The difference between a fact and an opinion is, well, topical these days. And it’s become increasingly apparent in recent years that it’s a tough concept even for some adults — let alone kids — to grasp. So regardless of when, or if, your child’s school decides to address the difference, it’s a good idea for parents to reinforce the lesson at home.
Let’s start with the basics.
What’s a fact?
A fact is, simply, something that can be proven true or false:
- A dog is a mammal.
- Ariana Grande is a singer.
- There are seven continents.
- Grass is green.
Those are all easy to get: They’re not only facts, but you can verify that they’re true. But what about statements like:
- Parrots live underground.
- Harry Styles is a seashell.
- North Dakota is a country.
- Chicken nuggets are liquid.
Your gut might be rebelling against calling these statements “facts” because, you say, facts are supposed to be true. And yes, that is of course one definition of “fact.” But when you’re talking about facts as opposed to opinions, sometimes, a fact is false.
That’s because the point is whether the information is verifiable — even if during the process, you verify them as false. Rob Laird teaches high school English at Freeport High School in Illinois, and when he gets into the idea that factual statements don’t have to be true, he says, it blows his students’ minds a bit.
“You can state something as a matter of fact and have it be wrong,” he says. “It can be a mistake that you make or a lie, but you’re presenting it as a matter of fact.”
The trick to explaining this, Laird says, is by explaining the relationship between facts and opinions. Which begs the question:
What’s an opinion?
An opinion, meanwhile, is something that can’t be proven true or false:
- Baseball is a terrible game.
- Pink is an excellent colour.
- Anna is better than Elsa.
- Minecraft is weird.
I might personally think these things, and I might have really good reasons why I think them all, but that doesn’t make them facts because they’re not provable. Plus, you might have good reasons for thinking that:
- Baseball is the best sport.
- Pink is an ugly colour.
- Elsa is better than Anna.
- Minecraft is a lot of fun.
The confusing part here is that opinions can seem really obvious — and that’s how Laird gets into the connection between facts and opinions.
The relationship between the two
Let’s use a football example: Say New England’s record is 13-3, and Cleveland’s record is 3-13. Now consider the statement, “New England is better than Cleveland.” Is that a fact or an opinion?
Most of Laird’s students say, incorrectly, “fact.”
“Why do you say that?” Laird will ask his class, which responds, “Because New England’s won way more games.”
“New England has won more games,” Laird says. “That’s a fact,” and it supports the opinion that New England is a better football team. “You use facts to develop opinions. Even though it’s clearly obvious — no one is going to argue that Cleveland is better than New England — it’s still an opinion. You still need to use facts to support it.”
How and why to address fact vs. opinion
While the meat of this lesson is ideally suited to high schoolers, Laird says, the basics can be introduced to kids as soon as fourth or fifth grade. This brief video from Teaching without Frills provides a simple intro to facts and opinions (without the more complicated nuances about false facts that they’ll learn as they get older):
You can also find a collection of worksheets in this Pinterest board, curated by Dana Monaghan, a speech pathologist and educator and the founder of Teach Tutors, an information and resource site for using peer tutors.
The lesson is especially important today because many people don’t know where to get dependable, factual information.
“That is the No. 1 concern I see from adults and children alike,” Laird says. “How do I know if this is reliable information?”
These tips for spotting fake news, which is often opinions disguised as facts or facts that are untrue, include the importance of checking sources and using fact-verification websites. Laird also suggests the CRAP Test (a hit with his students):
- C: Is the information Current?
- R: Is the information Reliable?
- A: Was the information shared by an Authoritative source?
- P: What is the Purpose of the information? Is it to present facts or to persuade you?
When Laird has his English or journalism students write an argumentative essay or column, he instructs them to pick a topic but refrain from forming an opinion yet. First, he says, do the research, then use those facts to develop your opinion.
“I think what people are guilty of in social media, what students are often guilty of, is they have an opinion, and they go digging to find facts that support their opinion,” he says, “and it’s difficult for them to change their minds that way because they go in with a heavy amount of bias.”