students do not learn this skill, and that has a negative impact on our country and on their own lives. Perhaps it is because we, as teachers, focus more on memorization than analysis. Students learn analytical skills by doing, not reading and memorizing. It is like learning how to ride a bike, swim, or read. You cannot learn to ride a bike by reading about it or by watching someone else do it. You need to do it yourself.
We cannot function as a democracy if people don’t know the difference between fact and opinion—and how to speak up and make an informed argument. We need students in school to practice being an informed electorate. That is one of the challenges we are encountering today: students are not practicing in school, they are memorizing. They don’t know whether to believe what they read or not. They don’t know how to check to see if what they are reading is actually “fake news.”
In a 2018 Pew Research Center study, U.S. adults had difficulty telling the difference between fact and opinion, with just 26% of those surveyed able to correctly classify a full list of five factual statements and 35% of adults able to correctly classify five opinions. According to Pew, “The politically aware, digitally savvy, and those more trusting of the news media fare better.” It makes sense.
We all want to fare better. It is in the best interests of our country for all adults to fare better. Teaching this skill should begin in elementary school when kids are learning to read.
There is only one way to legitimately incorporate opinion into news, and that is to quote a source saying something. The source has a right to be opinionated. However, if reporters only quote one side of an issue, the story is biased. They need to quote credible sources on both sides to balance the story. That doesn’t always happen, but the reader should be able to note that. They should ask, where is the information from the other side? News can be biased by citing sources from only one perspective.
"No matter their political leanings, students need to know how to analyze information and differentiate between fact and opinion."
Defining Fact and Opinion for Students
Use simple definitions to help kids—especially those in elementary school—differentiate between fact and opinion.
- A fact is a statement that can be verified.
- An opinion is an expression of belief about something.
You can add additional qualifiers to your explanation. Facts rely on observation or research and generally involve the use of empirical data and information. In many cases, facts also involve our physical senses, like hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, or tasting. Opinions are based on assumptions that cannot be proven and reflect somebody's views, beliefs, personal perspectives, or values. In a news story, all opinions must be quoted from a source, and sources from both sides should be cited. Even a statement like “it is too hot outside” can be an opinion. Some people prefer hot weather, whereas others do not. Opinions cannot be verified.
- The research confirms…
- The doctors recently discovered that COVID-19 is airborne…, COVID-19 is ...
- "According to [source]" is usually followed by a fact. But it can also be followed by an opinion statement. You need to know your source.
- The source of a fact has to be credible. It cannot simply be your mother or your relatives—unless they are a recognized authority.
- I think, I believe, I feel, In my opinion, Some people think, My friends think, My parents think, Some people claim, He/she claims
- Always/Never, Awful/Wonderful, Beautiful/Ugly, Better/Best/Worst, Delicious/Disgusting, Enjoyable/Horrible/Favorite, For/Against, Good/Bad,, Inferior/Superior, Oppose/Support, Terrible/Unfair, Worthwhile
Fact vs. Opinion Activities
There are many fact or opinion activities you can use to teach these critical thinking skills. Here are some ideas.
- Analyze News Stories vs. Editorials: As a straightforward and effective activity, have students actively pick out the opinions and facts from an editorial they find themselves. Students share their findings with the class, and then follow up with a news story about the same topic after doing the same type of analysis. Have them compare what they found in each article. A teacher can also find a digital news story and engage the entire class with the same article. Students should have a routine where they find a news story and analyze it at least once a week for the semester. After a semester of doing that, they will have embedded that learning.
- Have Students Practice Writing: Recognizing a biased story is one skill, but going one step further is being able to write balanced news. If students learn to write balanced news and then editorials, they don’t forget the distinction. For example, have them choose a topic they are interested in and then write an objective article on that topic, followed by an editorial where they voice their opinion. When students actually do something, they tend to learn it.
Try this free activity from Human Geography for the AP® Course, which gives geographic context to global, national, and local issues while teaching students to think and write critically about them.
- Give Students Examples: Are these opinions or facts? Give kids some examples. You can use the ones below or others you find or come up with, depending on their grade level.Chocolate is the best flavor for ice cream.The beach is more fun than the mountains.The fires are burning north of Sacramento.Football is a dangerous sport.Tennis is a great sport for kids to learn.Audio books are an easier way to read a book.School uniforms make kids happier.It is difficult for sea turtles to lay their eggs on land.A university education is the key to success.
- Choose and Analyze Opinion Columns: Tell students to pick out two of their favorite columnists, analyze their writing, and state how the columnists supported their opinions. Just finding their favorite columnists will take a lot of researching, and they will learn a lot just in that process. They can then find news stories on the same topic and compare the two types of articles.
- Analyze Speeches from Political Candidates: Have students look for examples of opinions in speeches given by various political candidates and determine whether they back up their statements with facts. What do they claim? Is it factual? How do they support their statements? I used a movie that is still available on Netflix called OutFoxed, which shows how Fox News treats opinion as fact. I had the kids watch Fox News and pick out an opinion that was treated as fact. It is easy to find. Here it is on YouTube.
- Hold a Competition: Have students organize into groups or have classes compete in an activity where they earn a point for every fact or opinion they correctly identify.
Teaching About Fake News and Misinformation
Being able to distinguish fact from opinion is also related to being able to discern that a news story may be fake. Being analytical and knowing fact from opinion is the first step to making that determination.
How do you know if a news story might actually be fake? Here is a great list from Forbes:
- Unusual or unknown web addresses
- A lack of corroboration
- An old date on a “breaking” news story
- An obvious slant or bias by the authors
- A sensational headline
You should also explain to students that when politicians say something is “fake news,” they are usually trying to defend themselves. The facts may indeed be true, but the politician may just not like something that was said. For example, when authorities say, “We will have a vaccine very soon,” they have to cite sources, or you should not believe them. The sources have to be credible. Be careful of politicians who make opinion statements sound like fact. No one can accurately predict with complete certainty that we will have a vaccine very soon.
How do we know if a story is factually correct? Here are some excellent resources for teachers and parents to help kids distinguish fact from fiction.
- VerifyIt! from the League of Women Voters
- Resources from the Stanford History Education Group
- Educator resources from the News Literacy Project
- “Coronavirus as a Teachable Classroom Moment” from the Campus Election Engagement Project
- “Do Not Be Deceived: Detecting Disinformation” from the Campus Election Engagement Project
- Vote by Design from Stanford d.school
Here are sites to help kids determine whether something is fact or fiction. Have them pick out their favorite and use it on a regular basis.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
For a 6–12 ELA curriculum that offers daring texts and inspires confident writers, check out HMH Into Literature.
This blog post, originally published in 2020, has been updated for 2021.