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Teach Readers to Discern Text Structure
March 11, 2014
Authors organize their information intentionally. They present their ideas in an organized pattern. This is called text structure.
Understanding text structure empowers readers. When students can identify a specific structure, they know how to categorize all the details coming at them. And seeing relationships between all these ideas improves overall comprehension.
Recognizing the structures of all texts
Literature (narrative text) always reveals its plot in a chronological sequence. Because it has such a predictable pattern or organization, it’s easy for students to follow.
However, informational text (expository writing) can be presented as chronological, categorical, compare-contrast, cause-effect, problem-solution, or proposition-support.
Because informational text structure is not predictable, students have to read for more than just ideas and details. They have to read for how the details are related to one another.
However, recognizing text structure doesn’t come naturally. This kind of inferential thinking requires explicit instruction.
Revealing mentor texts
The easiest way for students to see the difference in organizational patterns is to show them similar information presented in different text structures.
For more examples of mentor text:
- Check out these picture books that are all written in a single text structure.
- Share these short passages with students.
Identifying relationships with transitions
We can help students discern what structure a text is written in by noting key words. Transitions act as road signs to help readers navigate a text; they signal to the reader how the next detail or idea is related to the previous one.
By highlighting the transition words in a passage before reading it, students begin associating certain transitions with particular text structures.
Advancing from simple to complex examples
Most texts are not pure examples—meaning the entire passage is NOT written in one text structure. Most informational texts contain a mixture of text structure types. A paragraph or two may be organized as a compare-contrast. Then the next paragraph block outlines a sequence. The last paragraphs may be patterned as a problem-solution.
That said, it’s important to first teach text structure in simple texts that are short and use only one text structure before challenging them to navigate longer more complex texts.
Scaffolding text structure
Not all text-structure types are to be taught in all grade levels. Scaffold your instruction honoring developmental readiness. Organized below from simplest to most complex, provide instruction in the following order. NOTE: Primary teachers teach 1-2. Intermediate teachers teach 1-4. Secondary teachers teach 1-6.
1. Chronological Structure—Use the train image with its sequenced beginning, middle, and end to show a series of events that happen over time. If the sequence includes numerous steps, use this longer train image. (This text structure could also be applied to literature specifically using the image of the train climbing the mountain to symbolize the chronology of plot development.) Access all versions of the matching Chronological graphic organizers.
Fine-tune students’ ability to retell the sequence of a text. This will include retelling stories (literature) or processes (informational text) like explaining the life cycle of a butterfly or the change in the seasons.
2. Main Idea/Categorical Structure—Use the vegetable tray image with its different sections or categories to explain that enumeration is an organized collection of information. Each item is named and described, one by one. This is the text structure for main-idea/supporting details and descriptive writing. Access the matching Enumerative graphic organizer.
Show students how to sort information in the text, grouping like ideas and clustering details about similar facets. Foldables are great for taking notes while reading about the different facets of a big concept.
3. Compare-Contrast Structure—Use the railroad track image to compare the similarities and differences of two topics, feature by feature. For more than two items being compared, flip the tracks horizontally. Access the matching Compare/Contrast graphic vertical organizer and the matrix/horizontal version, too.
4. Cause-Effect Structure—Use the dominoes image to demonstrate one or more reasons why something happened. The chicken foot image is perfect for one cause with multiple effects. Access both versions of the matching Cause/Effect graphic organizers.
Using the concepts of before and after, teach students to identify the relationships of cause(s) and effect(s).
5. Problem-Solution Structure—Use the puzzle image to reveal a problem (the unfinished puzzle) and how to solve it (add the missing piece(s)). If you flip the image, then you can show how multiple problems can have a single solution. Access both versions of the matching Problem/Solution graphic organizers.
The concepts of problems and solutions are not foreign to students. They have heard from an early age that they need to compromise and cooperate. Teach students to read for the problem first, and then read for the solution(s).
6. Proposition-Support Structure—Use the measurement scale image to explain how the balance of argument/claim is weighed by the amount of support or evidence given to the thesis. Access both versions of the matching Proposition/Support graphic organizers.
All argumentative writing is organized in this single text structure. The opening paragraph identifies the author’s claim–what is his topic and stance on the topic? And all the information that follows supports that proposition. It’s someone’s opinion for how to solve a debatable issue that has no “right” answer.
Teaching text structure gives students a glimpse behind the scenes of what they’re reading to discover a framework of meaning.
Great 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 kinds 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 (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 on text features and structures. 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 about informational texts 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.