How to Use Facts in Opinion Writing & Persuasive Writing

Teach students how to use facts to support their opinion in order to create powerful opinion-writing or persuasive-writing pieces. Walk through an entire writing lesson, and get all the lesson materials too. Blog post by The Thinker Builder.Students often think of "fact" and "opinion" as polar opposites.

Wait a second, aren't they?

Sure, we grind it into students' heads teach students to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, but what about the important bond they have?

Bond? James Bon-- err, no.

As students move into persuasive and argumentative writing, we need to show them the powerful relationship a fact has with an opinion, one in which facts can serve to support and strengthen an opinion.

Let's dive into an example.

If I asked students whether or not kids should read every day during the summer, their answers are instinctively supported by their personal feelings and experiences:
  • Yes, because reading helps you learn things.
  • No, because kids should get outside and play as much as they want during the summer.
We can even help students elaborate their initial reasoning by explaining personal examples:
  • Yes, kids should read every day during the summer because reading helps you learn things. For example, I learn lots of new things when I read nonfiction books on topics I like. If you read every day, you will surely get a lot smarter. 
  • No, kids should not have to read every day during the summer because they should get outside and play as much as they want. The weather in the summer is warm and there are plenty of things to do. For example, I go swimming, play basketball with friends, ride my bike, and play in my tree house. If kids have to read every day, they might miss out on opportunities to play outside.
Better? Heck yeah. But students' writing gets even more sophisticated when a relevant fact is used to validate and strengthen their reasoning:
  • Yes, kids should read every day during the summer because reading helps you learn things. For example, I learn lots of new things when I read nonfiction books on topics I like. One study even found that the more pages students read per day in the summer, the better the students did on a national test. So, if you read every day, you will surely get a lot smarter.
  • No, kids should not have to read every day during the summer because kids should get outside and play as much as they want. Only about half of kids get at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity during the summer, so instead of requiring kids to read every day, let's focus our effort on getting kids to exercise every day. The weather in the summer is warm and there are plenty of things to do. For example, I go swimming, play basketball with friends, ride my bike, and play in my tree house.
A relevant, well-explained fact is powerful. It makes an argument more substantial, more authoritative, more persuasive.

I know what you're thinking. 

At least, I know what I was thinking every time I wanted students to find facts to help support their opinion: I was thinking how "research" is a whole ball of wax itself. I couldn't just tell my students, "Hey, go find some facts," and expect good, reliable results. So I had to pick and choose when we had the time to do the research.

While good research skills are clearly important, and there were times when putting the time into developing those skills was worthwhile, often I found myself wanting to focus our energy on the writing. I thought, if I could already have a supply of relevant facts for our writing topic, we could really zoom in on how to use the facts to write powerful, well-supported opinions.

This is exactly why I created my Fact-Based Opinion Writing activities. The research is already done for an engaging issue, from which a careful selection of facts has been sifted out, so teachers can focus their writing instruction on the writing, not always the fact-finding.

*   *   *

I recently used my Fact-Based Opinion Writing activity that deals with the issue of deforestation. The focus question for this activity is: Is deforestation an issue kids should worry about? With Earth Day approaching, it was the perfect topic to dig into.

In this case, students did not have much personal experience related to the issue of deforestation, so the facts that I read and discussed with them gave a solid base of knowledge from which their opinions could form.

After introducing eight facts related to deforestation, I gave students a sheet of the same facts, this time arranged in cards, for them to cut out and sort.

Students worked with a partner to analyze the facts and sort each one by which opinion it would best support: either YES, deforestation is an issue kids should worry about, or NO it isn't.

Since some facts could support both opinions, students had a category for this as well. For example, one fact states that if deforestation continues at its current rate, all rainforests will be destroyed within 100 years. Some students thought, wow, 100 years, that's like forever. Kids don't need to worry about deforestation yet... maybe our grandchildren will need to worry about it. And other students thought 100 years is not much time, so kids should be concerned.

After students had the chance to sort the facts, we shared and discussed where we placed them, often finding differences, sometimes coming to a consensus, all of which forced students to think hard! 

I then gave students a planning organizer to begin developing their opinion. They chose two facts that would help support their opinion to the focus question, as well as one fact to use in a counter-argument (e.g. Some people might argue... but...).

Finally, students used their plan to write their opinion piece.

