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Fact vs. Fiction: Learning What’s Real and What’s Not Through Reading

I was a journalism major, graduating in 2002. Thousands of miles away, at the exact moment I was practicing how to craft compelling, accurate newspaper headlines and write engaging magazine articles, Mark Zuckerberg was inventing Facebook in his dorm room at Harvard and changing how we get our news forever. I often wonder how drastically different my journalism education would be if I was a student now and not pre-social media.

Needless to say, teaching children how to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake has never been more important. Fake news IS a real thing (although it’s quite different from what the President tells us it is). Fortunately, discussing books and other written materials with your child is an ideal on-ramp for practicing the critical thinking required to navigate these differences.

How to Teach Your Children about Fiction and Non-Fiction


As young as preschool, teachers are asking students to determine whether books fall into the fiction or non-fiction categories. In my preschool class, we make it a priority to read both fun and whimsical picture books right alongside accurate, scientific non-fiction books. And then we talk about the differences between them. Learning how to distinguish the two types of books is important. Here are some ways to show your children.

  • At the library, show them how the books are divided between fiction and non-fiction, each in their own section. The call letters of the fiction books will start with the letters FIC. Non-fiction books will start with their designated numbers (by topic… understanding those complexities is a post for another day!) If you’re not sure, ask a librarian to show you.
  • When you notice your child has started a new book, ask them if it’s fiction or non-fiction and how they determined that. Keep it casual so it doesn’t seem like you’re quizzing them. Something like, “Oh, I’m not familiar with that book. Is it fiction?” This will be very telling as to whether they have a firm grasp on the difference, and it is also an avenue to discussing the book in greater detail.
  • If children are struggling to make a determination, teach them to look for story elements, like does this have a beginning, middle, an end with a character facing a problem?
  • Often fiction books have some “real” information found in them. The historical fiction genre, for example, are books that are based on actual events, people, or places but weave a fictional story into it. Work with your child on separating what’s real and what’s made-up.

Let me be clear: I LOVE reading fiction books. Your child probably does, too. Which is wonderful because that’s the exact purpose of fiction books: to entertain us, give us pleasure, help us navigate complex emotions and feelings, inspire our creativity, etc. Be sure to talk about fiction books in a way that doesn’t trivialize them or make them seem less worthy of reading. Just be clear that they are not factual sources of information. 

Online Research

When your child reaches the elementary school years, it is likely they will begin research projects at school that will send them online in the hunt for facts. Personally I love these assignments because I find my children reading so much non fiction material without even realizing they’re “reading,” if you know what I mean. But I highly suggest that parents get very engaged in these homework projects, at least for the first few assignments, so that you can help your child wade through the many landmines of internet sources. A few tips:

  • Look at the domain name suffix. If the website ends in .com, be sure it’s a source that you recognize as a legitimate entity. For example, if you’re looking up sports stats, it’s fine to get that information from but avoid a website like .Org sources are usually nonprofits, .edu sources are usually school-based sources (like universities). Be cautious of .edu because students can publish blogs or personal websites under their school’s domain name.
  • Confirm and reconfirm. If you’re not confident in the website source you’ve found for a piece of information, try to confirm this information elsewhere. This is what reporters do, after all. They rarely publish any information without a second source that backs it up. Teach your kids to do this, too. If you can’t find this information from a reputable source, there’s a chance it is inaccurate.
  • Can you gather what you need to list this as a source in a bibliography? If the website your child wants to site in a research project doesn’t list some basic information, like a physical address for the source itself, the date the article was published, byline of the author, etc., then this is a questionable source.
  • Discuss Wikipedia. This website will often pop up at the top of your child’s Google search. Explain to your child that Wikipedia articles are usually not written by professional experts, but are instead “crowd sourced” by online contributors. I’ve told my fifth grader that I sometimes read Wikipedia articles at the start of my research on a topic just to get an overall sense of what some highlights are, but I never rely on that website for any facts or tangible information in my writing. That said, sometimes there are links within Wikipedia articles that are great sources.A good analogy here is that if I were looking for a hotel recommendation, I might post on Facebook to see if anyone has any recommendations. That’s the Wikipedia-style information gathering. And then I might take those recommendations and visit the hotel websites directly, compare price points on booking sites, find their locations on Google Maps, and read other online reviews before booking. That’s the real research work beyond Wikipedia.
  • Discuss search results. Kids’ initial instinct is to think that the top few search results (on Google, Youtube, etc.) are the best. Often, this is NOT the case. Search results are based on really complicated algorithms, but they can also be bought and paid for by websites. Again, the tips above are better indicators of which internet sources have accurate information, not how high an article ranks.

