Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

How to Compare and Contrast

People compare and contrast daily on matters such as what to wear or what to eat for lunch. The ability to compare and contrast is one of the earliest forms of thought that begins developing at birth. Comparative thinking is foundational in higher-order processing and recollection of details, in addition to helping to clarify abstract ideas. Comparing and contrasting is an important skill that is developed over time and with practice.

Comparing and contrasting is a skill that is fostered in school across various subject matters. In math, a teacher could ask a student to compare and contrast shapes. In biology, a teacher may ask to compare and contrast animal and human cells. A history class may ask for an essay that compares political policies. Spanish class may ask to contrast the conjugation of verbs. Regardless of discipline, comparing and contrasting allows for better retention and a deeper, more meaningful, understanding.

One way a reader can look closer at various elements of a fictional passage is to compare and contrast the elements. Comparing and contrasting is often a stepping stone in the development of critical thinking skills. In English or Language Arts, comparing and contrasting fictional passages allows the reader to engage with the text in a new way and make connections on a broader scale. A student can compare two characters within the same story or contrast the setting between different stories.

Studying Fiction Through Compare and Contrast

In fiction, comparing and contrasting is a tool that helps students to analyze a passage. To analyze something means breaking apart into smaller pieces to evaluate it more closely. In literature, this means critically thinking about the passage and evaluating it from an alternative viewpoint. When reading fiction passages, comparing and contrasting can be utilized for character traits, parts of the plot, theme, setting, or narrative perspective among others.

Consider the book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

One way to analyze the characters would be to compare and contrast their characteristics. Wilbur and Charlotte are similar because they are both animals. They are different because one is a spider and one is a pig. The characters can be further analyzed on their particular traits, both Wilbur and Charlotte exhibit qualities of kindness and thoughtfulness. However, Charlotte can be described as wise and brave. She can even be seen as a mentor to Wilbur. Contrast Charlotte to Wilbur, who tends to be sensitive, emotional, and naive.

Recall the novel Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

A reader could also analyze how the character of Tom Sawyer changes throughout the novel. Comparing and contrasting how Tom changed from the exposition through the resolution. Analyzing the changes provides the reader with additional insight into the characters’ motivations and growth. The initial character of Tom can be described as immature, reckless yet clever, and courageous. As the plot progresses, Tom begins to mature and become aware of his impact on those around him.

Use of Compare and Contrast in Stories

Analyzing a story through comparing focuses primarily on how two or more elements of a story are similar. Comparisons can be obvious as in Charlotte’s Web, both Charlotte and Wilbur are animals. However, comparisons can be far more complex as with the character of Tom Sawyer. As the skill is developed, the analysis will delve deeper into the story.

Contrasting is the skill of recognizing and describing the difference between two literary elements. In the example from Tom Sawyer, analyzing how the character of Tom changes throughout the story brings depth and relatability to the reader. Many times authors create bold contrasts to help illuminate a bigger idea or theme with fiction.

Viewing a piece of fiction through the compare and contrast lens helps the reader make literary and real-world connections.

Strategies of Compare and Contrast Reading

One effective strategy used to encourage deeper thinking when comparing and contrasting is the Venn diagram, sometimes called a Venn illustration. A Venn diagram is a visual way to sort information for further analysis. It can compare and contrast two elements, or it can be complex with several elements. The diagram utilizes overlapping circles, with the portion of the circles that overlap being elements that are similar, and the outer circle being elements that are different.

To compare and contrast the two novella’s written by American author, John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men use the Venn diagram shown below. On the left is circle A which represents Of Mice and Men. Circle B, on the right, illustrates Grapes of Wrath. The outer circle contains specific ways the novels are different, such as the characters and their backgrounds. Of Mice and Men centers on the life of migrant workers; while Grapes of Wrath focuses on the plight of a family leaving Oklahoma. These differences would be recorded in the corresponding circle. In the center shaded area, where the circles overlap, the similarities are entered. In this example, similarities would include, the author, genre, larger themes within the novels, diction, and the overarching topics shared between them.

Example of a Venn diagram

Image of a Venn diagram with two circles overlapping, showing a shaded area in the center

Another way to organize and visually sort information is by using a T-chart. As the name implies, a large T is used to sort information on two literary elements. For example, a T-chart could sort the differences and impacts of the settings in the Harry Potter series, such as the differences between Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic. This contrast could include the tone and mood created by each environment or how Harry’s demeanor changes in each setting.

Using a Venn diagram or T-chart can help visually represent complex ideas and increase comprehension while reading.

Lesson Summary

Comparing means looking at how the elements are similar. Contrasting means looking at how elements are different. Analyzing fictional elements through comparing and contrasting is an important skill to develop. One tool to help compare and contrast is a Venn diagram. A Venn illustration can be used as a visual aid to compare and contrast many different elements of a story such as characters, settings, conflicts, and even elements between books. Another graphic organizer that can be used is a T-chart, which helps to sort information. Having strong comparative thinking skills will help the reader to comprehend the material in a more meaningful manner.

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