It used to be so easy to distinguish between truth and fiction. In previous years, I would focus on just teaching my students the difference between fact and opinion. Now the Internet has become a murky river of information, and buzzwords like “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become real concerns of an educated society. How do we teach our students to discern all these differences in this post-truth era?
Below are some ideas, lessons, and resources to use in the classroom. You’ll want to adapt them to suit your needs or cater them to meet the ability level of your students.
Question the Publisher
Many students use search engines to look up information, and they often click on the first link at the top of the page. Very rarely do they stop and look at the URL before launching the website. They usually assume that if the information exists, then it must be true. Each of my students has his or her own blog in my class, and I use this as an example of how easy it is for anyone to publish their content on the Internet. I train my students to question the reliability of the publisher first before using the information from a website.
When my students come across a website that they think they might want to use, they are instructed to read the “About Us” page. Sometimes students have trouble locating this information because the page might be named differently. It is helpful to let them know that it may be called “Our Company,” “Our Story” or some variation of this wording. Sometimes a website is published by the subsidiary of a parent company, and they will have to visit the parent company’s website to find out more information. If the publisher’s background is unknown or if the webpage is written by an author without a biography linked to it, my students are not allowed to use it as a source.
After identifying the publisher, students must then justify their choice by explaining why they think they have found a credible source. I call this the “credibility rationale,” and they must write a paragraph explaining their choice. I created a Google doc to help my students through this process, and the link to this file can be found here. Feel free to make a copy of it and customize it for your class.
Taking It a Step Further
The above lesson idea is a great first step to introducing the concept of evaluating a website for its credibility. To take it a step further, I recommend two excellent resources when gathering research material.
- Jim Kapoun’s “Teaching undergrads WEB evaluation: A guide for library instruction” (published on the Princeton University Library’s website) – This resource has guiding questions that students can use to determine whether the source they found is credible. They are asked to examine each website for its accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage.
- Robert Harris’ “Evaluating Internet Research Sources” – Robert Harris’s CARS Checklist has an easy-to-remember method for determining the legitimacy of published work. CARS stand for Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness and Support.
Google Advanced Search
Most students go straight to Google when searching for information. Though great when shopping for merchandise or other personal uses, it is not always the best method to use when conducting academic research. A great alternative is Google Advanced Search. It allows you to narrow down your search by omitting specific words or searching exact websites. For example, you can enter “.gov” or “.edu” in the box that asks for site or domain, and limit your search results to just government or university-owned websites.
Fake News or Real News
Sometimes we surf the Internet for information, but there are also times when information is delivered to us through social media or shared directly with us by our circle of acquaintance. In our digital world, where headlines can go viral rather quickly, our students are now also being exposed to unreliable information from the Internet. There have been many incidences where fake news now masquerade as real news, which can carry detrimental consequences. So what can we do as educators? Below are some lesson ideas and resources from various organizations that are tailored for the classroom.
- PBS NewsHour Extra: Did Fake News Influence the Outcome of Election 2016?
- Common Sense Media: How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy)
- Channel One News: Lesson Plan: How to Spot Fake News
- The News Literacy Project: Ten Questions For Fake News Detection
- EasyBib: Identifying Fake News: An Infographic and Educator Resources
- EasyBib: How Savvy are Your Students?: 7 Fake Websites to Really Test Their Evaluation Skills
Fact or Opinion
In addition to discerning the credibility of websites, sometimes I find that my students have trouble understanding the difference between fact or opinion, even when reading a bona fide source. In my English language arts classroom, my students often quote from a text as evidence to support their claim. Though this is great for writing literary essays, this method doesn’t always work when writing an argument if the supporting evidence is gleaned from informational text. For example, I once overheard one student argue that “the quote is a fact because it’s in the article.” I realized that I had to quickly explain the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion.
To help my students discriminate between fact and opinion, I like to use ReadWorks Digital, which provides thousands of non-fiction texts for the classroom and gives students the ability to annotate a text using the built-in highlighting and commenting tool. In addition, each text also comes with vocabulary support and comprehension questions.
To teach my lesson about fact vs. opinion, I first instruct my students, who are working in teams, to highlight all phrases that are factual. Second, I tell them to go back to their highlighted text and choose a different color to identify facts that are more specific. These are defined as facts that contain statistical data or precise information like names or dates. Then, each team copies and pastes this information into a table in a Google doc that is shared with the class. This table has two columns: General Facts and Specific Facts. Next, each team is assigned to evaluate the answers of another team. They must determine if they believe the other team has correctly sorted the information under the right column. During this process, some teams will discover that another team has incorrectly identified a phrase or sentence as factual when it is actually an opinion. After sharing their feedback with each other, arguing over the answer, and defending their responses, each team walks away better able to tell the difference between fact and opinion. You can obtain a copy of this lesson by clicking here.
When News Companies Publish Opinions
Another area students need help with is knowing the difference between a news story and an editorial. Often students are under the assumption that the job of all news companies is to report events. It’s important to point out that many news agencies have an opinion section as well. The New York Times Learning Network has a great lesson to teach this concept: News and ‘News Analysis’: Navigating Fact and Opinion in The Times.
An Educated and Democratic Society
The advancement of technology has enabled us to search for almost anything we want, instantly. With information traveling at what seems to be supersonic speed, it is more important than ever to equip our students with the skills they need to make intelligent and fact-based decisions. They must thoroughly understand the difference between fact, fiction and opinion. How else can our students become informed citizens and critical thinkers in a democratic society?