Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay

So, I sat down at my computer just now and thought to myself, “I really should write an essay comparing me and my brother” … no, wait, “comparing watching a DVD with going to the movies”, … or, even better, “comparing large cars to small cars” … said no-one, ever.

Throughout this genre makeover series, I’ve attempted to show how boring and meaningless writing assignments become when rhetorical modes are confused for genres. One way to understand a mode is as a pattern of development. For example, there are writing tasks that call for you to compare stuff, but you rarely do it just for the sake of the comparison: there has to be a purpose to the comparison. That’s where genre comes in.

(Incidentally, the distinction between compare and contrast has always eluded me: I think we use both words in order to emphasize that students should look for similarities as well as differences, but isn’t that what compare means? Err, yes. Perhaps we should do this for all the modes: describe and elucidate; narrate and tell; argue and contend … but I wander and digress.)

Compare/contrast essays really hit peak five-paragraph-essayness because they lack situation, audience, purpose, and meaning. There is no good reason to “compare you and your best friend,” and even less reason for a teacher to read 20 such papers. Other gems I’ve seen include comparing your dorm room to your parents’ house (yawn), comparing two pets (I don’t like animals), and — you can’t make this nonsense up — comparing “the US President and the UK Prime Minister.” I’m a dual citizen, and I wouldn’t go near that one with a barge pole the length of the Atlantic Ocean.

So once again, let’s imagine genres and contexts in which comparison plays a role without calling the finished product “a compare/contrast essay.” My colleague Monica Farling and I wrote about some fun projects she designed for her intermediate ESL class in a TESOL Journal article. For instance, she’s had students write emails to the curriculum committee comparing print to electronic textbooks and recommending one for our program. She’s also asked students to write a guide for new arrivals to the US from their home country by comparing the two cultures. The students’ writing is situated (it has a context, audience, and purpose), it’s meaningful (because the writing actually does something), and the tasks are engaging.

Here are some other ideas for meaningful comparisons. Or contrasts.

  • Read two rental listings and write an email to your roommate for next year comparing the two apartments and saying which one you think you should choose.
  • Your university/college/school/department/program has asked you to review two language-learning apps or pieces of language-learning software (e.g., Babble, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, etc.). Try them out and write a report comparing the two and recommending one, both, or neither. I use this in an MA TESL course, where participants have to compare the software using principles of SLA and say whether they would recommend either for their school.
  • Research two different ways of getting to a particular destination (Spring Break, anyone?). Write a blog or post for your college’s online discussion board comparing the options.
  • Have students read a novel and watch the movie. Compare the two, explaining how the movie has interpreted/changed the novel. This could work for non-fiction/documentary, too. You could also try this with movies that have been remade, asking students to identify and interpret similarities and differences.

Some of the suggestions involve a final recommendation step, which you could omit if you just want to isolate the comparison action, but I think it’s more fun if students get to make up their own minds. How do you have your students write meaningful comparisons in your writing classes?

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For more ideas about moving beyond the five-paragraph essay and towards genre-based writing pedagogies, look for our new book, Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom, available later in April, 2019, from the University of Michigan Press!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay”

  1. Yes! Thank you for stating how pointless and boring comparison/contrast essays are when they are not anchored within any meaningful context and serve no argumentative or persuasive purpose or objective. Even if one wanted to compare (just for the purpose of juxtaposing) two seemingly very different or similar things in order to leave the reader with food for thought and contemplation without necessarily making a case or argument, that would be certainly be valid, because the reader can still draw their own conclusions. But as you said, the purpose, whether obvious or suggested, needs to be genre- and context-based.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Roula. I think it’s really important to give students a reason for their writing. There’s very little writing (outside perhaps the poetic realm) that is done just for the sake of it!

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