Compare and Contrast

“My favorite sport? I’m not sure,” Thomas said.

“Thomas likes any sport. As long as he can move,” his mom chuckled.

“He plays hockey more than any other-all year round,” his sister Anna said.

“Well, when you compare how much time I spend, I guess hockey is my favorite.”

In their first months, babies recognize an increasing number of faces. Very early on, they distinguish the features of their parents from those of others who pick them up. When young children begin to read, they discriminate letters and sounds, recognize complex emotions that signal different reactions, and determine detailed similarities and differences in pictures. Progressing through the school years, children sharpen their abilities to compare and contrast all that they capture with their senses. Whether in math, science, fine arts, literature, or social sciences, their minds group likenesses and separate differences in what they see, hear, and read.

Most children find it easy to pick the precise words for grouping objects that are alike. They learn to sort by color, shape, odor, size, number, and texture. They can create attribute webs or lists focused on a single quality in multiple examples: “Which objects are blue? Round? Long? Even when contrasting two similar objects, young students find it simple to list the characteristics that make the difference and note that “this is a pencil and that is a pen because…”

In the middle grades, as students move to more abstract thinking, some begin to experience difficulty with comparisons. For instance, when asked to complete a Venn diagram showing the similarities and differences between Asian and African elephants, many find it easy to note the physical traits they see or hear. But beyond the obvious, some students struggle with finding anything to say about the more subtle likenesses and differences.

There are those students who have not yet developed the abstract thinking processes needed to perceive anything beyond the concrete similarities such as size, shape and color. They are trapped in the literal. For instance, when asked to compare two characters in a story, students who have not developed their inferring skills may struggle to name any characteristics that relate to how the character might be feeling or how the character thinks and plans.

The ELA standards not only call for students to employ these twin skills of comparing and contrasting, but these standards raise the ante to ensure that students will show the progress made in being able to apply these skills in increasingly complex learning tasks.

This table provides examples of what this thinking skill looks like and sounds like in the classroom.

Looks Like
Sounds Like
Students completing a Venn diagram

Students sorting science specimens

Students labeling for classification

Students debating an issue
“I see how they are alike.”

“The opposing point is…”

“I see how they are different.”

“This is not exactly the same because…”

“A different point of view is…”

The compare and contrast thinking skill is a basic cognitive skill. It is learned in the earliest years of life, determines early success in school, and leads the way to development of the mega skill of understanding. It doesn’t stand alone; it relies on other thinking skills such as inferring, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. In their more subtle forms, compare and contrast suggest distinguishing and differentiating.

The compare and contrast skill has applications in every phase of students’ lives, and in school they can’t advance without developing the skill of comparing and contrasting.

Adapted from:

Bellanca, J. A., Fogarty, R. J., & Pete, B. M. (2012). How to teach thinking skills within the common core: 7 key proficiencies of the new national standards. (pp. 107-109). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.