As an extension, we also tried to get out of our own shoes and look at the issue of deforestation from other points-of-view, like a subsistence farmer, or someone who works for a logging company, or a doctor who uses medicines derived from rainforest plants.

This ENTIRE activity is available for you, completely free, by downloading it from my TeachersPayTeachers store. Click HERE or the image below to go get it!
Click for free download.

You might also want to check out some of my other seasonal and holiday-related Fact-Based Opinion Writing activities. Click on any image below for details.

If you are interested in more than one these resources, you might want to check out the full-year bundle that includes all of my fact-based opinion writing activities for a significant discount. Click the image below for details...

One of my favorite byproducts of these resources is the thoughtful discussions that are sparked from a close, objective look at the facts, determining which side of the argument each one could support, regardless of our own personal opinions that were forming.

Whatever resources and methods you use, teaching students how to explain and support their opinions is a process, one that gets more complex as students get older, but one that is truly meaningful to their lives.

What's the Common Thread? A Reading Strategy

Talking in circles.

Throwing darts. 

The blank stare.

I bet you've seen all three of these responses from certain readers, readers who struggle to comprehend what they've just read. 

Sometimes these students mislead you with their reading accuracy and fluency. But then you ask to tell you about what they've read. Enter: the coping strategies. Maybe they feign understanding, yammering on in circles, adding in a big word from the story here and there to distract you. Or maybe they throw out a vanilla response with that notorious questioning lilt in their voice, desperately hoping they've hit upon a crumb of truth. Or maybe they hope that if they sit still long enough, staring blankly at their book, the story will suddenly make sense. That, or you'll forget they are actually alive and you'll move on to something else.

The struggle to maintain solid comprehension of what is read, as it is being read, is a difficult struggle to address, especially when the student has developed ways to mask it. There are lots of comprehension strategies and it feels like the student needs them all, and needs them right now.

I am not here to say there is an easy solution or quick fix. But I want to share with you a simple strategy I've used to help these readers. 

I call it, The Common Thread, and it's a strategy to help readers who struggle to understand and remember the basic plot of a story.

What I do is first ask myself, What is the common thread that runs throughout this entire text? Not a theme or underlying message. That's too abstract for this situation. What tangible part of the story is integral to the beginning, the middle, and the end?

More often than not, my answer is: the main character. 

So then my goal becomes getting the reader to latch on to this one thread, and to follow it closely. I want to narrow the reader's focus to the main character, knowing that if the reader can follow the actions of the main character, his comprehension of the entire story will follow right along.

When I introduce the strategy to a student, I'm careful not to be misled by the automatic coping strategies the student can't help but use. I want to shift his whole approach to the story, and I'm going to drive it home hard...

Me: Okay, Sam, I have this new book for you to start today. I've read it before, so I know the main character is this kid named Jack. Do you see him here on the cover? Sam, you're just staring at the cover. I asked if you see Jack on the cover. Will you answer me?

Sam: Yes.

Me: Yes, you'll answer me? Or yes, you see Jack on the cover of the book?

Sam: Yes to everything. Thinking: Are you crazy?

Me: Good. Now close your eyes. Can you still see Jack? If not, look at Jack again until you can close your eyes and still see him. When you start reading the story today, you're going to follow Jack. Like, literally follow him. You're going to picture yourself right next to Jack, wherever he is. You're going to go with Jack wherever he goes.

Sam: (Awkward chuckle) Um, that's creepy.

Me: Yes, if this were real life, it would be totally creepy. Jack would be so annoyed with you. Maybe even afraid. He'd probably get a restraining order. But you're going to do it for this story. You're going to follow Jack.

What Sam doesn't realize is that what I'm wanting him to do is exactly what strong readers do when they read a story with a really strong character. They follow that character around, visualizing his every move, connecting to his feelings, judging his choices... "following the thread" through the entire story.

I get started reading aloud a portion of the story to Sam, modeling what I want him to focus on. I pause often, after every paragraph at least, and tell Sam what I'm thinking, asking him if he's thinking the same thing.

Then I ask Sam to read aloud, and I listen. I stop Sam way more than he wants me to stop him. I ask him what he sees Jack doing. Literally everything we read I want to tie back to our thread, Jack: What did Jack just do? What just happened to Jack? Where did Jack just go? Who's talking to Jack? And for any section of text that doesn't directly involve Jack, I might ask... If Jack were here, how would he feel about that? What would he do? Do you think he'll find out?

