When a message’s content is complex or unfamiliar to readers, good communicators look for analogies to take the mystery out of tough concepts.
When teachers want to assess students’ understanding of course content, like other good communicators they scrap worksheets and multiple-choice exams in favor having students develop and use analogies.
An analogy is a type of example or illustration that works by a comparison between something very familiar and something unfamiliar.
Why give analogy practice
Creating an analogy allows students to demonstrate:
- content mastery
- effective communication with a target audience.
Students may think they understand a concept or precedure until they are forced to attempt to explain that content to someone else. A failure in that communication situation acts as formative assessment for the communicator—one that is more effective with students than any test score or teacher comment.
Students need analogy practice because many of them will not think of developing analogies without prompting.
Asking students to develop an analogy as part of a writing assignment forces them to engage in a higher level of thinking than they might otherwise do.
Unfortunately for us writing teachers, crafting writing prompts that give students analogy practice is not easy. It requires that we know our content and our students. In other words, we have to know the same things we expect of our students in order to teach them.
Whew! No wonder teachers get the big bucks.
Use analogies yourself
When you teach, use analogies to explain new concepts whenever you can. Analogies, like anecdotes, help students understand concepts by putting the concepts into a familiar context. They compare something unfamiliar to something familiar.
I use analogies to explain such things as transition sentences and the structure of an introduction.
If students have seen you using analogies regularly, they will be more comfortable with attempting to create their own.
Point out analogies in students’ texts
English courses that emphasize literature are more likely to discuss similes and metaphors than analogies. However, analogies are common in nonfiction material. You will find them in students’ history, science, and technology texts where analogies are used to help simplify complex ideas.
You may need to use texts from those other disciplines for teaching the reading comprehension activities that afford opportunities to point out analogies.
If you teach English language arts in a school that adheres to Common Core State Standards, you may have no choice but to help students master reading of complex texts that include analogies.
Instead of viewing that as an unpleasant chore, look at it as a chance to hook the student population turned off by literature by showing them how the material they read uses the same literary devices as classic novels and poems.
Require analogies in students’ writing
Once you’ve introduced students to the concept of the analogy, give them practice creating analogies as a means of developing an expository paragraph.
To build in the analogy practice, you will need to require analogies and explain in your writing prompts how and why students must create an analogy.
I suggest you have younger students develop a “paragraph essay” using an analogy. (Don’t use that term, however. Essay is so nebulous a term that it is meaningless even to most college-educated adults.)
Here’s a paragraph writing prompt that calls for an analogy:
“Paragraph Essay” ELA prompt
A topic sentence and a thesis sentence have a great deal in common. Write a paragraph in which you use an analogy to explain at least two aspects of the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis statement.
Stop right now and think about how you’d answer the question.
What analogy did you come up with?
I said the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis sentence is analogous to the relationship of a room to a whole house.
The logical process needed to come up with an analogy is not terribly different from what a student would use to come up with the answer to a bubble-test analogy question like “cat is to kitten as cow is to _____.”
Although the writing prompt may look harder than a bubble test question, students see it as more relevant to their experience than standardized test questions. They know that people are asked to explain stuff every day, but nobody takes bubble tests outside of school.
As students mature, you can ask them to develop one paragraph of a multi-paragraph I/E text through analogy and use other strategies for other body paragraphs.