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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

Books

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 espn.com but avoid a website like jonnyssportsstats.com. .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.

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Book Recommendations for Kids Who Love the Who Was Series and TV Show

Every summer my kids tend to get hooked on a particular TV show during their allotted screen time. Last summer, it was Phineas and Ferb and they spent all their free time pretending to go on crazy adventures like those boys do. This summer, they fell in love with Netflix’s Who Was show, based on the best-selling Who Was series of books.

My oldest son had read a few of the books, as both his school library and our public library have shelves full of them. I love that there are such a wide variety, to capture whatever interests your children might already have (sports, art, pop culture, science, etc.). Most are biographies, but some are about historical events or famous places. The cover art is definitely the hook here: the goofy illustrations look like bobble heads, making these otherwise serious historical figures relatable and fun.

Thoughts on the Who Was TV Show

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