Teaching Text Structure to Support Writing & Comprehension
What is text structure, and why should teachers teach it? Text structure is unique to written language, and awareness of text structure supports both writing and reading comprehension. This post explores the different types of text structure that can be taught explicitly to support writing and reading, and recommends combining reading and writing instruction when teaching about text structure.
Benefits of Integrating Reading and Writing Instruction
In general, there is a strong case to be made for integrating writing and reading comprehension instruction. The Institute of Education Sciences 2017 research guide Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively (Graham et al., 2017) notes that reading and writing share cognitive processes, and point out Fitzgerald and Shanahan’s (2000) shared knowledge model that “conceptualizes reading and writing as two buckets drawing water from a common well or two buildings built on the same foundation.”
Reading Supports Writing: One of the guide’s recommendations is to show exemplars of sample text to teach students the key features of text (including text structure, organization, grammar, spelling, use of literary devices, and sentences) for the three major genres of text (opinion/argument, informational, narrative) to help students write these types of text .
Writing Supports Reading: The Writing to Read report summarized the research evidence for how writing can improve reading. The report notes that reading and writing are both communication activities, and writers gain insight about reading by creating their own texts, leading to better comprehension of texts produced by others. The report’s conclusion: evidence shows that having students write about the material they read enhances their reading abilities, including reading comprehension.
A Focus on Text Structure
As noted above, the goal of this post is to identify different types of text structures and how explicit instruction can support both reading comprehension and writing. Readers and writers who are familiar with text structure recognize how the information is unfolding (Akhondi et al., 2011). Duke, Ward, and Pearson (2021) note that a significant amount of research has examined the impact of text structure instruction. “We have long known that students benefit from instruction in common structures and elements of narrative or story text (e.g., identifying characters, setting, goal, problem, events, resolution, and theme). With respect to informational text, meta-analyses have also documented positive impacts.” (p. 4)
Typically, when educators hear the term text structure, they think of the broader structures associated with the three major types of text identified in the I.E.S. report (opinion/argument, informational, narrative), or sub-types of text such as description, sequence, cause and effect, etc. which I address in items 1 and 2 below. However, there are several other types of text structure for which teachers should provide explicit instruction, addressed in item numbers 3 through 6. As you review the details for each type of text structure below, consider how instruction can integrate reading and writing in the same lesson.
#1: Three Major Types of Text: Opinion/Argument, Informational, Narrative
- Comprehension: Discerning the overall organization and text structure of a text aids comprehension. This includes teaching students the goal and purpose of an introduction and a conclusion, which often identify for students the main topic(s) and central idea or theme of a text. It also includes teaching the differences between the organization of the body for opinion/argument, informational and narrative texts. Opinion/argument typically presents reasons supported by evidence, and sometimes a counterclaim and related rebuttal. Informational text typically organizes information in a hierarchy of main ideas and sub-main ideas supported by details. Narrative is typically organized around a series of events. Awareness of how information is presented in each type of text helps students organize what they are learning from the text.
- Writing: Common Core and similar state standards address text structures such as introductions, conclusions, and body development in the three writing standards for opinion/argument, informational, and narrative writing. As noted earlier, the I.E.S. writing research guide emphasizes the value of having students study the structure of the three types of writing in mentor texts to help them apply knowledge of text structure to write these types of text.
- Related Post: See my March, 2017 blog post Teaching Basic Argument Writing Components
#2: Patterns of Organization
Patterns of organization are another type of text structure. This includes the specific structures of description and explanation, sequence, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and problem and solution.
- Comprehension: Text structure instruction provides students the knowledge and tools to process text into more coherent and organized mental schemata (Kintsch, 2013). When students can recognize a particular pattern they encounter in text, they are better able to locate and process the information they need for successful comprehension. Students benefit from explicit instruction and guided practice for how to recognize if a text is comparing two entities, presents a problem and a solution to that problem, and the other patterns of organization.
- Writing: When students are composing, it is helpful for them to choose which pattern of organization best gets across what they have to say in their writing. This includes incorporating transition words and phrases associated with a particular pattern (see #3).
- Related post: See my November, 2017 blog post Patterns of Organization
#3. Transition Words and Phrases
Sometimes called linking words, transitions connect sentences, paragraphs and sections of text. Some transition words or phrases are specifically helpful for signaling a particular pattern of organization. First, next, last are examples of sequence transitions; as a result, therefore, because of are examples of cause and effect. Many students with weak language and literacy skills do not automatically recognize transitions, understand what many of these words/phrases mean, or know how to use them when speaking or writing.
- Comprehension: When students are aware of transitions while reading, they provide powerful clues to support comprehension. They are like signs when someone is driving, providing notice of what to anticipate in the road ahead.
