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

What are Compare and Contrast?

On any given day, you compare and contrast a wide variety of things. Maybe you compare two health care plans to decide on which to apply for. Or, while shopping, you contrast two different shirts to decide which to purchase. One shirt costs less, but the second one is more flattering. If you really think about it, you are constantly comparing and contrasting to make many of the everyday decisions in life.

However, when discussing a reading selection, comparing and contrasting take on a more specific meaning. To compare means to identify the similarities and differences between two things, and to contrast means to identify only the differences between two things. This might seem like a small distinction, but it can be very important depending on the task you are assigned. For instance, if the prompt calls for only contrasting ideas, then you should only look for differences and ignore the similarities. Overall, regardless of the particulars of the prompt, when comparing and contrasting there are some simple steps you can take to do so successfully.

Analyze Prompt

The first step is to determine exactly what you should be evaluating. If you are responding to a specific prompt or question, then analyze the prompt. Analyze means to break ideas down into manageable parts to help with understanding. When you analyze a prompt or a question, you need to break it down to a simplified purpose.

For example, imagine you have just read an essay describing two scientists’ opinions on the causes and effects of global warming. Then, a prompt asks you to compare the two scientists’ views on the effects of pollution. The first step is to analyze this prompt and break it down into simple terms. You need to find what each scientist thinks about only pollution. Also, since the prompt asks you to compare, you should realize you must find both the similarities and differences between their opinions.

Whatever the reading selection, you need to analyze, or break down, what you are being asked to compare or contrast. Some reading selections might have you comparing two characters, which would lead you to look for each character’s thoughts, actions, or words. Others might ask you to contrast two viewpoints, like the two scientists’ views in the example on pollution. Whatever the task, remember to break it down into simple terms, which will guide you when looking for details in the reading selection.


Once you have analyzed the prompt and you know exactly what to look for, you need to decide on the method for comparing and contrasting. Writing improves memory and learning, so writing the details you find will help you to compare or contrast ideas. You can choose to simply write out bulleted lists, or there are many different graphic organizers, which are visual representations of ideas, that can be used for this.

If you’re looking for both similarities and differences, one of the most common methods is to use a Venn diagram. To form this diagram, you draw two intersecting circles, each representing one of the ideas or objects you are comparing. In the intersecting section, you write all the similarities, since it is a part of both circles. In the outside section, you fill in the details that are the differences. A Venn diagram can also be created with three circles when three ideas need to be compared. This is useful because in addition to a section showing what all three subjects have in common, there are also sections for information that falls under only two of the subjects, but not the third.

However, if you are comparing more than three ideas, or if you need only contrast, then a Venn diagram will not be useful. Depending on the topic, you can use tables, flow charts, webs, and diagrams. For instance, if your task was to compare or contrast four different historical figures from the Civil War, you can create a chart. Each row can represent one historical figure, and the columns can be for the different aspects of the person’s life. For example, the columns can be labeled childhood, education, career, impact on the world, private life, death. Then, when the chart is complete, you can use it to provide similarities or differences as needed.

Find the Details

After analyzing the prompt and determining your method, the next step is to find the details in the selection. Now is the time to return to the selection, looking for details that pertain to your comparison. The key here is that not all the details will be relevant to your objective. You need only find those that relate to the specific topic you found during the analysis.

When you’re clear on what to look for, skim through, pulling out details to fill your graphic organizer. Let’s use the first example prompt to illustrate a relevant fact versus an irrelevant one: compare the two scientists’ views on the effects of pollution. For this, the focus needs to be on details related to pollution only. Any unrelated details will not be necessary for your comparison. So, a relevant detail would be a statistic on how car pollution diminishes the ozone layer. On the other hand, the fact that one of the scientists worked for NASA is probably not relevant to the topic of pollution. When finding information, be sure to only include relevant information that pertains to the topic.


Now that you have completed all the hard work, it is time for the final step: evaluate your work. You now have relevant details, so assess your information with regards to the comparison. What are the similarities? The differences? Is there a side you find more convincing? Why? This step is completely reliant on what specifically you have to do with your comparison. If all you have to do is list the similarities and differences, then you’re done after completing a Venn diagram.

However, if you have to write an essay on your opinion, you must evaluate your information, choose a side, and use your details and information to support your argument. For example, suppose you had to write an essay on the previous prompt: compare the two scientists’ views on the effects of pollution. Decide which scientist was the most convincing and use the details you listed in your graphic organizer to support your claim. If you have found relevant information in the previous step, this final step will be much easier.

Lesson Summary

To review, all of us are constantly comparing and contrasting different ideas or situations. From outfits to health care plans, we use comparisons to choose the best solutions. With regards to literature, remember that compare means to describe the similarities and differences, while contrast means to only identify the differences.

The first step with comparisons is to analyze the prompt. You need to break down the directions into a simple task that will be manageable. Next, determine your method. You can make a bulleted list or use a graphic organizer, which is a visual representation of ideas, for clarity. If you are looking at only two ideas and need similarities along with differences, a Venn diagram might be the best graphic organizer to use.

Once you have determined your method, now is the time to find the details. Return to the selection and skim the reading. Pull out relevant details and information, and complete the graphic organizer you chose to use. Depending on your task, you might have one more step, which is to evaluate the information you have found and use it for whatever task is required of you. For any assignment that requires comparing or contrasting, follow these steps to make sure you fully grasp the reading selection.

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