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Developing Writing Skills: Practising Comparison

Beth Kemp | Friday June 17, 2011

Categories: Hot Entries, Trial, Writing, Comparative Analysis, Comparing & Contrasting, Teaching Ideas & Skills Development

Several specifications require comparison: of known texts, of known with unseen texts, or of all unseen texts.  These may be literary or linguistic comparisons, or there may be a requirement to combine both techniques.  The activities here include ways of developing comparative skills that will benefit all of these kinds of exam and coursework tasks.  Each activity has a short introduction in italics to indicate the kind of task that it is most suited as preparation and practice for.  The majority of these activities are about allowing students to make comparisons between texts, while the last section is focused on helping students to develop the skill of writing comparatively. 

Activities in the ‘developing analytical writing’ section will also be relevant to classes working towards comparative analysis in their exam or coursework, while the ‘practising linguistic analysis’ and ‘practising literary analysis’ sections will also hold some relevant ideas for carrying out this kind of work.

Random comparisons

Resources required:

One of:

  • Slips of paper indicating parts of set texts
  • Large collection of texts, divided into piles
  • Six texts each of different types/genres

This activity is relevant for all kinds of comparative task – set texts and/or ‘unseen’ texts. 

The randomness can be achieved in different ways, depending on the demands of your specification:

  • Students select one poem or short story from each collection by drawing slips of paper (cutting up the contents page is a quick and easy way of doing this).  A collection of extracts from longer set texts on paper slips might also be appropriate (e.g. from ‘x’ on p.xx to ‘y’ on p.yy, or Act x scene y, lines a-b).
  • Students grab one each from two (or more) piles of texts.  This can be managed so that each pile has a different genre or form (e.g. for the combined lang-lit course, you might have a literature pile, a transcripts pile and a media/non-fiction texts pile etc), theme, writer or period.
  • Students roll dice to determine which of six texts in each set they will work with.  This way, different students will be working on the same text, but probably in combination with different texts – as long as they roll the dice for each set separately.

This is great for encouraging students to stretch and think beyond obvious comparisons.  Even if their exam will not give them unrelated texts, practising with texts with no immediate link can be immensely helpful to their analytical skills and their confidence.  Sometimes it’s good to give them something ‘even harder’ (or with more challenges) than the exam format, as this can reassure them that they are prepared for anything.

Once students have acquired their randomly-allocated texts, any of the following comparing activities can be used.

Speed dating texts

Resources required:

  • Four or five different texts, ideally on different coloured paper
  • (alternative) A different text for every student
  • Comparison grid pro-forma (optional)

This works best for comparing texts two at a time, but is easily expanded to allow broader comparisons.  It is most appropriate for entirely ‘unseen’ comparisons or for introducing a set of texts. 

  • Each student has a text.  They get a fixed period of time (e.g. five minutes) to make separate notes on what they feel are they key features of their text.
  • Students must pair up with someone with a different text (this is where using different coloured paper really speeds things up) and they have a limited period of time (e.g. three minutes) to discuss and compare texts, coming up with a minimum number of points between them (e.g. one similarity and one difference, one comparison in terms of imagery and one in terms of form, one language point and two literary ones etc).
  • This can be repeated to allow students to compare with a further text, and students can be asked to complete a comparative grid to deal with all texts eventually.  They could be asked to decide which text is most/least compatible with theirs (to stick with the dating theme) and give a justification.

The speed and movement of this makes it ‘different’ enough for students to enjoy, while the skill of rapidly deciding which the key areas for comparison are is a useful one for comparative exam questions.  This makes an effective starter if limited to one ‘round’ of comparison, but can be the basis of a lesson if expanding to more rounds.  For exams where a larger number of texts must be handled (e.g. in linguistic ‘grouping’ exercises), it can be helpful to gather enough texts that everyone in the class has a different one, and to run the activity so that all students deal with five or six texts in addition to their own.

Optional extra (for better differentiation):

  • Students can be allocated more or less challenging texts initially according to their ability, but this is an activity that all ought to be able to access at their own level.

Diagramming

Resources required:

  • Texts
  • Creative supplies – paper, pens etc

This is relevant to any kind of comparison.

