How to teach comparing and contrasting
Summary: How to go far beyond "more" or "er" in describing similarities and differences.
Comparative and superlative adjectives like “bigger than” and “the most interesting” are taught in almost every EFL textbook, often including quite detailed rules about when to add “–er” or “more” and double letters in “fatter” etc. When students are given realistic tasks like being asked to compare products, however, missing a “t” in “fatter” begins to seem rather irrelevant. Construction and spelling of comparative and superlative forms is even less important for exam tasks that demand comparing and contrasting like IELTS Academic Writing Part One, FCE Speaking Part Two and CPE Writing Part One, and in fact with all of those you could happily go through the whole task without using a single –er or –est suffix.
Much more important in all those real tasks are forms such as:
- Contrasting linking expressions like “but”, “whereas”, “though”, “although”, “while”, “on the other hand”, “in (complete) contrast” and “unlike”
- Similar expressions based on nouns, adjectives and verbs, e.g. “differ”, “difference”, “different”, “contrast”, “comparison”, “compare”
- The opposite, e.g. “too”, “as well”, “also”, “in the same way”, “in a similar way”, “so do/ did/ is/ was”, “as do/ did/ is/ was…”, “like”, “Likewise”, “in common”, “resemble”, “resemblance”, “share”, “similar”, “similarity” and “the same”
- Similar determiners, e.g. “both”, “all”, “neither” and “none”
- Phrases for summarising how similar or different things are in general like “They are virtually identical if we look at…”, “They are almost exactly the same in terms of…”, “There are more similarities than differences”, “They are really quite different because…” and “One of the few similarities/ differences is…”
- Phrases for organising descriptions of similarities and differences such as “The most striking/ most obvious/ most important/ most apparent/ only/ main similarity/ difference is…” and “Another/ An additional (more subtle) similarity/ difference is…”
- Longer phrases to give more information about how much heavier etc things are, such as “far/ much bigger”, “substantially more important”, and “slightly more rapidly”
- Similar comparing phrases such as “(far/ slightly) less” and “(not) (nearly/ quite) as…as”
Once you’ve expanded the point of comparing and contrasting in this way, it also opens up the chance of using this language for vital classroom topics like finding things in common (good for classroom dynamics), comparing self-study and communication tactics tips (for learner training), comparing finished written work, discussing cultural differences, teaching synonyms, and explaining differences between similar words and expressions.
Typical student problems with the language of comparing and contrasting include:
- Using “more” +adjective + “er” (“more bigger” etc), usually to mean “much + adjective + “er”
- Using “On the other hand” where a more general phrase like “However” would be more suitable
- Using “On the contrary” when they mean “In contrast”
- Confusing “similar” and “the same”
- Missing “the” and/ or “as” in the expression “the same as”
- Overusing the same few expressions such as “but”
- Doubling up expressions, e.g. “Although he is my friend but…”
- Formality confusions such as using “But” at the beginning of sentences in formal reports and choosing the wrong one of pairs like “a bit bigger”/ “slightly bigger” and “much much bigger”/ “far bigger”
- Confusing “comparing” and “compared” in sentences like “Compared to my experience,…” and “Comparing our two experiences,…”
Things that students need to know include:
- Although most contrasting phrases like “On the other hand” can be replaced with “However”, the reverse is usually not true, with “…,but…” being the only expression that can always replace “However,…”
- The next most general expression is “…,whereas…”, but unlike “However” and “but” the subject must change, making “I like milk whereas I don’t like cheese” wrong.
- “On the contrary” means that the previous thing was in fact not true, making “I think it’s a good idea. On the contrary, my boss is against it” incorrect.
- “In contrast” is only used for big contrasts, meaning “It didn’t rain in the morning. In contrast, it rained in the afternoon” is strange and “It didn’t rain at all last year. In contrast, the year before was the wettest on record” is much more natural.
- Starting a sentence with “But” is usually informal or used for a particular rhetorical purpose. For most of students’ writing purposes, “but” should only be used to join two ideas in one sentence, often after a comma.
- “On the other hand” is only used when working towards a conclusion such as choosing between two options (demonstrable with the gesture of raising one hand then the other then weighing up the two things).
Presenting the language of comparing and contrasting
Even students who have been using “On the contrary” in the wrong way for years and have never come across “much/ substantially/ a little + more” before can usually quickly work out the rules with some good examples and guided discovery activities.
My favourite activity is getting students to put similar expressions together in order, e.g. putting “far far/ much much better”, “far/ much/ a lot/ a great deal better”, “considerably/ substantially better”, “quite a lot better”, “somewhat better”, “a little/ a bit/ slightly better”, “very slightly better” and “a tiny bit better” together in that order.
