Skip to content ↓

October 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

The Power of Comparison: Using Mirror Images

Alan Maley has been involved with ELT for over 50 years. He has lived and worked in 10 countries worldwide, including China and India. He is a prolific author. He is a founder member of the Creativity Group (The C group). In 2012 he was given the ELTons Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a regular contributor to HLT Mag. Email:

The basic idea behind the Mirror Images project is that parallel texts on an identical or similar theme offer more potential for enriching learning activities than concentration on a single, stand-alone text.  The moment we are asked to compare and contrast two (or more) texts, a whole set of discussion points arise.  Faced with a single text, we may find it more difficult to find things to say about it.

This is, of course, a far from original idea.  ‘Compare and contrast’ has been part of the tool-kit for language teachers for as long as I can remember.  But like many well-established techniques, it is often forgotten about or applied haphazardly.  What I am trying to do here is to provide a large battery of source materials in the form of pairs of literary texts (or sometimes more than two), together with a range of possible ways of using them.  Teachers could then decide for themselves which pairs of texts to use, and how to go about using them. 

So far, I have compiled 25 files, containing well over 300 pairs (or triplets or quads) of texts on a whole spectrum of themes.  (See below for my contact details if you are interested in availing yourself of this resource)


Possible ways of using the pairs of texts.

What follows is a set of possible activities.  I make no claim to originality, nor comprehensive coverage: there are certainly many other things teachers could do.  And I encourage them to do so. 

There is a rough gradation of activities, starting with those focussing on the language itself, moving to more meaning-related aspects of the texts.  But there is nothing sacrosanct about the order – every teacher will have a sense of what is appropriate with a given group at a given time.

  1. Warming up:
    ~ Do not tell students what the theme is.  Have them discuss the titles.  Then read through the two texts for first impressions.
    ~ Alternatively, read the text aloud to students, who have a copy in front of them as you read. Deal with any issues of comprehension of words of phrases.
    ~ Dictate the text at normal speed.  Do this as many times as needed for students to piece together the text.


  1. Students look at some of the externally observable similarities and differences between the two texts: 

~ How long are they (no. of lines)?

~ How long are the lines?How are the sentences broken into lines?Where do the breaks come?~ Do they have a shape – are they divided into stanzas? Are they long and thin or short and fat?Or is the shape iconic – related to the content (eg. a poem about a fish shaped like a fish)?~ Do they use capitals at the beginning of each line?~ Do they use punctuation?~ Do they use rhyme?Is it at the end of lines or internal within lines?~ When you read them aloud, do they have a strong rhythm?

~ Are there any words or phrases shared by both texts?

~ Is the vocabulary simple or are there lots of long and unusual words? Mono-syllabic/multi-syllabic?

~ Do they use many figures of speech, such as metaphor, similes, personification, etc? Or puns which play games with the language?

~ Who is speaking and who is being spoken to in each poem?Is it an ‘I’ poem, a ‘you’ poem, a ‘’he/she’ poem’, a ‘we’ or a ‘they’ poem?

~ What tenses are used in the poems?

~ How do they use definite, indefinite and zero articles?

~ How do they use ‘deictics’ ie. this/that, here/there, now/then, etc.?

~ Do they use plain indicative or interrogative, imperative or exclamatory sentences?

~ Do either of the poems contain archaisms or inversion of grammar?When were the poems written?

~ Do they have a recognisable form (sonnet, limerick, rhyming couplets, villanelle…?Or are they written in ‘free verse’?


  1. Exploring personal responses to the poems.                                                                                           

~ Which of the two poems did you find easier to understand?Why?

~ Which of them did you like more?Why?

~ When you read them aloud, do they sound mellifluous or jagged? Which onesounded more pleasant to you?

~ Which words or phrases did you find more striking?

~ Was the writer a man or a woman?What difference did that make?

~ Where does the writer come from? Is that significant?

~ Is there anything in either poem that surprised you?Something unexpected?

~ Does either poem speak directly in plain sense – or does it use humour, irony, satire or sarcasm …?

~ What kind of a poem is each text?For example – lyrical, celebratory, eulogy, elegy, comic, love poem, etc.

~ What is the mood of each poem?For example: pessimistic, angry, resigned, sad, disappointed, etc.

  1. Developing activities from the poems:

~ draw a picture based on one of the poems.  Give it a caption.  Alternatively, use computer graphics or source photographs from the Internet or elsewhere.

~ as a group, they develop a percussion accompaniment to one of the poems. (Two groups ~ one poem each)  For example, clapping, tapping the desk with a pencil, banging a book cover, etc.

~ two groups, each with a different poem, develop a mime sequence to accompany their poem.

 ~ two groups, each with a different poem, prepare a dramatized group performance of their poem text involving all members of the group.