  • Students work in pairs to produce diagrams which represent the relations between a pair or set of texts or extracts.  They might produce illustrated mind maps, venn diagrams, flow charts, tree diagrams etc.  They have a set period of time for planning what they want to show, and how to best do this, before production of the diagram can begin.  This planning time is easier to enforce if students are set free on the sugar paper etc for the actual production phase – materials can be withheld until a plan is produced.
  • Language students might focus on similarities and differences in terms of contextual factors (e.g. audience, purpose, genre, mode), language use (e.g. lexis, semantics, grammar), a combination, or a single factor which they feel is the most important.  These students are likely to be working on previously unseen extracts, which might be very different or may have some kind of link – thematic, temporal etc.
  • Literature students might consider aspects such as narrative style, use of setting, imagery, or they might compare an area such as how different characters are presented.  These students may be working on set texts, unseen extracts, or they could be looking at relationships between a known and previously unseen text.
  • Combined Language and Literature students are likely to be asked to either compare known and unseen extracts, or to be working solely on unseen texts of different types.  They might focus on specific aspects such as the use and representation of spoken language, or they could be asked to select their own areas of focus, incorporating both linguistic and literary approaches.

This is helpful to get students to approach comparative tasks in a different way.  The big challenge here becomes deciding how to present the information they choose, rather than focusing on the information itself.  It’s a handy task for a bit of variety, while still requiring careful thought and analysis, as long as there is an insistence on planning and discussion first, before committing pen to paper.

Odd one out

Resources required:

  • Set of at least three texts

This is useful for sets of three or more texts, and is most effective with short texts e.g. extracts or poems, familiar or unseen.

  • In pairs or small groups, students decide which text is the ‘odd one out’, using their own criteria, e.g. relationship to audience, patterns of imagery, form.
  • If a pair or group finish quickly, they can be asked to find a different ‘odd one out’ using different reasoning.
  • All students could be asked to complete the task in at least two different ways.

This encourages discrimination and thinking skills, particularly if the task is repeated or students are asked to come up with more than one solution.  A plenary which gathers together the different criteria students used serves as an effective revision session on ‘the ways we analyse texts’ (and highlights any gaps that require revision).  It’s also very useful as a way to get students out of the trap of only looking for similarities in comparative work.

Optional extra (for better differentiation):

  • Some pairs or groups can be directed to particular criteria to use – or they can be directed away from certain ideas, e.g. the more able might be banned from ‘easier’ methods.  This is more challenging for all than explicitly telling students which to use.

Organising and classifying

Resources required:

  • Texts – the more, the better

Although this at first appears more likely to be effective with widely varying texts and extracts, the added challenge in working with (for example) set poetry collections is counterbalanced by the students’ familiarity with set texts, which makes it appropriate for any comparative unit handling more than two texts, or requiring students to select extracts or texts to write about in their answers.

  • Students work out a system of classifying and organising the texts they have.
  • This can be a physical task, sorting them into piles, or it may be a more sophisticated endeavour, where the texts are listed in different categories and may appear in more than one.
  • It may involve different stages of completely separate types of organisation where all texts are sorted and then re-sorted (e.g. for poetry collections, they may organise by theme and then by point of view or narrative technique and so on), or students may decide that one type of category is the one to work with.
  • The important thing is for students (in pairs or groups) to decide on their system(s) of classification and to apply them.

Again, this is about discrimination and higher-order thinking.  Students will be sifting and sorting, making decisions about texts and deepening their understanding of analysis.  This activity is useful as a revision task with set anthologies and poetry collections and as a more introductory task for units requiring the comparison (or grouping) of unseen extracts.

Ranking

Resources required:

  • Texts
  • Criteria (optional)
  • Template (optional)

This works for any and all kinds of comparative work, but is most effective with more than two texts.

  • In pairs or small groups, students rank texts according to appropriate criteria.  These can be provided for them, or elicited from the class before the task.
  • For a linguistic comparison, students might be asked which text is the most abstract (and to illustrate that with abstract nouns and stative verbs).
  • Within a multi-participant transcript, students could rank the speakers according to how much power they exhibit through their speech.
  • In a poetry comparison, students might decide which is the most formally structured, or which uses (in their opinion) the most powerful imagery.
  • These rankings might be straightforwardly ordering texts from most to least, or they could use something like diamond or pyramid ranking, where the second row has two components, the third has three etc (producing a triangular shape where the bottom row is the longest or a diamond where it tapers again to a single point).
  • For a twist, if you are using at least three texts, ask students to produce different criteria that will allow all texts to ‘win’ once.

