Teaching Fact and Opinion: When, What, and How
Recently, a New York State elementary test prep site has been generating some buzz regarding its use of the terms fact and opinion. Here is one of the test items that elementary students are to label as fact or opinion. Researchers believe the Pterosaurus flew as fast as 25 miles per hour. The test’s answer may surprise you.*
Read on to learn when to teach, what to teach, and how to teach fact and opinion. Some may quibble a bit with my scope and sequence of instruction, my definitions of key terms, or my language of instruction. But then everyone has his or her own opinion, and furthermore, don’t confuse me with the facts!
Birds and the Bees
Teaching fact and opinion should be a lot like teaching “the birds and the bees.” The content and process should be appropriate to the age level. We don’t need to give all the answers to the seven-year-old’s question: “Where do babies come from?” However, with all-due apologies to stork advocates, we do need to give accurate, albeit incomplete, responses as a foundation to layer-in additional knowledge at the appropriate times.
Importance and Relevance
Helping students understand and apply the differences between fact and opinion is crucial to analytical reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Distinguishing between fact from opinion is key to interpreting information intelligently. It is one of the few “macro” skills that is, indeed, interdisciplinary. It is also a skill that is refined from elementary school up through post doctoral study. Furthermore, it is a skill of life-long learning and daily use.
What Fact and Opinion is Not
One of the best ways to learn anything well is to learn what it is not. Teachers may cringe a bit over this section or perhaps get a bit defensive because they may have misinformed their students over the years. Don’t fret. Knowledge changes and students are flexible. We’ve all taught that Pluto was our ninth planet for years, until recently.
- Fact is not “something proven true.”
- Fact is not “something accepted as true by most people.”
- Fact is not “truth.”
- Opinion is not “what you like”
- Opinion is not “just what you believe”
- Opinion is not “It’s just your opinion” or “You have your opinion and I have mine”
Teaching Fact and Opinion: When, What (with Exemplars), and How
When? 3rd – 4th Grades
- Fact is something said or done in the past or present. Exemplars: “He painted the wall blue” or “He said, ‘That wall is an ugly shade of blue.'”
- Opinion is a belief. Exemplar: “Blue is a better color for this wall than green”
How? Memorize those definitions and exemplars. Identify and judge between fact and opinion from examples. Apply in both narrative and expository writing.
When? 5th – 6th Grades
- Fact can be used as evidence or can be supported by other evidence. Exemplars: “Walls can be painted in different colors. For example, one wall is blue” or “One wall is blue. This proves that walls can be painted in different colors.”
- By definition, facts cannot be wrong. False Exemplar: “He got his facts about the blue wall all wrong.” Explanation: We really mean that he did not state facts or that he misapplied the use of those facts.
- Opinion can be used as evidence or can be supported by other evidence. Exemplars: “Two boys in the class are color blind, so blue is a better color for this wall than green” or “Blue is a better color for this wall than green because the chairs in the classroom have blue backs.”
- Opinion is not a preference. Exemplar: “In my opinion, I like blue walls.” Explanation: Liking one color over another states a personal preference, not an opinion.
How? Memorize those definitions and exemplars. Identify and judge among fact, opinion, and preference from examples. Apply fact and opinion as both evidence and as evidentiary support in both narrative and expository writing.
When? 7th – 8th Grades
- Fact is something could be verifiable in time and space. Exemplar: “The wall was painted blue in 1973.” The fact would certainly be verifiable if the school office files contained a similar shade of blue paint chip, attached to a dated 1973 receipt for blue paint and a painting contractor’s 1973 dated invoice marked ‘Paid in Full.’”
- Fact is not based upon consensus or tradition. False Exemplars: “”It’s an established fact that retired educators living in the town think that the walls of that classroom have always been blue” or “Historians assert and Americans have traditionally held that Pilgrims and Native Americans ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving.” Explanation: The conclusion of experts or a traditional belief, even over long periods of time, does not constitute a fact.
- Fact is not definition. False Exemplars: “It’s a fact that blue is a mix of green and yellow” or “2 +2 = 4 and If A = B and B = C, then A = C.” Definitions simply state that one thing synonymously shares the same essence or characteristics of another thing. Much of math deals with meaningful definitions, called tautologies, not facts, per se.
- Fact is not a scientific theory. False Exemplar: The universe began fifteen billion years ago withthe “Big Bang.” Explanation: “Facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them.” Stephen Jay Gould
- Opinion is a belief or inference (interpretation, judgment, conclusion, or generalization). Check out my Top Ten Inference Categories Exemplar: “Blue is a better color for the classroom walls than red, because blue is a more soothing color.”