~ either in groups or individually, students look for poems or other texts on a similar theme.

~ after class discussion, decide on a theme so far not addressed.  Students then find texts which might match the theme chosen.                                                                                                      

 ~ individually, students note down 8 words or phrases from the two poems which they find especially striking or pleasing.  They then use these items to write a new poem.                                             

~ in pairs, in groups or individually, students write a poem of their own on the same theme.

 ~ groups research information about the writers of the texts.


How to source materials:

In addition to the collection I have put together, there are multiple ways of finding your own mirror images.

  1. Existing books containing pairings of texts:                                   

Peter Abbs & John Richardson.1990.The Forms of Poetry.CUP.

Carol Ann Duffy.2007. Answering Back. Picador.

John G. Fahy. 1991. Poetry Book. Gill & Macmillan.

Robert Lowell. 1963, Imitations.Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Alan Maley & Alan Duff. 1989. The Inward Ear.CUP

Alan Maley & Sandra Moulding.1985.Poem into Poem.CUP.

Anne Newbould & Andrew Stibbs. 1983. Exploring Texts through reading aloud and dramatization.Ward Lock Educational.

Opening Lines: Poetry Past and Present. 2002.Heinemann.

  1. The Internet:

Simple Google searches for author’s name, poem title or a key quote will often throw up what you are looking for.  But there are also many specialist sites which offer the texts of poems.  These include:  (good for song lyrics),

and many more.

  1. Wide reading:

There are numerous collections of poems which will throw up texts on comparable themes.  Here are just a few of the more useful ones:

The Faber Book of 20th century Women’s Poetry. ed. Fleur Adcock.  Faber & Faber.

Being Alive. ed. Neil Astley.  Bloodaxe Books.

Staying Alive. ed. Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books.

Being Human.  ed. Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books.

The Rattle Bag. eds.  Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes.  Faber & Faber.

The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse.  ed. Philip Larkin.  OUP.

The Faber book of Contemporary American Poetry.  Ed. Helen Vendler.  Faber & Faber.


Additional ways of comparison

Here I have focussed on comparing two printed poem texts. But there are many other ways of matching items for comparison:

  1. Pair a picture with one or more texts.  A classic example would be Breughel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ matched with poems about that picture by Auden and Carlos Williams.  There are several books which do this for you:                                        

Voices in the Gallery.  eds. Dannie & Joan Abse.  The Tate Gallery.

Double Vision.  eds. Michael & Peter Benton.  Hodder & Stoughton/ The Tate   Gallery.

  1. Pair a poem with a piece of music or vice-versa. (eg. Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ with the film music).
  2. Pair a poem with a choreographed set of dance movements. (As a drama activity)
  3. Pair a poem with a translation of the poem from or into another language.  See ideas from number of books on translation in language learning: 


David Bellos. 2011.Is That a Fish in your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Particular Books.

Alan Duff. 1981. The Third Language.Pergamon Press.

Alan Duff, 1989. Translation.CUP.

Alan McConnell Duff. 2000. Into English: Writing and Translating into English as a Second Language. DZS Ljubljana.

Maria Gonzalez-Davies. 2004. Multiple Voices in the Translation Classroom.Benjamins.

Maria Gonzalez-Davies & Richard Samson. 2013. Exploring Translating: Language in Action.Routledge.

Francoise Grellet.1991 Apprendre a traduire: Typologie d’exercices de traduction.Presses Universitaires de Nancy.

Robert Lowell. 1963. Imitations.Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

  1. Compare a poem with a prose text.  For example, an advertisement, a letter, a book blurb, an instruction manual, a short story, an extract from a novel …


Some benefits from using Mirror Image texts

In conclusion, here are a few of the advantages I believe accrue from using Mirror Images.I shall not reiterate the many arguments in favour of using literary texts in general (obviously, if you are not persuaded of the value of using literary texts in the first place, this article is not for you).

The points below refer more specifically to using Mirror Image texts.

  1. The use of comparison and contrast spurs ‘noticing’, which is a key feature of language learning.
  2. The texts themselves are (or should be) engaging (or ‘compelling’ to use Krashen’s term).  They can be chosen to suit language and maturity levels of specific groups.
  3. They expose learners to rich linguistic, cognitive and emotive input which they would otherwise probably not encounter.
  4. They involve re-visiting texts repeatedly without the tedium normally associated with repetition.
  5. They encourage treating learners as capable, autonomous young adults rather than adopting a deficit view of learning.

Note:  I am happy to share this resource free of charge.  Anyone interested in accessing any of the files I have compiled should contact me on:

Tagged  Creativity Group 
  • The Power of Comparison: Using Mirror Images
    Alan Maley, UK