Identifying and Using Parallelism and Balance in Literature

Lesson 3 for The Train Ride Home

Students will examine the story for use of balanced sentences and parallelism—two literary devices—and then practice using those devices in writing of their own.

About the Story
Solomon tells about a cross-country journey by train in Kazakhstan from the capital, Almaty, in the south, to her host city of Kokshetau, in the northern part of the country. In vivid detail, she describes the crowds in the station and on the train, the stifling heat in the coach, the bustle, the generosity of the Kazakhstanis, the desolation of the landscape, and the endearing qualities of a journey that appears on the surface to be merely arduous.

Note about teaching: This lesson concentrates on the author's writing techniques; as such, it is ideal for language arts classes. However, social studies teachers who are teaching about the post-Soviet era will find in Solomon's letters rich primary-source material for students to investigate—along with related issues in John Deever's chapter about his Volunteer experiences in Ukraine (see "Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge").

About the Setting
Covering 1.1 million square miles, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world, about the size of Western Europe or half the size of the contiguous United States. Kazakhstan is a vast country of desert, steppe, and mountains in Central Asia. About 17 million people live there in an area four times the size of Texas.

Kazakhstan was the second-largest republic of the Soviet Union. Upon the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Kazakhstan declared its independence in December 1991. The first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in the country in July 1993, and Volunteers have been there since, working with communities to make the transition from communism to a free-market economy. In collaboration with government ministries, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations, Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan work in four program areas: English education, economic development, environmental education, and public health.

In addition to their assigned tasks, Peace Corps Volunteers engage in cross-cultural exchanges that help Americans and Kazakhstanis better understand each other's history, languages, and cultures. Indeed, given Kazakhstan's isolation from the West when it was part of the Soviet Union, Peace Corps Volunteers often have been the first Americans that Kazakhstanis encounter. The first meetings between Peace Corps Volunteers and Kazakhstanis often provide an opportunity for Volunteers to break the stereotypes Kazakhstanis might have about Americans—and vice versa. Americans and Kazakhstanis can represent their respective countries in a more positive and realistic light than stereotypes usually do.

For further information about Kazakhstan, visit the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at


  • To understand the use of parallelism and balanced sentences
  • To write balanced sentences and sentences using parallelism 


  • Wrench: To grab forcefully
  • Hobbled: Hampered or hindered
  • Hefting: Lifting (a heavy weight)
  • Succumb: To give up; fall victim to
  • Sweltering: Extremely hot
  • Hobble: To walk unsteadily or with a limp
  • Devushka:: Young girl (a term used by a stranger to address a young woman)
  • Tenge: [ten-GAY] Local currency. Two hundred tenge equaled roughly US$1.35.
  • Steppe: Grassland; plain; prairie


  1. Put the following sentences on the board and ask students to combine them grammatically into one correct sentence
    A. I went to the bank.
    B. I drove to the mall.
    C. I returned to my house.
  2. Put the new sentence on the board. It will probably read, "I went to the bank, drove to the mall, and returned to my house." Ask students to explain why someone would combine sentences in this way. [It's more economical in the use of words; it's less repetitious; it saves time; it creates a more sophisticated sentence.] Explain to them that using parallelism with a conjunction like and also shows that items are of the same weight or value.
  3. Underline "went to the bank," "drove to the mall," and "returned to my house." Ask students to identify the parts of speech in each phrase and mark them on the chalkboard. [Verb (past tense), preposition, article, noun.] Point out that because the phrases have the same grammatical construction, they are called parallel, even though the words are not the same.
  4. Repeat the process using Abraham Lincoln's words from his Gettysburg Address—"government of the people, by the people, for the people"—so that students understand that parallelism may or may not include repetition of words. Define parallelism as the repetition of grammatical forms to achieve a desired effect in writing.
  5. Read aloud the first paragraph of "The Train Ride Home" and ask students to find examples of parallelism in this paragraph. ["I resort to silence and take my bags"; "I cross through the station doors and free myself from the porters." Both use similar verb phrases.]

Divide students into six groups. Assign each group a paragraph, from the second to the seventh. Ask each group to do a close reading of their paragraph to see if students can find other examples of parallelism. Have student groups for paragraphs two to six report to the class. For each example of parallelism, ask them to state the purpose, e.g., economy of words, clarity, managing a list.

  1. Ask the group working with the seventh paragraph to list their examples of parallelism on the board. Be sure they include "The steppe is vast and man is small."

Call students' attention to this sentence. Review one purpose of parallelism—to organize ideas in an economical manner—and ask students if they can see any other purpose in using it here. Try to elicit these effects: the poetic nature of the sentence, the effective contrast, the rhythm the writer achieves. Point out that writers may use parallelism for purposes other than economy.

  1. Explain that when a parallel sentence combines contrasting ideas, it is called a balanced sentence; ask students to identify another balanced sentence, in paragraph seven. ["... It doesn't care if you are in trouble or if all is well with you."] Point out that balanced sentences are often memorable. One example is John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, in which he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Another example is in the opening of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Martin Luther King Jr. provided a good example when he hoped that his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
  2. When students are clear about what parallel and balanced sentences are, have them write original examples and share the results with the class.
  3. Summarize the lesson by having students list reasons authors use parallel or balanced sentences.

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • Balanced sentences and parallelism in language structure can serve many purposes besides economy of words.

Essential Questions

  • What effects in writing do balanced sentences and parallelism achieve?


English Standards: 2,3,6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 9, 10, 12
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB).


  1. Question for discussion, or a short paper or class presentation: If you were a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, what would be the most important thing about life in America that you would convey to your host family?
  2. Have younger students work in groups to illustrate the main ideas in Solomon's story, using a large piece of chart paper and colored felt-tipped markers.

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