Distinguishing Between Fact and Opinion
For higher level reading comprehension, it is essential that students are able to accurately distinguish between fact and opinion. To do this successfully students must begin with solid definitions of the two concepts. Once this has been achieved, students must gain practice applying these definitions through activities that engage with a wide range of reading material.
Let’s take a look at defining these two all-important concepts:
What is a fact? - A fact generally refers to something that is true and can be verified as such. That is, a fact is something that can be proven to be true.
What is an opinion? - An opinion refers to a personal belief. It relates to how someone feels about something. Others may agree or disagree with an opinion, but they cannot prove or disprove it. This is what defines it as opinion.
Why Are Fact and Opinion So Important?
The ability to distinguish between fact and opinion helps students develop their critical and analytical skills in both their reading and their listening. Fact and opinion are often woven together in texts and speeches. It is therefore imperative that students are able to unravel the threads of what is true from what is mere belief if they are to successfully navigate the deluge of media they will encounter in their lifetimes.
Whether on the news, in advertising, or a history book, distinguishing between what is fact and what is opinion is crucial to becoming an autonomous person with the critical abilities necessary to avoid being manipulated easily.
The Language of Fact and Opinion: Signal Words and Phrases
As we mentioned above, often writers will liven up their facts with a sprinkling of opinion. Unfortunately, it can at times be difficult to extract the verifiable truths from the author’s preferences and biases. Luckily the language used itself often throws up helpful clues in the forms of words and phrases that assist us in identifying statements as fact-based or opinion-based.
Let’s now take a look at some examples of those signal words and phrases being used in the sentence fragments that often precede a statement of fact or opinion:
● The annual report confirms…
● Scientists have recently discovered…
● According to the results of the tests…
● The investigation demonstrated…
● He claimed that…
● It is the officer’s view that…
● The report argues that…
● Many scientists suspect that…
As we can see from the above examples, the language used to introduce a statement can be helpful in indicating whether it is being framed as a fact or an opinion.
It is important for students to understand too that things are not always as they appear to be. At times, writers, whether consciously or not, will frame opinion as fact and vice versa. This is why it is important that students develop a clear understanding of what constitutes fact and opinion and are afforded ample opportunities to practice distinguishing between the two.
What is context?
Context is the circumstances surrounding an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood. Facts and opinions must be placed in context to draw conclusions from.
For example a young boy who tells his mother “I ate a truckload of sweets at the party last night” needs to be placed in the context of his age, and audience.
We can confidently infer he never actually ate a real truckload of sweets, but we can reasonably appreciate he ate a lot of them and wanted to emphasise that point.
His mother might ask a clarifying question to turn that opinion into a hard fact.
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Using Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers are a great tool to help students sort the facts and opinions in a text. Offering, as they do, a very visual means of organizing information, graphic organizers help students drill their ability to distinguish between the two types of statement until they become automatic.
Let’s take a look at one particularly useful format for developing this skill:
The Fact and Opinion Chart
This simple chart consists of two columns helpfully labelled fact and opinion beneath a topic heading. Students work their way through a piece of text, sorting statements as they come across them into the appropriate column on the graphic organizer. At the end of this task they will be left with a clear segregation of the statements of the text according to whether they are objective fact or subjective opinion.
Fact and Opinion Activities: Honing the Skills
To become a skilled, critical reader a student must develop the ability to quickly evaluate a text for fact and opinion. To achieve this, they must practice distinguishing between fact and opinion to a point where it becomes a subconscious mechanism. The activities below will afford your students these necessary opportunities. They can also easily be adapted to a range of ages and abilities through careful selection of the reading material.
1. Top 10 Facts and Opinions
Not only does this simple activity help students hone their fact and opinion detecting abilities, it also serves as a great warm-up research activity when beginning a new topic in class.
When starting a new topic, whether on an historical period, a literary figure, or a species of animal, set students the task of listing ten facts and opinions from their background reading and research on their new topic. Students must then form and list ten opinions on the topic based on reflection on this initial reading and research.
It may also be a useful exercise for students to look back over their opinions at the end of the topic. Have they changed their opinion in any areas of the topic? Why did they change, or maintain, their opinion? This can work as a great review activity to wrap things up.
2. Evaluate an Editorial
Newspaper editorials can be a superb resource for students to practice recognizing fact and opinion. They are filled with the editor’s opinions on the issues of the day, intermingled with facts that are selected to support that opinion.
First, give students copies of a newspaper editorial. Then, working in pairs, have students go through the editorial identifying the facts by underlining them and the opinions by highlighting. Remind them to look for the signal words we covered earlier to help identify facts and opinions.
When they have finished, students can then compare their answers and discuss the reasons for the decisions they made. This will help to identify any areas of confusion within the class; providing you with useful data to inform your future planning on this topic.
3. Fact vs Opinion Survey
This activity can initially be undertaken using statements compiled on a worksheet. Later, students can work through passages of text, or even through the textbook itself directly. Students simply work through a series of statements marking either F or O beside each to identify that statement as a Fact or an Opinion.
This activity is an effective study-preparation exercise as it helps students to filter factual content from opinion. It also makes it easier for students to work out the underlying purpose of a text, whether it is designed to inform, persuade, or entertain. Students will soon begin to recognize that passages of text that contain more facts than opinions are most likely intended to inform, while a text that is more opinion-based will most likely be intended to persuade or entertain.
Extension Exercise: Identifying Bias
One reason it is so important for our students to learn to differentiate between fact and opinion is that this ability is a stepping stone to detecting bias in a text. Students begin to evaluate a text for bias by first identifying how much of the text is fact-based and how much is based on opinion.
Once this is done, students must then analyse whether the opinions expressed in the text are biased by considering whether the writer has:
● Provided incomplete information
● Intentionally ignored or left out information to persuade the reader
● Allowed their own personal experiences to cloud any sense of objectivity.
Not only is the ability to identify bias in the writing of others essential, this knowledge will be of great benefit to students when it comes to the forming and expressing of their own opinions.
4. The Great Fact or Opinion Sort
Organize students into reasonable-sized groups of four or five students. Provide each group with a jar containing a set of cards, each with a fact-based or an opinion-based statement printed on it. Students take turns picking a card from the jar and reading it to the group. The group discusses each statement before deciding if it a fact or an opinion.
Students can then record the statements accordingly on the Fact and Opinion Chart described above or simply sort them into two piles.
This activity serves as an effective method to support struggling students as they get to learn from those students who have already developed a firmer grasp of the two concepts.
Taking the time to prepare and deliver discrete lessons on how to recognize fact and opinion in reading is essential. No matter how confident students are in distinguishing between the two, they are still likely to benefit from further practice. Even the most reflective of us can remain ignorant of our own biases at times!
To become the critical readers that our students aspire to become begins with the formation of clear definitions of the terms in the students’ minds. These definitions must be supported by examples and illustrations to achieve this. Student understanding must be further underpinned by practice in the classroom and at home. The activities above serve as a good starting point, but they are not sufficient on their own.
It will be necessary to further support students to gain a deeper understanding of fact and opinion (and related concepts such as bias) by making regular reference to these concepts when engaged with students in lessons with other explicit objectives that are seemingly unrelated to fact and opinion. Reinforcement should be persistent to ensure students develop firm skills in this area.
With ongoing advances in technology, assessing the reliability and truthfulness of the media we consume on a daily basis has never been more challenging - or important.