This can be an effective starter, particularly if the criteria are provided or the last option is chosen.  It can be very productive to get the students thinking about what distinguishes texts, rather than simply what they have in common.  All too often, ‘compare’ tasks are treated solely as exercises in finding similarity and not difference.

Optional extra (for better differentiation):

  • If criteria are provided, they can be varied for different pairs or groups.
  • Different groups of students might be given different tasks, covering all the variations above within the class.

The continuum approach

Resources required:

  • Texts
  • Continuum labels (or post-its)
  • Blu-tack / clothes pegs + string

This activity works for all kinds of comparison, and is most effective with a group of 4-6 texts, although it can be done with pairs of texts.  Despite first impressions, this is a highly interesting activity to carry out with subjective labels and categories, rather than absolutes.  Anything with a degree of subtlety to it will produce interesting discussions.

  • In small groups, students organise texts along a continuum line, with opposing labels at either end.  This can be done on a desk on a wall (or the board for the plenary), using post-its as category labels, or texts can be pegged along a ‘washing line’ with labels either end (but do be aware that this requires a blunter approach than using desks or the wall as texts can’t so easily overlap on a washing line).  They need to justify their decisions to the class with reference to the language of the texts.
  • For Language, seemingly simple ideas like “informal? and “formal? or “spoken? and “written? work well, as does a continuum of power for different speakers in a conversation.
  • For Literature, “formal? and “informal? can also work very well with poetry, and a continuum of emotion or tension can be used to compare different extracts from novels and/or plays.  The power idea above can also be used for literary characters.

Again, this is about fine discrimination and judgement.  Some students may need ‘encouragement’ to justify their choices and move beyond simple statements, so it helps to be clear about the feedback they will be expected to provide.  For a greater challenge, ask students to work with a series of continuum lines, adjusting the texts’ positions as they change the labels.

Optional extra (for better differentiation):

  • Students can all have the same texts, but be given different continuum labels.  This makes for a more effective plenary as well, since all are familiar with the texts, but may have focused on different aspects.  It is also helpful for students to realise that the order in which texts sit on a continuum line is not necessarily the same as the order they would go in on a different line.

Writing comparatively – some tricks to developing the skill

Resources required:

  • Comparative task
  • Students’ work

All of the above activities can lead to written-up comparisons, or exam questions can be used for practice.  This stage is, of course, necessary in all comparative work at some point.

Also see the suggestions for developing good analytical writing skills – most ideas there can be utilised for comparative work.

  • Students can collect appropriate comparative vocabulary – conjunctions and discourse markers – to help them remember how to make concrete and explicit comparisons.  This can be carried out as a full class brainstorming activity, or could be made competitive – which pair can come up with the highest number of legitimate ways of comparing and contrasting in an essay.  The resulting list can be typed up or copied out and kept in folders for reference.
  • Students don’t need to produce full essays every time they write.  Occasionally focusing on producing an effective paragraph or two is a useful change of pace which encourages them to concentrate on the fine detail rather than obsessing over how many points to include in a full essay.  They may need encouraging to write only a small amount at first, perhaps with a word (or line) limit, as many students when first writing individual paragraphs will still attempt to write themselves into the topic with an introduction.
  • Pairs of students can work on a different text each, writing a paragraph about a specific aspect of their text (e.g. in a Language class, one has a 1734 letter while the other has one from 1962, and each writes about the register and lexis used).  Then, they have to put their paragraphs together and write in connections between the texts.
  • Students could use a highlighter to pick out all the comparative words they have used before handing in a piece of work.  This is often highly effective in demonstrating that they haven’t in fact made any concrete connections (or as many as they thought) between texts.  This can also be done with a model exemplar to demonstrate how it can be achieved.

Students often merely juxtapose ideas instead of making comparisons explicit, and all of these activities can help to develop that aspect of their writing.