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 and updated there on 13-June-2012.

Critical communication skills

I’ve been thinking about what skills people need to communicate well verbally besides such things as are generally in the syllabi for English composition/ELA classes. (I’m using I am verbal to mean both written and oral words.)

I’ve only come up with a few that I don’t think are study topics in those classes but which seem to be very important. They are the ability to:

  • Recognize when language is being used figuratively.
  • Recognize when the change of a word’s function signals a change in its meaning.
  • Craft an analogy to explain a complex idea.
  • Build a list of three or more items using parallel structure.
  • Condense a complex concept or process into a fraction of its original length without changing its essential meaning.

Can you suggest other communications skills that ought to be on my list?

High cost of low teacher salaries—and low writer expectations

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” an op-ed by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari in today’s New York Times, is being hyped by social media outlets. As the title suggests, the article focuses on the importance of raising teacher salaries as “the first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates” (paragraph 4).

As teachers, and most particularly as writing teachers, we need to pay attention not only to the point of a piece of writing but also to how the piece is put together. We are not going to be effective at teaching students how to write persuasively if we don’t test what we read by the standards we expect them to apply, are we? Read the op-ed with that in mind.

Defective analogy

Eggers and Calegari’s article opens with a clichéd analogy comparing education to the military. The authors argue that when the military doesn’t win its battles, nobody blames the soldiers, but when education doesn’t fulfill its objectives, everybody blames the teachers.

Besides being threadbare from years of overuse, the analogy is also defective. Teachers may work in combat zones under wrong-headed policies established by higher-ups, but their situation is really quite different from that of the military enlistee.

Soldiers have no voice in what they will do or how they will do it. They cannot join a union to lobby for better pay, reduced backpack loads when the temperatures are over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or fewer IEDs. There are no promotions for soldiers who don’t perform to the satisfaction of their superiors. If they mess up so badly as to incur a dishonorable discharge, they are not entitled to military pension benefits. In addition, they may lose the right to vote receive any type of government assistance, including loans for a college education.

A better analogy for the teaching profession than the military might be the nursing profession. To get hired, nurses have to meet state standards that usually include post-secondary education at their own expense. Nurses work in a mix of private and public institutions doing work most people don’t want to do under conditions most people don’t want to be in. Often they work under administrators with no hands-on experience in health care, carrying out policies that sometimes have the opposite effects of those intended.  And when budgets are tight, it’s not health care administrators whose jobs suffer.

Source use issues

Besides the problem of the defective analogy, I noted issues related to source use that I’d question if the writing came from one of my students.

For example, in paragraph 6, Eggers and Caligari say, “sixty-two percent [of teachers] work outside the classroom,” but they give no source. Then they present an anecdote about Erik Benner, a history teacher in Texas, who is said to go directly from a job at he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a fork lift until 11 pm. Again, no source is given. I was able to verify that Benner’s name is on the faculty list, but not the anecdote.

While I do not expect citations in a newspaper, I would expect to find hyperlinks in the digital versions (by 10 am the piece was on 30 blogs verbatim), I would like to be able to check to see if, for example, how many of those jobs are full-time concurrent with teaching and how many are part-time and summer jobs. Again, my reason for questioning is to be sure we are comparing apples to apples.

Please note that I am not arguing that Eggers and Caligari are wrong in advocating better teacher pay. (I happen to think that is an important factor in improving  education.) I am saying only that their argument in favor of better pay contains serious weaknesses as a piece of writing.

Since Eggers and Caligari are the founders of the 826 National tutoring centers whose  “goal is to assist students . . .  with their writing, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing,” I’m sure they would agree that the quality of written work matters.