When will your students use analogies?

Analogies are an extremely powerful device for explaining complex or foreign ideas.

People who work in STEM fields, social sciences, and business use them extensively.  Too often, however, analogies don’t get adequate attention in English class.

To help students discover the power of analogies, I suggest a formal writing prompt that asks students to predict how they might use analogies.

Start by having students view one of these short videos explaining how analogies work. Both sites are oriented toward law students, but the explanations are easy to understand:

FYI:  Only part of the video at study.com is available without signing up for an account, but the accessible portion is adequate for this assignment.

After students have viewed a video clip, give students five minutes in class to brainstorm situations in which they have either (1) had someone use an analogy to help them understand something, or (2) used analogies themselves to explain something. (Hint: Require brainstorming in full sentences; collect the responses to use as formative assessment.)

Give students this formal prompt either as homework or, better yet, have them respond to it at your next class meeting:

Think about the job you have or the one you’d like to have. Identify between two and five situations in which you might need to explain something—a product or a process, for example— to a customer who is unfamiliar with it.  (If in your job you deal with patients, students, or clients rather than customers, use the appropriate term for your situation.)

In an I/E text, discuss two or three such situations in which you could use an analogy to help the person understand your explanation. If you have actually used an analogy in such a situation, you may use the story as one of your examples.

Please keep your response to no more than 650 words.

Give authentic analogy practice via writing prompt requirements

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.

Give authentic analogy practice.

When message content is complex or unfamiliar to readers, good communicators look for analogies to take the mystery out of unfamiliar concepts.

When teachers wants to assess students’ understanding of course content, they, like other good communicators, scrap worksheets and multiple-choice exercises in favor of having students develop and use analogies.

Why should you give analogy practice?

Creating an analogy allows students to demonstrate both

  • content mastery and
  • effective communication with a target audience.

Students may think they understand a concept or procedure until they are forced to attempt to explain that content to someone else. A failure in that situation acts as formative assessment for the student — assessment that’s more effective than any test score or teacher comment.

Students need assigned analogy practice because many will not think of developing analogies without prompting. Also, 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 use 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. Whew! No wonder teachers get the big bucks.

Use analogies yourself as teaching tools.

When you teach, use analogies to explain new concepts whenever you can. Analogies, like anecdotes, help students understand concepts by putting those concepts into familiar contexts.

I use analogies to explain such things as transition sentences and the structure of an introduction.

If your 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 to discuss analogies. However, analogies are common in expository nonfiction. You will find them in students’ history, science, and technology texts where analogies are used to 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 that part of the student population turned off by literature by showing them how the material they read in other classes uses many of the same literary devices as classic novels and poems.

Give students practice creating analogies.

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 need to specify in your writing prompt how and why students must create an analogy.

I suggest you have younger students develop a "paragraph essay" using an analogy, like the one below.

Sample writing prompt requiring an analogy

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 what analogy you’d use to answer that question.

The logical process students must use to come up with an analogy is not very different from what they would use to come up with the answer to a bubble-test analogy question such as "cat is to kitten as cow is to _____."

Although the writing prompt may look harder than a bubble test question, students see writing an explanation 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.

Build analogy practice into your writing prompts.

As students mature, you can ask them to develop one body paragraph of a longer text through analogy while developing the other body paragraphs through methods of their own choosing.

Before I move on, 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.  

This original content by Linda Aragoni was first posted 16-Apr-2009 at you-can-teach-writing.com and updated there on 13-June-2012.

Analogy word problems offer teaching solutions

Use course vocabulary for analogies practice

Analogy word problems are commonly used on standardized tests to assess students’ higher level thinking abilities.

Many students find such problems bewildering because they lack an adequate understanding of the meanings of the words used in the problems.

You can address this difficulty by creating analogy practice items that use your course vocabulary. That way you can be sure the words used in the analogies are ones students have at least encountered even if they didn’t master them initially.

The analogies practice activity below shows you can use analogy word problems to review content in English language arts. The idea will work equally well for content review and teaching critical thinking in social studies, geometry, art, etc.

Materials you will need

You need a list of word pairs that illustrate common analogy types. For younger students, or those you are just beginning to introduce to word problems, you can stick with simple types:

  • category : example
  • part : whole
  • object : use
  • cause : effect
  • word : synonym
  • word : antonym

With more mature students, you can add some more complex relationships, such as the dozen identified by the University of Hawaii reading lab. [Information no longer available; link removed]

Vocabulary websites and test prep websites may also provide useful lists. The more examples you have, the more useful the results of the analogy practice activity will be.

Create your list from the topics you study in your course. Here are some ELA examples:

fiction : novel
limerick : poem
sentence : paragraph
nonfiction : biography
PowerPoint : speech
reasoning : persuasion
perspective : viewpoint
novel : book-length fiction
introduction : beginning
fiction : nonfiction
oral : written
grammar : punctuation
conclusion : thesis
analogy : metaphor
MLA : APA
advertisement : editorial

In addition to a generous sprinkling of word pairs whose relationship is obvious, include word pairs whose relationship is debatable or not easily described in one or two words.