Model Good Behavior

We know our kids are always watching and observing our behavior. Showing them that you consume information with a critical eye is one of the best ways to teach them to also be thoughtful and reflective about what they read and hear. A few easy ways to do that:

  • Get your news from mainstream media, not social media. For just a few bucks a month, you can subscribe to the local newspaper or a national news magazine. Read them in front of your kids. Occasionally watch the evening news instead of scrolling Facebook. Subscribe to the Skimm, a daily email that synthesizes the major news stories into one easy-to-read email each morning. The mainstream media isn’t perfect. But it is far more likely the reporters from these outlets are following sound journalistic principles than the random website your buddy posted an article from on Facebook.
  • Be very wary of headlines. If it sounds sensational, it probably is. Even major media outlets make money by the number of people clicking on their article links, so headlines have become more about attracting eyes than conveying basic facts. Never share an article without reading it first, and never pass along information that you only learned from a headline.
  • Show them examples of actual fake news. My kids are intrigued by the idea of being tricked. If you discover an article that has been debunked, discuss it with them so that they also learn to question what they read online. Snopes is a great website to bookmark to make this easy.

A few nights ago my family watched an Avengers movie. During a particularly intense scene, my youngest child whispered to me, “It’s not real, right?” As I assured him it wasn’t, I was reminded that:

Teaching our children fact from fiction makes them feel secure and confident in their consumption of entertainment and information.

This is why it’s so important in their development.

Family Favorite Reads from 2018-2019

The 2018-2019 school year is in officially in the books for our part of the country and nearing the end for most everyone else. As classroom teachers helped kids collect memories for yearbooks and best of lists, we wondered what books members of our families will remember most. And be sure you’re following us on social media this summer: we’ve taken the #bookaday challenge and we’re sharing book recommendations each and every day! (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)

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Tips for Making Spelling Practice Easier

It’s always around late April and May when our after school homework routine starts getting more than a little unruly. Motivation is lacking and warmer weather outside beckons. Practicing spelling week after week is high on the list of boring, routine tasks for my kids… dare I say most kids?

We can debate the merits of assigning weekly spelling lists, but the reality is it is still prevalent as a common assignment. (We don’t mean to be dismissive of spelling altogether; there are studies that suggest that as students’ spelling improves, so does their reading and writing skills.)

Keep these three words in mind as you help your child work through spelling: manageable, personal, and fun.

Practicing spelling shouldn’t take hours and it certainly need not look like a Pinterest project. I did a quick search and was astonished at the complexity of some spelling activities floating around out there on the internet. Yikes. For my family, half the battle is finding the time, so don’t get bogged down by anything complicated.

Here are some simple ideas to take the drudgery out of spelling practice.  

Make Spelling Manageable

Focus on the words they struggle with. There will likely be words on the weekly list that they are already spelling confidently. Don’t feel obligated to keep drilling your child on those words!

Work on a few words each day instead of all the words the night before. This is especially important if your child struggles with focus and attention span (what kid doesn’t struggle with that after a long day at school?) Try making it a small part of your daily routine. A few examples:

  • Every morning at breakfast, go over 5 words while you slurp cereal or wait for the toast to pop up.
  • Write the tricky words on the bathroom mirror so children see them while brushing their teeth.
  • Keep a copy of the list in your car, and go over words while you wait in the drive thru, sit through siblings’ sports practices, or as you run errands.

Make Spelling Personal

Customize your study habits around their preferences. For example, my first grader hates to write, so we usually practice his spelling words out loud. My fourth grader struggles to spell his longer words out loud, so he always writes them out.

Allow open book practice. To be a great speller, repetition is the most important component. Let your child copy the words straight off the list, especially at first when they’re seeing them for the first time.

If giving your child a bunch of practice tests isn’t working well or you just need to mix up the routine, let your child quiz you. Have them grade you. They won’t even realize they’re “studying” the words by doing so.

Make Spelling Fun

Try plugging the weekly list into a crossword or word search puzzle generator (there are lots of free options online). Older children can probably do this themselves!

