Prepare students to compare and contrast

What can be learned by comparing these?

photos of apartment and house
What can be learned by comparing a home to an apartment?

Middle and high school students are routinely required to write “compare and contrast” essays without being shown any reason they’d need to know that information. Because most jobs require skill at comparing and contrasting, I developed a writing prompt that makes students focus on the purpose of comparing and contrasting.

What can be learned by comparing these two cooling devices?

What I do is give students several sets images of two items and ask them what can be learned by comparing the two items. Or, to put it another way, why might someone need to compare the two? And who might need to compare the two items? (This work can be done by small groups that share their conclusions with the entire class after five to 10 minute’s discussion.)

two different truck bodies
What can be learned by comparing these two types of trucks?

With that background, give all students a writing assignment.

Here’s the writing prompt

In no more than 650 words, explain why the ability to compare and contrast is an essential skill in today’s workplace. To support your thesis statement, give two to five examples of essential business functions that require comparing and contrasting. Your examples must clearly depict information that can only be gleaned by doing both comparing and contrasting.

If you choose visuals that appeal to students with a variety of interests from art to zoology and including items associated with jobs that don’t require college degrees, you’ll find students will readily grasp the idea that compare/contrast writing is not “just some dumb English teacher thing.” It actually has some real life relevance.

©2021 Linda Aragoni

ELA synopsis and comparison, part 2

Last week I gave you directions for a having students write a synopsis of a blog post by Josh Spilker, “What to do it you’re a talentless hack.” Here’s a shortlink to Spilker’s post on Medium:

Today I’m going to give you directions for having students use those synopses as one half of a comparison.

The assignment for students

Find online the text of a commencement speech given at a college or high school graduation ceremony in the last five years in which the speaker gives graduates advice about how to find the best job for them. (Hint: Each year news organizations in the US publish stories about the most interesting and/or unusual commencement addresses. You can use the stories to help you find transcripts or videos of the speeches.)

Compare the post by Josh Spilker ( that you read and condensed earlier with the message of the commencement speech you read/viewed.

In no more than 750 words, explain to someone who is not familiar with either presentation what you think is the major difference between the two. You can use the synopsis you wrote earlier as part of your explanation.

There are dozens of comparisons you could make. You must choose the one you think is most significant and give enough detail that your readers will agree with your position.

Comparison thinking prepares students for new horizons

We cannot prepare students to work in the world they’ll encounter 10 or 20 years from now.

2025 calendarWe can, however, enable them to learn the information and skills they will need in tomorrow’s workplace.

One of the most common ways to learn something new is by comparing it to something already known.  The value of the comparison is not in a side-by-side list of features, but in the question(s) that can be answered by such parallel lists.

To teach students the value of comparison thinking, begin by teaching students to consider what they can learn about their world using comparisons.

You could show some side-by-side photos (use of images plants the notion that comparisons are tasks ordinary people do outside the classroom), and ask students what questions could be answered by comparing the two objects.

For example, what kind of questions could be answered by comparing  these two objects?

Two windows, one with a box fan in it, the other with an air conditioner

If students look bewildered, you can ask who might need to compare the two objects. What reason might that person have for needing to compare them?

Other comparisons that are easy to present visually include such things as:

  • Two food items
  • The school football team and an NFL team
  • A laundromat washing machine and a home washer
  • A newspaper and an online news website
  • A laptop computer and a smartphone

It doesn’t take students long to see that comparisons are routinely used to guide decisions, particularly buying decisions.

Students also soon realize that many times there may be several feasible reasons for comparing any two items.  For example, two food items might be compared to answer such questions as

  • Which is a healthier choice?
  • Which is better to take on a picnic?
  • Which is easier for an inexperienced cook to make?
  • Which is cheaper per serving?
  • Which is more appealing to elementary school students?

The more plausible, specific questions students can suggest that could be answered by a comparison, the better.

After students understand what comparisons can do in out-of-school situations, give them some opportunities to do the same exercise with school topics, such as:

  • Compare algebra to geometry.
  • Compare tennis to soccer.
  • Compare a spreadsheet to a database.
  • Compare historical research methods to scientific research methods
  • Compare learning computer coding to learning Spanish.

Some of the questions students develop through this comparison activity might become the basis for:

  •  An original experiment
  • An essay or research paper
  • An oral presentation
  • A video or podcast
  • An infographic

As I write this, the New Horizons spacecraft is sending back data about Pluto to scientists who have long lists of questions they hope to answer by comparing the data about Pluto with data about earth.

Students who can figure out what questions they want answered and what comparisons are likely to yield those answers will be positioned to learn in 2025 and beyond.

Found Examples Beat Textbook Ones

One way to reduce some of students’ indifference toward English class content (should you be so fortunate as to have students whose interest rises as high as indifference), is regularly sharing current, real-world examples of the topic you’re discussing in class.

Screen capture from Q&A used to stimulate class discussionNon-textbook material works better than textbook materials on the same subject, even if it is not local or big news:

  • Non-textbook material looks real because it is real.
  • Non-textbook material shows students that there are uses for the stuff you teach.
  • Non-textbook material helps students read the way readers will read their work, right down to the “huh?”

One morning I noticed this lede paragraph in a story in the Glens Falls, NY, Post-Star that gave me a great illustration for my compare-and-contrast lessons.

Tony Chiaravalle buys and sells stuff for a living. The 46-year-old father of one from Lake George runs Main Street Exchange in Queensbury. Though his shop may not be as well-known as the one on History Channel’s popular “Pawn Stars” show, he said there are a lot of similarities and differences.

I would give students that lede and ask them to respond in writing as I posed three questions, giving students time to write each answer before I present the next question. Such informal writing forces students to look carefully at the paragraph, and it makes sure the entire class has thought about the material.

  1. Write 1-2 students explaining why you think it is or is not a good introduction to a compare-and-contrast article.
  2. In one sentence, tell what you think is unique about Main Street Exchange.
  3. In one or two sentences, explain why you would or would not use that third sentence for a working thesis for a comparison essay.

By the time they get to the third question, most students have begun to see that saying two items have similarities and differences tells nothing: That statement can be made about any two items.

Once students have written their thoughts, I’d ask them to share orally what they observed. The typical class figures out without any help from me that working thesis for a comparison should specify the significant difference between the two items. Differences are distinctive.

Since the news story is a Q&A — essentially raw data — I might have students work in teams to produce a good working thesis and writing skeleton™ based on their analysis of the content of the piece. Eventually students will need to sort through their own raw data. Having had a chance to paw through someone else’s with the help of their peers gives students supported practice.

You will need to exert very little effort to find such non-textbook materials to use in class if you have annual objectives and periodically refresh your memory about what topics remain to be covered.

Exemplary Argument Essay on WiFi Access in Schools

Icon representing WiFi accessA good example of an argument essay that’s relevant to school settings is Paul Barrette’s 2013 blog post “Schools are NOT coffee shops.”

Barrette, who tweets as @head_geek, uses comparison to develop his argument. He writes in first person, using personal experience to illustrate his points.

The kind of argument Barrette provides is the sort students need to be able to read by high school graduation and write by their sophomore year of college.

You could use Barrette’s piece for teaching reading comprehension, vocabulary, thesis statement, outlining/planning, fluency, etc. You could also assign argument essays in which students show why some comparison commonly used in English class or in a school setting doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.