Eventually, I have Sam try reading a page or two on his own, and then we talk together about his reading, but instead of saying, "Tell me about what you read," or, "Tell me about the story," I say, "Tell me about what Jack did." 

If the reader can latch on to the common thread, and follow it closely, a solid base of comprehension starts to form that can be added onto and strengthened with time and with additional strategies and practice. 

The common thread helps a struggling reader focus on less, yet at the same time focus on something really important that will lead them through the text.

7 Ways to Get Kids Deeper into Text Right Now

All students are capable of thinking deeply about a text.

But that doesn't mean it's easy. And often it doesn't come naturally. Sometimes it feels like if you can just unlock the right door for them, students will get to that deeper level of understanding that you push them towards, or to that opinion supported by text evidence, or to that thoughtful, critical view of an article.

While I certainly don't think there is a "magic formula," I do know some things we can do and say as teachers to help.

Check out these seven techniques to help students think more deeply about their reading. I like how these ideas don't require a bunch of extra tools or resources. I can easily implement them at any point in my instruction.

I have seven easy ways for you to get kids thinking deeper about what they are reading. These techniques have helped me push students past the surface, past the obvious, past what they are used to, past what they are comfortable doing.

If you can get students to feel something, you can get them deeper into text. Try posing questions that put students into a character's shoes, to feel what the character feels. This can help them better understand the character's actions, reactions, and motivations. Wow, boys and girls. Can you imagine if that happened to you? It's no wonder why this character is so unforgiving and stubborn. Do you think you'd be able to move on with your life? Wouldn't you just want to scream? 

Try provoking certain emotions. If you can rile 'em up a bit, students want to do more, think more, and figure things out. When was the last time you were down in the dumps? If the author can write something this sad, do you think she experienced that kind of sadness herself? 

Take those surface-level text-to-self connections farther. Does it surprise you that this character would do that to him? When's the last time someone showed kindness like that to you? How did it make you feel? Did you deserve it? Did this character deserve it? Did it change your day? Did it change... you?

Silence can be powerful when reading and working with a text. But I'm not talking about the silence of quiet reading. I mean pausing the reader (whether it's you or them) and pausing the talking.

For example, maybe you are reading a portion of a mentor text. Try pausing at an important moment in the story, or at an important point made in an article. Before even asking a question, give students time to process and think about what you just read. Let that sink in for a minute, boys an girls. Lean forward, look students in the eyes, show them that you expect them to be actively thinking. 

When you do ask the class a question, be sure to provide even more wait time. So what are you thinking right now? ...wait...    ...wait...   ...wait... Now turn to someone and share your thinking (or) write it in your notebook.

A nice long pause isn't only for a whole group setting. Maybe you are in a one-to-one reading conference. The student is reading aloud to you, and like many students do, he is trying to sound really fluent for his teacher, which can really get in the way of thinking about the text. Try gently tapping his book. Hang on a second, bud. Let's pause for a moment and think about what's going on. ...wait...   ...wait...   ...wait... Can you give me the gist of what you just read?

Encourage students to take a risk in their thinking. Get them unstuck from simply trying to figure out what their teacher wants them to say. 

In order to do this, you need to be careful with the questions you pose. Asking leading questions doesn't give students much room to think for themselves: Don't you think this part was really exciting? Instead, pose questions in a way that shows you truly want to know what your students think. Do you think this part was exciting? Do you really? Use your body language and voice inflection to help encourage students to be honest with you. 

Something else to try is to ask a question that might seem like a leading question, and just when students start to all agree, throw them a curve ball with your own alternate, dissenting opinion. Don't you think this part was exciting? ...wait...   ...wait... (cue zombies nodding heads). Well I don't. I don't think it was exciting at all. I mean, I expected those things to happen, so how is that exciting? It was informative, but not exciting. The author didn't even tell us what the character was thinking and feeling. Your blunt, unexpected words will probably shock students. Some will jump ship and join you. And some might drum up the courage to disagree with you. Show students that it's okay to think differently by doing it yourself.

A way to ease into risk-taking is to ask students to make predictions about text. Help them see the importance of grounding their ideas in the text, and encourage them to elaborate and explain their predictions with detail.

