How to Compare and Contrast Authentically

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, the more they thrive.

Common Core Standards recognize the importance of this skill by addressing it in over 29 Standards, at every grade level from Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. Here’s a partial list:

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, compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories and With prompting and support, identify basic similarities in and differences between two texts on the same topic (K Reading Standards–2)
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–2)

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–2)

Compare formal and informal uses of English (2nd grade Language Standards)

Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters; 
Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic (3rd grade Reading Standards–2)
Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations; Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; and Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics and patterns of events in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures. (4th grade Reading Standards–3)
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text; Compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics; 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–4)
Compare and contrast the varieties of English used in stories, dramas, or poems (5th grade Language Standards)
Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch; 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–3)
Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium; 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; 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–3)
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 the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading
a text on the same topic (6-8 Reading Standards–Science)
Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and
emphasize in their respective accounts; Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources (9-10 grade Reading Standards–History–2)
Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources (including their own experiments), noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts (9-10 grade Reading Standards–Science)

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. You might provide them with a spreadsheet such as this (3rd grade and up–after they’ve been introduced to the use of slideshows, word processing, spreadsheets, and desktop publishing):

compare contrast

But–leave half the cells empty. Ask them to work in groups to complete the table. Think about the categories and how each tool applies. Here’s what that might look like:

compare contrast

Adapt the table to the tools they have available. For example, you might want to add videos, decision matrices, and audio podcasts.

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. 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. Here’s an exemplar of what that table might look like:

compare contrast

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.

Copyright ©2023– All rights reserved.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

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