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Strategies for Reading Comprehension
Venn Diagrams
[with thanks to Father John Venn]


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What Is a Venn Diagram?

Venn Diagrams have been around a long time. We borrow them from the field of math, but their application to all subjects is pretty well-established now. They are a visual representation of the similarities and differences between concepts. Created by overlapping two (or three) ovals, students record features or characteristics of the concepts in the respective ovals, making sure that any shared characteristics are written in the overlapping portion of the ovals.

What's the Use?

The value of the Venn diagram is in the "doing" of it. They are for us simply a graphic organizer, in this case one whose purpose is to help structure the way students think about the similarities and differences between concepts. They work best when we have the students completing them, not when the teachers are doing it for them. Students are already able to compare things, because they do it all the time: they compare clothes, they compare movies and TV shows, they compare musical artists, they compare parents, they compare boyfriends and girlfriends. It's not that they lack the capacity to compare. What we want to do as teachers is to channel and support their thoughtful consideration of important similarities and differences.

How Do I Teach Them?

You can and should model how you want them to use the Venn, but you should also move quickly to putting the task into their hands. Chances are the strategy is not new to the students. Even kindergartners use Venn diagrams; I've seen many creative uses of hullahoops overlapping on the floor that these youngsters then place cards or pictures in. But still you should keep it simple at first. What MAY be new to students is your request of them that THEY complete the Venn diagram instead of merely copying what you put on the overhead or front board. [Remember: the value of the Venn is in the doing of it!] This means they need to first be able to identify significant characteristics of the topics or concepts (see some of the other stratregies, such as selective underlining/highlighting, or consider the usefulness of Post It notes for text reading selections).

Early on, use familiar topics (for instance, at the beginning of the year, have students pair up and complete a Venn diagram on the similarities and differences between the partners). Or pick a popular topic, fad, event, and so on. Keep pushing them to note significant traits or attributes of topics; keep the focus on how to compare them. As students begin producing their own Venn diagrams, DO NOT fall into the trap of thinking there is a right Venn and a wrong one. (The worst thing I can imagine happening is that you let students create their own, and then tell them you're putting the "correct" on the overhead!) Judge them on how well they selected out key characteristics and whether they can justify the classification of similarities and difference.

What Are Some Social Studies Topics for Comparing?

It is an endless list, but consider having students compare regions of the state or country; economic features of the North and South before the Civil War; Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; terrorist versus freedom fighter; capitalism vs. communism vs. traditional economies; branches of government; political parties; US invasion of Iraq vs. Russian invasion of Chechnya (or Georgia); national vs. state vs. local government; or CIA vs. FBI.

Download and Print:
Venn Diagram for 2 Items
Venn Diagram for 3 Items
Venn Diagram with summary blanks
Venn Diagram (Rotated)
Venn Variation #1 Venn Variation #2

Something for the fun of it, if you need some time to kill: a humorous collection of possible Venn diagrams from Frank Sparrow's Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/frank-sparrow/. Please note: I'm not promising that all of them are appropriate!

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