- By definition, opinions are arguable, much like persuasive essay thesis statements. Exemplar: “Blue walls are more stylish than white walls.”
- Opinions can be categorized as valid or invalid based upon their evidentiary support. Exemplar: “In a survey of thirty building-design architects, 28 of 30 stated that blue walls were ‘more stylish’ than white walls.” False Exemplar: “I asked the owner of All-Blue Paint Company if blue or white walls were more stylish, and he said ‘blue.’” Explanation: The owner would certainly not be an unbiased source and the survey sample is too small to provide meaningful data.
How? Memorize those definitions and exemplars. Identify and judge among fact, opinion, preference, consensus, tradition, definition, and theories from examples. Indentify and judge between valid and invalid opinions. Identify whether facts are verifiable and whether opinions are arguable. Apply fact and opinion as both evidence and as evidentiary support in both narrative and expository writing.
When? 9th – 10th Grades
- Fact is an objective reflection of reality. A fact exists independent of our sensory experience. Exemplar: “If a classroom’s walls are blue, then someone must have painted them that color.”
- Fact can be misapplied and manipulated when used out of context or in combination with other irrelevant facts. False Exemplar: “He said, ‘The classroom walls need painting.’” “The teacher said, “Blue has always been my favorite color.” The contractor painted the her classroom walls blue. Explanation: There is no necessary connection between the three facts. Combining the three possibly unrelated facts leads one to infer that the teacher had input regarding the color selection of her classroom walls.
- Fact is not the same as truth. False Exemplar: “It’s a fact that the classroom walls are blue.” Explanation: This is known as a category error. We can state the fact that the walls were painted blue or the fact that someone said that they are blue, but this is not the same as truth. There is no process of falsification with facts, as there is with truth. For example, we could not say “It’s not a fact that the classroom walls are black.” Similarly, in a criminal court case, if a defendant pleads not-guilty to the charge that he or she murdered someone, the prosecution must falsify this plea and prove the truth of the guilty charge via evidence, such as facts, in order to convict the defendant.
- Opinions are subjective interpretations of reality. Exemplar: “Neon green walls would more likely keep students awake and attentive, rather than soothing blue walls.”
- Opinions can be manipulated and taken out of context. False Exemplar: “He said, ‘Blue walls seem more soothing than red ones.’” “He said, ‘That wall is an ugly shade of brown.'” “He will only be satisfied if we paint his classroom walls blue.” Explanation: Putting together two opinions that are not necessarily related can lead to an invalid inference.
How? Memorize those definitions and exemplars. Identify how facts are objective and opinions are subjective from examples. Indentify and judge how facts and opinions may be manipulated, misapplied, and taken out of context. Identify the difference between fact and truth with examples.
When? 11th – 12th Grades
- Fact is not a phenomenological representation of reality. False Exemplar: “The walls appear blue during the day, but have no color at night.” Explanation: Just because the blue color appears to disappear at night due to the absence of light, does not mean that this describes reality. To say that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west describes how things appear from our perspective, not what factually occurs.
- Fact is studied in the philosophical discipline of ontology. Exemplar: “Existence is proven by the act of thinking about existence—cogito ergo sum” “I think, therefore I am” Rene Descartes
- Fact is studied in the philosophical discipline of epistemology. Exemplar: “How can I know to what extent the “facts” of scientific observation have been influenced by my biases, the limits of my sensory experiences, and the act of observation in it of itself?”
- A fact is not a claim. False Exemplar: “Blue walls make my students perform better on standardized tests.” Explanation: This is a category error. A claim is an inference, more closely related to an opinion than a fact, yet still different. This claim suggests that there is a causal relationship between wall color and student test performance. Akin to a “green 3,” there is no necessary connection between the two concepts. A positive correlation may, indeed, be found; however, asserting such would still not be factual.
- Opinions that appear to differ need not be mutually exclusive. Exemplar: “Teacher A thinks blue walls are better than white walls because blue hides dust and marks while white does not. Teacher B totally disagrees with Teacher A’s rationale but believes that students would much prefer blue over white for their classroom.”
How? Memorize those definitions and exemplars. Identify the difference between factual and phenomenological representations of reality. Identify the relevant study of ontology and epistemology with regard to fact. Identify the difference between facts and claims. Identify and judge from examples how seemingly contradictory opinions need not be mutually exclusive.
*The test answer was “opinion.” Read my article and you will find out why the test-maker was mistaken.
Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, adaptable to various instructional settings, and simple to use. Get multiple choice reading assessments on two CDs, formative assessments, blending and syllabication activities, phonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games. Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Perfect for ESL and Special Education students, who struggle with language/auditory processing challenges. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance. 364 pages