Groups encourage diverse opinions

Have students work in small groups to identify the relationship(s) between the words of each pair.

Word pairs that are open to interpretation encourage discussion about the meanings of each word. Ambiguity leads to higher-level learning as students discuss the definitions of terms and look for the most logical relationships (plural) between vocabulary words. Some relationships may be more obvious than others, but there are no right or wrong answers for the word pairs.

When students don’t agree on a relationship, they should list all the relationships they observe.

If you have some shy students who resist public discussion, give the entire class opportunities to describe in one written sentence the relationships they observe in two or three examples. Often such informal writing is enough to convince the shy student she or he has something to contribute to the group’s discussion.

Essential skills addressed in this activity

This activity gives students practice in several important skills at the same time they review course material. Those skills include:

  • critical thinking
  • discipline-specific vocabulary
  • teamwork
  • oral communication

Just because an activity has one primary objective doesn’t mean it cannot provide practice in multiple skills.

Analogy: 1 writing process, many looks

I was trying to explain why students must learn only one writing process to write nonfiction ranging from how-to articles to arguments.  The teachers understood when I used an analogy to sewing a dress.

Once Susi Sewer can make a short-sleeved dress from a pattern, she knows the process well enough to make a long-sleeved dress with contrasting bodice and skirt from that same pattern. The appearance of the product changes; the process does not.

While that analogy worked for teachers,  the analogy to sewing a dress would not work for their middle school students. Middle schoolers need an analogy to something that’s part of their experience.

A better analogy for youngsters is to the process of getting dressed.  Middle schoolers get dressed the same way whether they put on their soccer uniforms or put on their Halloween costumes, but they end up looking very different.

By analogy, depending on the materials used, the products of nonfiction writing can each be built with the same process yet look very different.

Learning by analogies

I’ve been thinking about analogies. I don’t mean the kind of A : B =  C : ? analogy questions on standardized tests, which, even to folks like myself who enjoy them, don’t do much more than pass the time.

The kind of analogies I’m thinking about are critical thinking strategies that enable fast, efficient learning of processes and procedures in new situations.  They are the kinds of cognitive skills that a new hire needs to get up to speed quickly without company-provided training.

Such cognitive abilities are particularly important in this economy: when big companies retrench, one of the first budgets to be cut is training.  Small busineses—those with 10 or fewer employees who comprise the bulk of American businesses—never had a training budget: they must hire people with good skills because they haven’t time or money for training.

Faced with learning some new process or procedure, a savvy learner approaches the material to be learned as an analogy problem.

Analogies are essentially extended comparisons. Unlike similes and metaphors which compare a single feature of two elements, (“swift as a deer,” “bovine eyes”), analogies compare multiple features of two elements.  They work rather like this:

Feature 1  of item 1 ~ Feature 1 of item 2

Feature 2 of item 1 ~ Feature 2  of item 2

Feature 3 of item 1 ~ Feature 3 of item 2

Anyone who has ever used an analogy to explain a concept or process has probably uttered the cliché “every analogy breaks down at some point.”  An analogy is bound to break down unless the two items being compared are identical. That’s where the value of the analogy as a learning strategy comes into play.

Once learners identify something in their experience that’s analogous to the material to be learned, they can zero in on what’s essential to master immediately, with this kind of analysis:

Feature 1 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 2 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 3 of the process I must learn ~ Feature  of a process I already know.

Feature 4 of the process I must learn  is totally unlike any features of a process I already know.

This type of critical thinking process effectively and efficiently isolates for the learner what new processes must be mastered quickly. It also helps the learner identify how steep the learning curve will be.  Having to master a new process that requires learning to use new tools and a new vocabulary will require concentrated effort. On the other hand, for example,  someone who knows  Microsoft® Word® can figure out how to use OpenOffice™ Writer by examining how the features of Word® they are accustomed to are rendered in OpenOffice™ Writer.

It’s worth noting that even though learners see broad similarities between the processes or procedures to be learned and those they already know, they still probably will need to master specific facts. Having an analogous situation to which to compare required new learning does not eliminate the need to do new learning. Rather it changes the kind of learning required from systemic information to more discrete data bits. New hires can jot down terms or job-site specific filing procedures far more easily than they can learn, for example, what an accounting office does.

The critical thinking processes needed for this type of analysis can be taught and learned through classroom activities.  Since the learners who are best equipped to do this kind of cognitive work are those with the broadest range of experiences, schools can support their students by  integrating learning experiences across the curriculum.  That does not mean just that the English teacher allows students to write research papers about preserving the rain forests. It’s equally about the biology teacher pointing out how life science uses language to convey facts and attitudes.

Above all, however, it’s about teaching students that they need to demonstrate the ability to apply and modify their prior learning in each new situation.