Comparison: Foundational Cognitive Function for Analysis

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When you teach analysis to students, how do you break that down? What concrete means to do you share to strengthen their ability and understanding to analyze?

An Inductive Argument

  • The Common Core Reading Standards clearly expect students beyond the fourth grade to possess analytical skills, an expectation reinforced through 64 uses of the word analyze within grade-level standards.
  • Most frequently in the standards, the cognitive skill of compare and/or compare precedes the more general reference to analysis.
  • Therefore, a strong foundation in the functions and structures of comparative analysis and comparative writing should serve as an essential curricular element in the understanding of analytic thinking.

Comparison: A Foundational Cognitive Function

  • Skimming a restaurant menu deciding on a luncheon selection…
  • Shopping the grocery store aisles considering your purchases for this week’s dinners…
  • Weaving through traffic, balancing your vehicle’s speed amidst others in travel….
  • Attending to faces in the crowd as you search for the work colleague you were to meet….
  • Reading beyond the main idea of the article, imagining implications, evaluating authority, and determining personal adherence…
  • Perusing student essays, evaluating the formative or summative quality of work…

What do all of these daily activities have in common? Each requires the cognitive function of comparison if the activity is to be successfully resolved or completed. In determining what to order from a familiar menu, I consider what I have ordered in the past alongside what tastes I currently crave. As I walk the grocer’s aisles, I input prices, cuts, and nutritional factors among the criteria in decision-making. Passing slower traffic, I adjust the speed of my car to the relative speed of oncoming traffic. Scanning the crowd, I search for a familiar smile, hairdo, facial expression, or other distinguishing quality. While reading the published words of one author, I pause to place that information in relation to other ideas I have garnered through reading and personal experience. Scoring student work, I reflect on how rubric criteria are met by the current paper as well as papers already considered.

In each case, of the hundreds of decisions I make each day, none is without the consideration, the comparison of other contextual factors. In the process of thinking that requires even the seemingly most insignificant decisions, I am weighing the unknown or undone alongside the experienced, the known. Moreover, I would posit that seemingly routine acts were at one time more weighty decisions based originally on the cognitive function of comparison relinquished over time to automaticity or habit.

Understanding comparison as an essential cognitive skill, imagine my disbelief when I realized that my high school students could not write a cogent comparative essay. Upon assigning comparison papers asking students to analyze the development of the protagonist and antagonist in a short story, I would get character portraits rather than comparative analyses. When I asked students to analyze two authors’ approaches to a similar topic, I would end up reading summaries that never reached beyond who, what, where of the content. When students used the classic Venn diagram to compare aspects of a text, the product read like a list of characteristics rather than a balanced and logical analysis. Is this a problem? In my world, the answer is yes. In a previous blog, I provide a practical roadmap to strengthening comparison skills in the classrooms.

How Important is Comparison to Reading and Mathematical Comprehension?

If we take the Common Core State Standards seriously (and you know I do), we will find comparative analysis to be among the most important of cognitive functions of reading and mathematical fluency. Some form of the word “compare” appears no less than thirty-one times in the ELA/Literacy Standards and more than fifty times in the math standards. Comparison makes its first appearance in Kindergarten for both ELA/Literacy Standards and Math Standards. On the other hand, “contrast” appears 35 times in the ELA/Literacy Standards, again with its first appearance in Kindergarten but only twice in the Math Standards, with both appearances occurring in high school standards. The fact is, as thinkers we often understand “things” in relation to other “things.” When we make connections between the new or unknown and the known or sets of things under study, whether concrete as in items we might consider for purchase and/or abstract as in the development of characterization, we build on a knowledge base as well as buttressing our thinking skills.

Yet another important word in the standards is “analyze.” As a matter of fact, the word appears 64 times in the ELA/Literacy grade-level reading standards. Interestingly, it is most often preceded in grade-level standards with the words “compare and contrast” or “make connections.” The word analyze shows its initial grade-level appearance for the first time in the fifth grade standards: RI.5.7: “Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem)”; (p.12) and again in RI.5.6: “Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent” (p. 14). In both cases, the fourth grade standard emphasizes comparison and/or connections. Thereafter, the appearances of analyze are reserved for grades 6-12 assuming that the processes of analysis (most often comparison) have been clearly integrated into instruction prior to the use of the more general term.

This pattern of movement from comparison and contrast to analysis holds for the most part through four grade level standards: Standard 6, the point-of-view/purpose standard; Standard 7, the multi-media standard; Standard 8, the argument standard; and Standard 9, the analytic standard. These patterns hold as strongly through the History/Social Studies and Science Technology Literacy Standards as they hold through the informational standards.

When Doesn’t Comparison Precede Analysis?

Although comparison most often precedes analysis, there are a few exceptions. For instance, the first appearance of analyze in relation to Standard 2 is in the seventh grade (both literary and informational standards). In both cases, the preceding standard in sixth grade asks student to “[d]etermine a theme or central idea…and how it is conveyed through particular details…” while in seventh grade the standard asks readers to analyze “its development over the course of the text….” Similarly, analyze makes its first appearance in relation to Standard 4 in sixth grade for literary texts and in the seventh grade for informational texts: “analyze the impact of a specific word choice” (p. 36 & 39). In both instances, the prior year’s Standard 4 merely asked students to determine word meaning in context. Yet another variation on the pattern occurs in Literary Reading Standard 3 which shifts from “Describe…” in sixth grade to “Analyze…” in seventh. The Informational Reading Standard 3 shifts from “Explain…” in fifth grade to “Analyze…” in sixth.

Although the language of these standards is without the verbs “compare” or “contrast” I would pose to you that without powers of comparative thinking, I could not determine a theme or the meaning of a work that was not explicitly stated without making inferences. As one reads, one develops a “situation model, or the representation of the situation described by the text. This is primarily achieved via integration of information provided by the text with relevant prior knowledge. Thus, inferencing is critically involved in forming a situation model” (Kintsch & Rawson, 2008, p. 219). By its very nature, inference requires that one consider the given in the text (through the structures of language and/or images) with the knowledge/experience in the head. A complex process that requires readers to have relevant experience and knowledge from which to draw in the process of meaning making: from going beyond the decoding process of the printed word to considering the deeper meaning of those words.

My point: when the standards use the word “determine” the cognitive function of the reader is really one of analysis. In considering context meaning, inferring theme or central idea (if not explicitly stated) and even in explaining a process using language that indicates full and complete understanding, the read must consider new information in light of the his/her own knowledge/experience. Such processes must be taught. Overtime, the effort will become more automatic, but automaticity is not innate. Therefore, in order for young, novice readers to become more apt with text comprehension, the kind of comprehension aimed for by the standards, they must first be taught how to develop structures that will best support understanding and by extension. An essential building block for comprehension is the cognitive practice of comparing and contrasting.



Kintsh, W. and Rawson, K.A. (2008). Chapter 12: Comprehension. In M. J. Snowling, C. Hulme, & K. V. Kukil (Eds.), The Science of Reading: A Handbook (p. 211-226). DOI: 10.1002/9780470757642.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors.

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