Venn diagrams. We’ve all seen them – two connected circles with a bit of overlap in the center; the characteristics of one item listed on one side, the characteristics of another item listed on the other side, and the similarities between the two listed in the center.
While I’ve used Venn diagrams in the classroom and at home with my kids, I find them restrictive. No matter how much space I put in the center, I never have enough room to write all the similarities between the two things I’m comparing.
They’re like the graphic organizer counterpart of the five paragraph essay. And I say that in the nicest way possible.
Poor old five paragraph. I’ve spent a lot of time bashing it over the length of this series, haven’t I? I don’t mean to. It does work in certain circumstances, and it has a place in basic writing instruction. It just doesn’t give enough room for more advanced, nuanced writing.
Take comparing or contrasting two topics, for instance. The five paragraph works if you have one issue to explore: one similarity, one difference, and one evaluation of the impact. But what if you have a bigger topic to cover? What if there are gray areas? Multiple similarities and differences? Multiple conclusions to draw? This isn’t an option with the five paragraph format, which limits you to three body paragraphs sandwiched between an intro and a conclusion.
But the comparison/contrast form allows the writer to explore several different ideas and possibilities without restriction.
You can choose your topic, find a few key points of comparison, and establish the greater impact that results. For a clearer picture of what I mean here, let’s take my family’s experiences with homeschooling and traditional schooling (please note – this is not intended to denigrate traditional schooling in any way. I am basing this comparison on my own family’s needs and experiences, fully respecting that every family does what is best for its children).
If I were writing a traditional five paragraph comparison, my thesis might look something like this:
While my family’s experience with homeschooling and traditional schooling have both involved a classical curriculum approach, homeschooling has afforded my children with more freedom to be themselves and to learn in the manner best for them.
It’s kind of a mouthful, right? The five paragraph’s one sentence thesis (and subsequent two point comparison) makes that statement of opinion clunky and difficult to expand. But what about a true comparison/contrast essay?
My family’s relationship with traditional and homeschooling is complex. Both iterations involved a classical curriculum, and the traditional school experience did have benefits which have carried over into our daily lives. But homeschooling’s flexibility has afforded my children more freedom to learn in an environment conducive to their learning styles. They have blossomed into well-adjusted, well-educated people who thrive away from the rigidity of a traditional school environment.
Yes, there are more words, but they aren’t wasted, and the thesis establishes a larger relationship between our school choices and their impact on our family life. Not every comparison/contrast thesis is going to be like this, but it is an example of how one might function in a superior manner to an essay limited to five paragraphs.
When you are ready to write a comparison/contrast essay, keep in mind that there are two basic ways to structure it:
- point by point, in which the writer chooses points of comparison or contrast and addresses them individually, or
- by group, in which the writer discusses the similarities first and the differences later (or vice versa)
As always, you’ll want to begin by prewriting. Gather your details in a T-chart or Venn diagram (I know….), and then look for associations among them. How are they alike? Different? How do those similarities and differences impact the bigger picture?
Write your thesis statement, then
- Write the opening paragraph
- Start with an intriguing statement or question
- Start with a quotation
- Start with a short vignette
- Write your body paragraphs
- Use the structure that best fits your needs (see above)
- Use plenty of specific details
- Write your closing
- Try summarizing your thoughts
- Consider offering a final idea
Like the descriptive and narrative forms we have discussed previously, comparison/contrast essays can be blended with the other four forms in this series. Play around with the format until you find what works for you. I think you’ll find the comparison/contrast form as useful at is versatile.
Read more about the limitations of the five paragraph essay here. For additional alternatives, check out the rest of the days in this series:
Monday: The Descriptive Essay
Tuesday: The Narrative Essay
Wednesday: The Comparison Essay
Thursday: The Cause and Effect Essay
Friday: The Definition Essay
This post is part of the iHomeschool Network 5 Day Hopscotch
Information in this post was adapted from Fusion: Integrated Reading and Writing Book 2 (Kemper, Meyer, Van Rys, Sebranek; Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).