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Teach readers to discern 5 nonfiction text structures

October 6, 2022

As we prepare readers to infer a text’s main idea and eventually the author’s purpose, it’s important to build a foundation of understanding about text structures. Just like houses are constructed with a frame, authors construct texts by intentionally putting together particular information that follows a specific organizational pattern.

Text structures provide a framework, allowing readers to navigate a text efficiently. By understanding the structures of a text, readers can identify the relationships between different parts of the text and build a cohesive understanding of the author’s purpose.

One text structure example that offers a clear and consistent framework is the structure of stories. Stories or narrative texts have a predictable text structure. They ALWAYS present a character who faces a conflict that gets resolved. This consistent organization makes it easier for students to follow.

However, nonfiction text is not so predictable; it can utilize one of five different text patterns. Consequently, without an understanding of nonfiction text structures, the reader doesn’t know how to mentally organize the barrage of facts, names, dates, and details that he is consuming.

This often leads to confusion and makes nonfiction text intimidating.

Nonfiction Text Structure - Author PurposeConnect text structure to author purpose

The secret to overcoming this reader obstacle is to understand that the author chose a specific text structure to correspond with his purpose. There is an intentional relationship between what details he includes in his writing and why he is writing. Consequently, it’s easiest to teach the nonfiction text structures alongside author purposes.

Review the three broad reasons to write—to persuade, to inform, and to entertain (i.e., P.I.E.). Although there is only one way for authors to organize persuasive text and only one way for authors to organize narrative text, there are 5 different ways for authors to organize nonfiction text. To make this more clear, reveal a more specific to-inform purpose for each type of text structure.

  1. If the author wants TO TEACH the reader how something works, then he must use a procedural step-by-step text structure.
  2. If the author wants TO EXPLAIN all about something, then he must use a descriptive or categorical text structure.
  3. If an author wants TO STUDY TWO things in one text, then he must use a compare-contrast text structure.
  4. If an author wants TO RELATE TWO things, then he must use a cause-effect text structure.
  5. If an author wants to reveal the BEFORE & AFTER of something, then he must use a problem-solution text structure.

TIP: The easiest way for students to see the difference in organizational patterns is to show them examples of informational text that cover the SAME TOPIC presented in different text structures.

Nonfiction Text Structure Example - Olympics
Nonfiction Text Structure Example - Traffic During Rush Hour

Once students know of these five different ways to organize nonfiction texts, teach them how to discern which one an author used. (NOTE: Shorter texts often use a single text structure. Longer, more complex text often includes paragraph blocks or sections that each have its own text structure.)

Analyze the type of information per section

Teach students to look carefully at the topic revealed in the introduction, the type of information in the body, and the kinds of transitions used among sentences.

Recognize the 5 Nonfiction Text Structures - Teacher ResourceThe secret is to analyze the types of information revealed in each section and then consider how the different sections are related based on the context of the type of nonfiction structures of text.

This kind of reader analysis goes far beyond finding the text’s introduction, body, and conclusion. After all, ALL texts have a beginning, middle, and end. What’s most relevant to determine the text’s structure is to note the KIND of details provided in the passage.

For more examples of informational text structures in mentor texts, check out these picture books and short passages.

Students who just read to collect facts and git-r-done will always struggle to comprehend nonfiction text. But, with an understanding of text structure, readers break the information into manageable chunks from beginning to end in order to significantly improve comprehension.

Teacher comments

While teaching fourth and fifth graders at Valparaiso Community Schools (Valparaiso, IN), Faryl Smith introduced her students to text structures within her already existing content-area curriculum studies. For several years, she started the year teaching the water cycle & weather using the science textbook. From that, she went on to teach about the features of that type of text by using different information books and discovering the layout.

From there, she began teaching specific text structures and signal words/key words—so crucial to teach! Fifth grade was able to move through this quickly, but fourth grade needed more time since they were transitioning into reading to learn.

One discovery that surprised Faryl was that even her highest learners needed this kind of instruction. They didn’t understand how to read information text nor did they understand the structure of the text.

After her students could identify the structure of a paragraph, she moved them on to headings. Since there are many types of text structures, she chose to focus on five main ones: chronological-sequence, cause-effect, problem-solution, compare-contrast, and description. Once they had a handle on identifying these five types of text structures (with much practice!!), she moved on to teach main idea.

To teach main idea, Faryl asked her students, What is the text structure? How do you know that? What supports your choice? Then, if it was description, the next question would be, What is the person, place, thing, or idea that is being described? The answer to that is the main idea! What is the problem and how was it solved? That is the main idea! What is being compared? That is the main idea. What happened and why did it happen? That is the main idea. What is this sequence about or what event is taking place? That is the main idea.

From there, students learned how to write those answers as a main-idea statement. Faryl shared, with excitement, that she saw light bulbs come on. The kids surprised themselves with how understanding the text structure led them to the main idea with ease.

For that reason, Faryl counts it worth her time at the beginning of the year to spend the time ontext structures and text features. If kids know how it is written and how to read it, they can access information from so many different texts and UNDERSTAND them! From then on, they can ask appropriate questions and make predictions from examples of informational text because they know how to use text features. They can summarize and identify the main idea because they understand the structure of the text. They can go back and support their answers because they know how to find where that information will be instead of rereading the whole thing.

For Faryl and her students, this journey has been eye-opening—helping those intermediate grades transition from learning how to read to reading to learn.

The Comprehension Playbook - Smekens Education OriginalThe Comprehension Playbook

Learn how to scaffold yearlong instruction on text structure to increase reading comprehension.

Increase reading comprehension and learn how to scaffold yearlong instruction on text structure.

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1 year ago

How do you teach students how to build multiple paragraphs around the same idea…

Liz Shockey
Liz Shockey
Reply to  Samuel
1 year ago

Great question! Often students write a long list of sentences-each about a different topic. Here are a few articles that may help:
Develop Paragraphs–One Sentence at a Time
Motivate Struggling Writers to Generate More Sentences
Round Up Similar Ideas in Revision

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