Helping Students Discern Between Fact and Fiction

Dear Dr. Linda,

My wife and I have been trying to explain the difference between fact and fiction to our children, who are 9, 12 and 15. There has been so much misinformation and rhetoric coming from both of our major political parties in the past couple of years, we want to make sure that the future leaders of our amazing country are able to do the sort of analysis they need to make decisions based on evidence.

How would you recommend we go about this? I’m not knocking our schools, but they should be doing this.

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Dear Pinocchio,

Thanks for a great question and for bringing a little humor into our lives. You’re right—it’s especially important in these days that our children and grandchildren can distinguish between fact and fiction.

To begin with, schools do teach the process. It begins in the youngest grades and continues through middle and high school. And so do you, but you probably don’t realize it. When young children read a book (or are read to at home or at school) about trees or animals or the moon, they are learning facts. When they read “Cinderella,” “James and the Giant Peach” or “Pinocchio,” they’re reading fiction.

Preschoolers and children up to about age 6 usually don’t yet understand the difference because their brains haven’t developed to handle that sort of function. They are still in a “fantasy” stage. However, somewhere between 6 and 7, they move into the next stage, which Piaget called the “concrete stage.” They are now capable of beginning to separate fantasy and fiction from fact.

In school, in terms of classroom learning, it’s part of the curriculum. Once they’re in fifth grade and move into middle and high school, they’ll be introduced to DBQs—document- or data-based questions. DBQs are part of the college entrance exams and the Advanced Placement (AP) exams. The College Board has included DBQs since 1973. But even before that, the goal of term papers with footnotes was the same.

Here’s how the process works:

• Students are presented with a variety of documents from a variety of sources. They may be part of an article or book written by a famous person, may be a map or even a political cartoon. The documents are intended to provide varying views of events.

• Students analyze the documents presented and then write essays based on those documents to prove or disprove a thesis statement. The answer must refer to the documents (sources) provided and may also include other sources to back up his or her answer.

• Student essays are then evaluated based on these criteria:

–Did they answer the question being asked?

–Have they provided adequate support for their arguments and opinions from the documents used?

–Were the documents verifiable? Although an answer to a DBQ may be well written, if it is not supported by information provided from the documents, a student’s essay will not receive a high grade.

The overall goal of DBQs is to reinforce that distinguishing between fact or fiction requires research and the ability to determine what is and isn’t a credible source. As always, though, especially in the earlier years, your influence in that learning process is the greatest. Your kids emulate you. Talk about issues. Demonstrate the process. Involve them in doing research to answer questions and form opinions about a topic.

You’re right. These are tomorrow’s leaders. The more skilled they are in making good decisions based on well-supported evidence, the better their decision-making skills will be and the greater their accomplishments.

Dr. Linda

For information on a wide range of educational topics, visit

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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