Test out some spelling apps. Your child’s teacher may already be using tools like this. Ask if your child can sign in from home for extra practice.

Use manipulatives, like letter blocks, or allow your child to type the words on a keyboard.

If they’re struggling with a particular word or letter pattern, teach them little tricks to master it, like silly songs or rhymes.

How do you practice spelling words with your child? Leave us a comment and let us know what works well in your house!


Bedtime Reading: Common Struggles and Simple Solutions

We love getting feedback and questions from you, our readers. One of the hottest topics in our inbox and on our social media channels is about bedtime reading routines. Not surprising, as it’s one of those staples from childhood that has stood the test of time, from generation to generation. I imagine (perhaps naively) families gathered around candlelight reading aloud together from treasured books centuries ago, and I know many parents still make reading together at night before bed a daily priority, even in the era of screens.

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Advice for Handling Disappointing Test Results

My Child Didn’t Pass the State-Mandated 3rd Grade Reading Test. Now What?

Do you live in a state with a mandatory 3rd grade reading test (in Indiana, it’s called the IREAD-3)? More and more states are requiring a test to address reading proficiency in 3rd grade. Here is a map of the states and their stance on these tests from The National Conference on State LegislatorsWhile research tells us there are mixed reviews on the benefits of these reading tests, many states now require it. It began with the idea that by 3rd grade, students need to “read to learn” and have moved past “learning to read.”

Features of a typical mandatory 3rd grade reading test: Read More

Book Review: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

My 9-year-old son recently asked me, “what’s the name of the genre of books that are about people who have had difficult lives?” He had just finished the book “Wish,” by Barbara O’Connor and was doing some self-reflection as far as what to read next. The writer nerd in me loved that he was making the connection between books like “Wish,” “Wonder,” etc., with some of the interesting biographies he’s read (like the Who Was series and the True Tales of Childhood series). The next book I’m going to suggest he read? “Fish in a Tree” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I don’t think there is a named genre as my son described it, but this book certainly fits his interest in this type of main character.

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Parents as Reading Role Models: Eliminating Distractions and Building Stamina

This is the third and final installment of our series Parents as Reading Role Models (Part 1 and Part 2, if you are catching up). Let’s talk openly and honestly about all of the distractions in our lives and how they often prevent us from modeling good reading behaviors for our kids. Whether you’re the parent or caregiver of a newborn or a teenager, it’s so easy to become distracted by dings, vibrations, and alerts. We are very guilty of this ourselves. Flip on CNN and you’ll see 4 scrolling bars at the bottom of the screen, as if our bodies were built to absorb a constant stream of stimuli. Newsflash? They’re not.

Tips For Building Reading Stamina and Eliminating Distractions

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Conquer Reading Log Stress

My ideal family evening is a winter night, all of us snuggled on the couch with a good book. There’s a fire going and no one is in a hurry. Our bellies are full, the dishes are put away, lunches are made. When bedtime approaches, teeth are brushed, hugs and kisses are exchanged, and sleep comes quickly.

Our current reality looks nothing like that. Winter is the busiest time of the year for my family. Both of my kids are playing a sport (basketball) and both have a time-consuming hobby (robotics and horseback riding). Many evenings feel more like a carefully orchestrated circus than a cozy evening of calm. I take solace knowing that the rest of our year isn’t this busy, but that doesn’t help with the stress of the current moment. So when the topic of reading logs comes up, my first thought is, “ain’t nobody got time for that!” Am I right?

As a teacher AND a mom, I urge you to trust your parenting instincts and opt for quality over quantity.

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Parents as Reading Role Models: Modeling Book Selection

One of the most eye-opening facts in Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report was that 91% of kids ages 6-17 said that their favorite books are the ones they’ve picked out for themselves and 90% said that they are more likely to finish a book that they have selected.

Here’s what we make of this: we, as parents and caregivers (along with educators) need to do a better job helping our kids learn to pick out books independently, so that they, in turn, will read, enjoy, and finish more books. How do we do this? Just like any valuable life lesson, the approach with the longest-lasting impact is modeling what we do as real readers ourselves. 

Would you send a young child out into the backyard with a baseball mitt and ball, and provide no explanation? Of course not. You’d show them how to put the mitt on, how to toss the ball, and you’d model throwing and catching.

Just like kids need to see you read, they also need to see how you decide what to read.

Easy Strategies for Modeling Book Selection to Your Kids

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