Also be careful with how you respond to students. Always praising students for answering "correctly" shuts down alternative ideas. Instead, praise the risk itself. Did you guys notice what Sam just did there? He shared a thought that was different than most of you. But he explained why he was thinking it, and that takes some guts.

It's pretty normal for only a few students to be the ones that consistently participate in sharing their thinking, and if you aren't careful, many of the other students fade effortlessly into the background, content to nod their head, scrunch their eyebrows from time to time, and avoid eye contact.

Alternative ways to respond can counteract this problem. Rather than a whole class discussion, have students discuss their thinking with a neighbor or small group first. Or have them show their thinking through writing, drawing, or a graphic organizer. Or boil a question down to a few possible responses, and then ask everyone to show their opinion somehow. Give me a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to show whether you think the author gave us enough detail about a bear's teeth. (or) If you think the most important event from this chapter is      , go stand in that corner of the room, if you think it's      , go stand in that corner, and if you think it's      , go stand in that corner.

Be on the lookout for wishy-washy answers, especially from your higher readers. Maybe you see someone showing you a thumb sideways to your question, or maybe someone trying to stand in the middle of the room because they agree with two different answers. Urge students to make a choice, even if they change their thinking later. If you allow them too often to sit on the fence, students tend to just follow someone else's lead.

As students grow more comfortable with thinking a lot about a text and fine-tuning their own ideas about it, expand their perspective. Guide them to look at an issue or idea from different points-of-view. Have them analyze the choices made by a character or an author and the alternatives that were not chosen.

One of my favorite ways to widen students' perspective is with a "what if" question. Asking students a question that starts with "what if" is like adding forks in the road that students may otherwise never notice and consider.

What if this character had to act alone instead of with her friend? Do you think she would have followed through? Would it have gone differently?

What if this character had a flashlight with him? Would that make it easier for him? Would it have made the story better?

What if the author changed the order of these sections? Is there a different way to organize this chapter that might be clearer? 

What if the story ended right here? Would you be satisfied? What else is truly needed? 

Sometimes a "what if" scenario you suggest might get dismissed by a risk-taking student. "Mr. F., it would never happen that way, because..." Encourage that too! Considering other options, and making decisions about what's plausible, what's important, what's necessary... that's thinking deeply.

Reading a text, or a portion of it, a second time is not wasteful. It's an investment. During a first reading, students are trying to follow the story or grasp new learning. Once students have a basic understanding of the text, reading it again opens up new doors to thinking about it in different ways, focusing on word choice, structure, themes, and underlying messages.

One of my favorite ways to use a second reading is with a short text that contains a surprise ending or big twist. Mysteries are perfect, or pretty much any Chris Van Allsburg book. After students read the story to its conclusion the first time, we can then look at the story again with an entirely new perspective. Characters' motivations and actions take on new meaning since we know what's eventually going to happen. Small details we ignored during the first reading now take on great significance.

During whole-class read alouds, try incorporating a "mini" second reading right there during the first reading. Maybe you are reading from a novel and you just hit upon an important sentence. Did you hear that, boys and girls? Here, let me read that part one more time. 

Often students get so caught up in a good story that it takes a second reading to shine a spotlight on the nuances and craft.

Modeling your own thinking is so important. Young readers need to hear how and what experienced readers do inside their minds.

Be detailed. Be sure to model not only your thinking about the text, but also stop to point out important parts and steps of your thinking. Did you see what I did there, boys and girls? I said what I thought the author meant by that sentence, but I didn't stop there. Then I tried to think back to the story for other pieces that support my idea.

Try shaping your modeled thinking into the form of a personal story. Students love hearing about their teacher's life. So boys and girls, I was reading the newspaper last night, and I came across this headline that really caught my attention: "Wild Coyote Chokes On Wild Artichokes." And it got me thinking. I thought, Hmm. Why did I want to read this article so much? I don't even like artichokes. Did the title make a difference? I think it did. I liked the little playfulness in the words, using "wild" twice, and "chokes" twice. And it also made me think about the coyote. I wanted to know if it survived. Do you see how a title is an important part of an article?

If you are in need of resources that foster and support deeper thinking about text, you might be interested in my Reader's Notebook Response Pages resources, shown below. Click the images for details.
Response Pages for Literature
Response Pages for Informational Text

How else do you help students dig deeper into their reading? Let us know in the comments!

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