- Writing: When students include transitions in their writing, the message and ideas they want to convey are clear and organized. They can use the transitions to better convey to the reader what they want to say.
- Related post: See my August, 2020 blog post The Power of Transition Words
#4 Paragraph Structure
Students need a solid understanding that a paragraph is structured around a main idea. Sometimes the main idea is stated, and sometimes it is implied and must be inferred. Students benefit from instruction about basic paragraph structure where the main idea is stated in a topic sentence and details are in sentences that support the main idea. The topic sentence is often at the start of a paragraph, but it may be found in the middle or end.
- Comprehension: When students do not fully understand the structure of a paragraph, they miss helpful clues to making meaning when they read. When the text indents to start a new paragraph, it provides a signal that a shift in meaning is taking place within the text. The topic of the reading is the same, but the next paragraph has something different to say about that topic from the previous paragraph. Students benefit from explicit instruction where the teacher models how to determine the main ideas in paragraphs from sample text.
- Writing: Students who do not attend to paragraph structure when writing tend to produce disorganized writing pieces. They should be taught to think about the main ideas they want to present and the best order to present them during pre-writing. A graphic organizer can help at this stage. While writing, students should be taught to indent when it is time to start a new paragraph, and to be sure that the reader will be able to determine the main idea by providing a topic sentence or sufficient detail so the reader can infer the main idea.
- Related post: See my April, 2022 blog post The Mighty Paragraph
#5 Text Features
Text features such as a title and headings help identify the topic and overall organization of ideas in text. Headings represent sections of text, making it easier for readers to work their way through a longer piece of text in manageable chunks. Graphics and captions highlight important details and present an alternative visual representation to supplement and support the text. Mentor models that include obvious examples of text features can be used to teach text features.
- Comprehension: Attending to headings helps break text up into smaller sections, and sometimes provides clues to the topic or main idea of a section of text. Learning how to use the information presented in graphics provides students with an additional way to access the content of what they are reading.
- Writing: Students benefit from explicit instruction for integrating text features into their writing pieces. Especially for informational and opinion/argument writing, as part of pre-writing planning, they should determine the organization of their writing piece and identify logical breaks where adding a heading might be helpful for the reader. They should also determine if there are graphics that can be used to support the content and message of what they want to say.
#6 Sentence Structure
Longer, complex sentences can be a challenge for both reading and writing.
- Comprehension: Instructional activities, such as sentence combing and deconstruction, help students develop the skills they need to “unpack” the meaning of a long sentence they read that has many ideas (propositions) embedded within a sentence.
- Writing: These same activities, along with sentence elaboration practice, help students write more interesting, longer sentences.
- Related post: See my related June, 2020 blog post Teaching Sentence Structure Part 1 and July, 2020 post Teaching Sentence Structure Part 2
Teachers of any grade or subject can play a role in developing students’ awareness of the text structures described above. The texts that are used in every classroom provide opportunities for teachers to point out examples of the structures found in the three types of writing, patterns of organization and related transitions, paragraphs, and sentences, as well as how text features are used. If you would like to learn more about teaching text structure, watch the archived video of my November, 2020 webinar titled Text Structure to Support Comprehension and Writing. If you are interested in professional development that includes the topic of text structure, consider The Key Comprehension Routine or Keys to Content Writing. Access a one-page handout, The Comprehension-Writing Connection, that highlights language elements common to both reading and writing.
- Text Structures Chart (Patterns of Organization), offered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
- Text Structure Mapping, offered by the Iowa Reading Research Center
- Classroom Strategies: Text Structure, offered by AdLIt
- Helping Students Focus on Text Structure, Institute of Education Sciences, Doing What Works
- Chapter 6 (The Blueprint for Text Structures) in The Reading Comprehension Blueprint by Nancy Hennessy
- Akhondi, M., Malayeri, F.A., & Samad, A.A. (2011). How to teach expository text structure to facilitate reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 64 (5), 368-372.
- Duke, N.K., Ward, E.A., & Pearson, P.D. (2021). The science of reading comprehension instruction. The Reading Teacher. International Literacy Association
- Fitzgerald, J., & Shanahan, T. (2000). Reading and writing relations and their development. Educational Psychologist, 35, 39–50.
- Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. A Carnegie Corporation Time to Act Report. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
- Graham, S., Bruch, J., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L., Furgeson, J., Greene, K., Kim, J., Lyskawa, J., Olson, C.B., & Smither Wulsin, C. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively (NCEE 2017-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website: http://whatworks.ed.gov.
- Kintsch, W. (2013). Revisiting the construction–integration model of text comprehension and its implications for instruction. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed., pp. 807–839). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.