Other things they can classify and rank include:
Absolutely identical/ Exactly the same
Practically the same/ Basically the same/ Almost the same/ Nearly the same/ Almost identical/ Only slightly different
Very similar/ More or less the same
Really quite similar
Quite similar/ Fairly similar
Really quite different
Completely different/ Totally different
An absolutely huge difference
A huge difference
A big difference/ A great difference
A substantial difference
A slight difference/ A small difference
A tiny difference
An absolutely tiny difference
You can also take a TBL (Task-Based Learning) or TTT (Test Teach Test) approach, doing one of the practice activities below and then presenting or eliciting language they needed to do it well. I also often use my own variation URA (Use Recall Analyse), in which they do one of the tasks below with suggested phrases, try to remember those phrases afterwards, then try to work out rules for using them.
For students who need more input, you can get them to make their own comparisons between things (e.g. comparing two cities), compare their ideas to those in a listening or reading text, then analyse the meanings of the phrases which are used there.
Practice activities for comparing and contrasting
Students can be asked to compare almost anything to tie in with the language point of the week, for example:
- The past and present
- The past and (likely) future
- Things (transport, infrastructure, lifestyles, etc) in two places
- Famous people
- Their weeks or weekends
- Their routines
- Ways of learning languages
- Their writing
- Their exam tactics
The nicest thing to get them to compare is themselves, for example asking students to find similarities and differences between their experiences, routines, weeks, weekends, previous studies of English or use of English outside the classroom. To make them use a good range of language, you could ask them to find out and report back to the class how similar or different they are in general in that way (e.g. “Our diets are fairly similar”), then tell the class some examples of similarities and/ or differences to illustrate that (e.g. “I eat much more chocolate than Giorgio”).
Another good way of boosting the level of language that they use when they compare their lives and experiences is to give them phrases that they must use to report back similarities and differences between them, e.g. “Neither of us__________” and “One of us _______________________. In contrast, __________________________”. This activity can also be used with other topics, e.g. getting them to make sentences about different genres of business writing such as memos and (external) emails with “On the other hand”, “slightly ____________ er”, etc.
A good topic for these kinds of personalised comparing and contrasting tasks is their studies and use of English, so that they can share language learning tips with each other. They can also find similarities and differences between their tactics after doing a task, e.g. how long they spent reading through a text first or how long the introductions to their writing were.
They can also use this language to talk about differences between words and expressions you give them. For example, give them a list of pairs of words and expressions, some of which are synonyms (“stockholder”/ “shareholder” etc) and others of which are common confusions (“pavement”/ “path” etc). They discuss how different or similar the words and expressions are (e.g. “They are slightly different”), then what the differences might be (“The most important difference is…” etc). They might need examples of the words and expressions in context to help their discussion. Although it can get confusing, this activity can also be done with comparing and contrasting language also being the language point they are looking at for double practice of this point, e.g. “‘On the other hand’ and ‘On the contrary’ are really different”.
Comparing phrases can also be used describe things, for example in a guessing game. One student chooses a word and tries to explain it without mentioning the word by choosing similar things and describing the differences until their partner guesses, e.g. describing “crumble” as “Something like a pie, but softer on top and easier to make”. As with this example, describing things through comparisons can also be useful for both describing their own culture and understanding other people’s, e.g. writing or reading that “Korean sashimi is really similar to Japanese sashimi but the sauce is sourer and much spicier than soy sauce” or that “Like stout, ale is usually darker and more bitter than lager. It is traditionally served slightly warmer”.
Students can also do the opposite thing, being given two things and trying to guess what comparison between them their partner was thinking of or has written down.
As mentioned above, comparing and contrasting comes up in FCE and CAE Speaking Part Two, in which students compare and contrast two photos and then answer another question on them, e.g. “The two photos show beach sports. Compare and contrast the two pictures, and say which one would be more popular on beaches you have been to”. This is an extended speaking task for one student in the exams, but in class students can take turns trying to find more and more similarities and differences between the two things or places shown. This can be changed into more of a game by allowing one of the students to choose if they want to come up with similarities or differences, then seeing if they or the student who must come up with the other side runs out of ideas first. These tasks can also be done with just names of things that they must compare (e.g. “Paris and London”) rather than pictures.
You can also give students discussion questions to prompt comparing and contrasting. Possible prompts include:
- “Do you prefer… to…? (Why do you feel that way?)”
- “Have you…many…? (Which one did you like best? How was it better than the others?)”
- “How do you think…will be different in…years’ time?”/ “How do you picture…in the year…? (How will it be different from now?)”
- “How do you think…would change…?”
- “How does…compare to…?”
- “How is… different from how it was…years ago?”
- “How is…in your country/ hometown different to other places you have been or know about?” (“How do you feel about those differences?”)
- “In your opinion, is…(in your country) getting better or worse? (What evidence do you have for that point of view?)”/ “Do you feel…is improving? (In which ways?)”
- “What is/ was your favourite…? (Why do/ did you like it better than the others?)”
- “Where did you last…? (How does it compare to other… you have…?)”
