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Teaching Strategies: Authentically Compare & Contrast

Jacqui Murray


To students, knowing how to “compare and contrast” sounds academic, not real-world, but we teachers know most of life is choosing between options. The better adults are at this skill, the more they thrive in the world.

The Common Core State Standards recognize the importance of this skill by addressing it in more than 29 standards, at every grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade. Here's a partial list of these teaching strategies:

Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take (k-5 and 6-12 reading anchor standards).

With prompting and support, use teaching strategies to compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories (kindergarten reading standards).

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Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories and identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (1st grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story and compare and contrast the most-important points presented by two texts on the same topic (2nd grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic (3rd grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations (4th grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast the overall structure of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts; and analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent (5th grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast the varieties of English used in stories, dramas, or poems (5th grade language standards).

Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics; Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (6th grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium’s portrayal of the subject (7th grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style (8th grade reading standards).

Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources (9-10 grade reading standards -- history).

It also appears multiple times for most grade levels in the math standards, including the standards for mathematical practice. Why is this skill so important? Look at what Harvey Silver says in his book, “Compare and Contrast”:

“By compiling the available research on effective instruction, Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock found that strategies that engage students in comparative thinking had the greatest effect on student achievement, leading to an average percentile gain of 45 points. More recently, Marzano's research in “The Art and Science of Teaching” (2007) reconfirmed that asking students to identify similarities and differences through comparative analysis leads to eye-opening gains in student achievement.

Clearly, this is a seminal skill.

Whenever I have a chance, I ask students to make a choice between two -- or more -- digital tools that can be used to solve a problem or prepare a project. I don't want to make the decision for them; I want them to mentally compare and contrast. I want them to hone their abilities to reach an “if-then” conclusion. I hope they can convince me they have a better approach than I do. For example, if I ask them to write a report using a word processing tool (Word, Google Docs), they are welcome to convince me a slideshow or video would be a better choice, but they have to make their argument based on logic and evidence, comparing and contrasting their approach to mine.

Offering options in the digital tools they use to communicate their knowledge encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning and you as the teacher to differentiate for their needs without a lot of extra work.

It starts with a change in mindset: You aren't teaching a tech tool, you're teaching its application to learning.

For example, using the book report scenario, discuss these with students:

What are the basics of each reporting method?

  • Slideshows benefit oral presentations.
  • Word processing reports are typically submitted, not presented.
  • Spreadsheets are used to simplify numbers, often part of a bigger reporting method.
  • Desktop publishing provides a take-away that can be consumed in chunks.

Compare/contrast these differences and how the student wants to communicate. That will help him/her reach a decision on their best choice

The first time you present this sort of decision matrix to students, they may ask you to pick for them. Resist. Help them evaluate their personal strengths and weaknesses, but the ultimate choice is theirs.

Once they've gone through this once with you, they can reproduce it every time they are faced with the question of what digital tool best fits a project.

Besides using compare-contrast to select digital tools, it is also useful in teaching concepts that are otherwise confusing, like the difference between software and online tools. For instance, you can build a table with students that includes all the pertinent parts and then fill it in together. I start this in 1st grade, when students have used both software and online tools and likely don't realize they're completely different tools. The table helps them to compare and contrast relevant characteristics.

Too often, students want the teacher to make decisions for them. They forget -- or don't realize --that the critical thinking and problem solving skills they learn in school and life can be applied everywhere. Compare-contrast is an organic skill that will become part of their life skills toolkit, once they understand how to use it.

If you have more questions about compare-contrast, check out ReadWriteThink and Oswego City School District's comprehensive chart.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of dozens of tech ed resources including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and dozens of books on how to integrate technology into education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a tech ed columnist for Examiner.comand a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

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