Beef Up Critical Thinking and Writing Skills: Comparison Essays

Organizing the Compare-Contrast Essay

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The compare/contrast essay is an excellent opportunity to help students develop their critical thinking and writing skills. A compare and contrast essay examines two or more subjects by comparing their similarities and contrasting their differences. 

Compare and contrast is high on Bloom's Taxonomy of critical reasoning and is associated with a complexity level where students break down ideas into simpler parts in order to see how the parts relate. For example, in order to break down ideas for comparison or to contrast in an essay, students may need to categorize, classify, dissect, differentiate, distinguish, list, and simplify.

Preparing to Write the Essay

First, students need to select pick comparable objects, people, or ideas and list their individual characteristics. A graphic organizer, like a Venn Diagram or top hat chart, is helpful in preparing to write the essay:

  • What is the most interesting topic for comparison? Is the evidence available?
  • What is the most interesting topic to contrast? Is the evidence available?
  • Which characteristics highlight the most significant similarities?
  • Which characteristics highlight the most significant differences?
  • Which characteristics will lead to a meaningful analysis and an interesting paper?

A link to 101 compare and contrast essay topics  for students provides opportunities for students to practice the similarities and differences such as

  • Fiction vs. Nonfiction
  • Renting a home vs. Owning a home
  • General Robert E. Lee vs General Ulysses S. Grant

Writing the Block Format Essay: A, B, C points vs A, B, C points

The block method for writing a compare and contrast essay can be illustrated using points A, B, and C to signify individual characteristics or critical attributes. 

A. history
B. personalities
C. commercialization

This block format allows the students to compare and contrast subjects, for example, dogs vs. cats, using these same characteristics one at a time. 

The student should write the introductory paragraph to signal a compare and contrast essay in order to identify the two subjects and explain that they are very similar, very different or have many important (or interesting) similarities and differences. The thesis statement must include the two topics that will be compared and contrasted.

The body paragraph(s) after the introduction describe characteristic(s) of the first subject. Students should provide the evidence and examples that prove the similarities and/or differences exist, and not mention the second subject. Each point could be a body paragraph. For example, 

A. Dog history.
B. Dog personalities
C. Dog commercialization.

The body paragraphs dedicated to the second subject should be organized in the same method as the first body paragraphs, for example:

A. Cat history.
B. Cat personalities.
C. Cat commercialization.

The benefit of this format is that it allows the writer to concentrate on one characteristic at a time. The drawback of this format is that there may be some imbalance in treating the subjects to the same rigor of comparing or contrasting.

The conclusion is in the final paragraph, the student should provide a general summary of the most important similarities and differences. The student could end with a personal statement, a prediction, or another snappy clincher.

Point by Point Format: AA, BB, CC

Just as in the block paragraph essay format, students should begin the point by point format by catching the reader's interest. This might be a reason people find the topic interesting or important, or it might be a statement about something the two subjects have in common. The thesis statement for this format must also include the two topics that will be compared and contrasted.

In the point by point format, the students can compare and/or contrast the subjects using the same characteristics within each body paragraph. Here the characteristics labeled A, B, and C are used to compare dogs vs. cats together, paragraph by paragraph.

A. Dog history
A Cat history

B. Dog personalities
B. Cat personalities

C. Dog commercialization
C. Cat commercialization

This format does help students to concentrate on the characteristic(s) which may be may result in a more equitable comparison or contrast of the subjects within each body paragraph(s).

Transitions to Use

Regardless of the format of the essay, block or point-by-point, the student must use transition words or phrases to compare or contrast one subject to another. This will help the essay sound connected and not sound disjointed.

Transitions in the essay for comparison can include:

  • in the same way or by the same token
  • similarly
  • in like manner or likewise
  • in similar fashion

Transitions for contrasts can include:

  • and yet
  • nevertheless or nonetheless
  • but
  • however or though
  • otherwise or on the contrary
  • in contrast
  • notwithstanding
  • on the other hand
  • at the same time

In the final concluding paragraph, the student should give a general summary of the most important similarities and differences. The student could also end with a personal statement, a prediction, or another snappy clincher.

Part of the ELA Common Core State Standards

The text structure of compare and contrast is so critical to literacy that it is referenced in several of the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards in both reading and writing for K-12 grade levels. For example, the reading standards ask students to participate in comparing and contrasting as a text structure in the anchor standard R.9:

"Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take."

The reading standards are then referenced in the grade level writing standards, for example, as in W7.9 

"Apply grade 7 Reading standards to literature (e.g., 'Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history')."

Being able to identify and create compare and contrast text structures is one of the more important critical reasoning skills that students should develop, regardless of grade level.