The combination of comparing and contrasting forms one of the most popular essay forms in English classes today, but comparing and contrasting in and of themselves are not purposes for writing. Though we use comparing and contrasting often in our writing, the purpose of papers that use this type of organization should be to persuade, to inform or to explain.
With the understanding that comparing and contrasting are methods of organization and not reasons for writing, here is a straightforward way to teach your ESL class how to write a compare and contrast essay.
How to Write a Compare and Contrast Essay
Clarify the Purpose
While the purpose of a compare/contrast essay is to persuade, inform or explain, the reasons one might want to do those things have more variety. Usually, a compare/contrast essay will aim to do one of the following 4 things:
- To show that one item is superior to another like item (that Nintendo video games are superior to Sony video games)
- To explain something that is unknown by comparing it to something that is known (explain the Presbyterian church government by comparing it to the U.S. government)
- To show that two dissimilar things are actually quite similar or vice versa
- To show how something has changed over time (the Unites States now as opposed to the United States before September 11, 2001).
Gather Some Ideas
With any essay, it is helpful to invest some time in prewriting. The process of prewriting helps a person think about a particular topic and collect her ideas before trying to organize them into a logical essay. A Venn diagram is a good way to prewrite for a compare/contrast essay. To make a Venn diagram, draw two circles of the same size with part of the circles overlapping. Each circle will represent one item that your student will compare in the essay. Label each circle for one of the two items, and then in each circle, write ideas about that item. Where the circles overlap, write ideas that are true of both of the items. If your students do this correctly, they will have all the similarities in the overlapping section of the diagram, and the places that do not overlap will have the differences. Then students should select three or four key points on which to compare the two items. If an essay contains more points than that it may become too lengthy or disconnected, so students should choose those points which will support their thesis most clearly.
Organize, Organize, Organize
There are 2 ways to successfully organize a compare/contrast essay.
The first structure is called block organization. With block organization, your essay will have four paragraphs. The first paragraph will be the introduction. The second paragraph will discuss all the points about one item. For example, give all the pertinent information about apples, their nutritional content, popularity and availability. The third paragraph will discuss all the points about the second item, in this case oranges, again examining their nutritional content, popularity and availability. Students should present the points about the two items in the same order in the two body paragraphs so that the essay has unity and parallel structure. The final paragraph is the conclusion. Block organization is most effective when there is not a large amount of information included in the essay. If a student tries to put too much information in block organization, the overall essay will seem disjointed and lacking in coherence.
The second method of organization for a compare/contrast essay is called point-by-point organization. This structure will elicit an essay with five or six paragraphs depending on how many points of comparison your student has chosen. The first paragraph is again the introduction. The second paragraph will discuss one point and how it factors into both items. For example, one paragraph may discuss the nutritional content of both the apple and the orange. The third paragraph will then discuss another point about both items. Here it may examine the popularity of both the apple and the orange. The fourth paragraph does the same with the third point, and if there is a fourth point of comparison it is examined in the fifth paragraph. The final paragraph is again the conclusion. The advantage to point-by-point organization is the two items are examined simultaneously, and the reader gets a clearer value judgment for each point. Using this type of organization can make body paragraphs unusually short if students to not elaborate adequately, so encourage students to have at least four sentences in each of these paragraphs.
It is now time to write the essay, do some editing and revising and make revisions. In the conclusion, make sure your students have accomplished the goal they set forth in the introduction. They should have persuaded, explained or informed their reader adequately. They should remind the reader of their thesis and offer some final thoughts to round out the paper.
Once our students understand that comparing and contrasting are not reasons for writing but are merely organizational strategies, they will write stronger more compelling pieces.
Using a Venn diagram for prewriting will help the process, and then students can choose either block organization or point-by-point organization. A strong conclusion that echoes the thesis will complete a successful compare/contrast essay for your students.