You can bring loads of this language into a variation of what I call Random Pelmanism. A collection of words and expressions without any obvious connection, e.g. thing you want to revise, are photocopied and cut up to make one pack of cards per group of two to four students. These cards are spread across a table face down. One student turns over two cards and must say at least one similarity and one difference between the two things plus a statement of how or similar they are in general, e.g. “Antarctica and Belgium are almost completely different, for example in their weather, but neither of them are well known for their wine” if they turn over the cards with “Antarctica” and “Belgium” on them. If they can’t think of any comparison or their partners can show that the statements they make aren’t true, they have to put the cards back where they came from face down and play passes to the next person.
For writing tasks, IELTS Academic Writing Part One asks students to “Select and summarise the information given [in the map, graph, chart or table], comparing and contrasting where suitable” (with “where suitable” actually meaning almost always). Essay questions where students need to weigh up two options can also use this language, with the more common format of weighing up advantages and disadvantages of one thing being much less useful for this language point than you might think. The CPE task where the ideas from two texts are compared and contrasted also bring less of this language up than you might expect, but students who are struggling to bring complex language into their essays could benefit from being pushed to compare and contrast more. The new CAE essay question from 2014 looks more useful for comparing and contrasting practice.
I have also adapted the Use of English exercises from the Cambridge exams for this language point to do controlled written practice of comparing and contrasting language. Open cloze, multiple choice cloze and key word sentence transformations are all possible and useful. I found the most useful to be word formation exercises where they learn to use other forms of words that they are more familiar with, for example converting the easy word “compare” to the more complex one “comparison” and “similar” to “dissimilar” in tasks like “____________ to what it was like last year, it is quite pleasant now - COMPARE”.
You can combine speaking and writing with an activity which I call Discuss and Agree. Students try to agree on comparisons using the phrases given and then write the finished sentences down, e.g. agreeing and writing down that “Tokyo is far uglier than Kyoto” to use the phrase “far… er”. They can then see if other groups agree with their sentences, changing any which they become convinced are wrong.
Students can also do the writing first and the speaking later with a game that I often use called the Sentence Completion Guessing Game. Students work on their own to fill in sentences like “… is slightly more… than…” and “… and… have a lot in common, for example…” They then read out just the part that they have written (not the sentence stems that were given on the worksheet), and their partner guesses the whole sentence by trying to work out which sentence stem they put those words into, e.g. guessing that “London/ New York/ are good places to live” goes with “Neither… nor…”
There is also a purely speaking version of this game where students give examples of things that they would compare with one phrase, e.g. a list of pairs of things that are “slightly more expensive” than each other, without saying the comparison phrase they are thinking of. They give more and more examples until their partners guess the comparison that they are making. They can then discuss whether they think the comparisons are correct for those examples or not.
Another activity that involves writing first and then speaking later is Comparisons Bluff. Students write a mix of true and false comparisons using the phrases given, e.g. “A striking difference between New York and London is the colour of the taxis” and “The only difference between red grapes and white grapes is when they are picked”. Students will need suggested topics and maybe access to the Internet to research information to put in their sentences.
Students can also work together to write down anything at all or as many things as possible that match the comparison given in a kind of Comparing and Contrasting Brainstorming Challenge, e.g. trying to think of lists of things that are “very similar to apples”, “The most important differences between apples and pears”, or “Less obvious differences between an apple and a mandarin”. This can also be done the other way round, with students being given two things to compare and trying to use as many of the phrases that they are given as possible to do so. The team which says that they have used the greatest number of phrases reads out their sentences until another group successfully argues that one of their sentences isn’t accurate or they get through the whole list. If they aren’t successful, the group which claims to have used the next biggest number of phrases does the same, working through the groups until one team manages to get through all their sentences without another group successfully arguing that one of them isn’t accurate.
Despite the name of the activity, traditional Picture Difference information gap tasks don’t produce a lot of this kind of language. However, you can easily adapt the task by giving students a range of pictures to compare and asking them to decide generally how similar or different each pair of pictures are (“A1 and B1 are almost the same” etc), and then some examples of differences and similarities “The most striking difference is…” etc) without looking at each other’s worksheets. It’s probably best if they write these sentences down. They can then look at all the pictures and change any statements which they now think are wrong.
You can also adapt traditional shopping roleplays to include this language, simply by adding a piece of paper and a pencil. A student comes into the shop and asks for something, e.g. a hat, and tries to use as many of comparing and contrasting phrases as they can to explain what is wrong with the hats that they are offered, with the shop assistant drawing the hats that they are offering the customer each time on the paper. The conversation continues until the shopper has to admit that the item matches what they are saying (they aren’t allowed to change their mind) or the shop assistant gives up.
You can also do a Picture Dictation in a similar way. The student who is describing their picture is allowed to see what their partner is drawing and can give hints with comparing and contrasting language until the picture is correct. To include as much of this language as possible, they should be forced to describe each time how similar or different the drawing is to their picture (e.g. “It’s fairly similar”), which difference they are describing (“but the most important difference is…”) and what is different (“the nose is much much shorter in my picture”) to help their partner correct it.