Sunday, March 7, 2010

Text Structure: Cause and Effect

Back when I went to school, I remember filling out worksheet after worksheet on cause and effect. Yet we never linked those worksheets to actual texts. Finding causes and effects was something that we did during our quiet work time--certainly never something that we tried to do as we were reading. (Or, in my case, as I was surreptitiously reading a book balanced under my desk!)

But the cause and effect text structure is vitally important for our young readers. I've been surprised at how much trouble fourth graders have with this concept--and I suspect that it's a problem that continues up through the grade levels.

At its most basic, the problem is one of vocabulary. My students have trouble with remembering that causes come before effects. The clue words for cause and effect--therefore, as a result, consequently--are not generally used in everyday speech. To help students understand cause and effect, then, I have to first surmount the vocabulary obstacles.

For the past two weeks, a part of my Morning Message has been dedicated to cause and effect. One morning I write causes and have students write effects; another morning I write effects and have students write the causes. To keep it interesting, I added some student names at first (using silly causes and effects--nothing that would hurt feelings!) Turnabout is fair play, so students started adding my name. This week, one of the messages read, "Cause: Mrs. Kissner crashed her bike into the shed. Effect: Her bike was broken." Ah, well--they were certainly amused to think about me riding a bike into a shed!

We have also done some matching of causes and effects. Here is a little activity that I wrote for students to practice this. As students work, watch them carefully. I was surprised to see how many of them had trouble considering additional effects for the causes. Left to their own devices, some groups came up with additional causes.

Of course, I had to apply the cause and effect thinking to actual text. It's tough to find "pure" cause and effect text, as it's frequently used in conjunction with other text structures. I do want to show this to students eventually, but when they're just getting started, I don't want to confuse matters.

I wrote a short text about tsunamis, which can be found in Text Structure Resources. When we read the text, we talked about how to find both the causes and the effects. Then, students worked to create a graphic organizer to show the causes and effects. (I showed them the basics--to put "tsunami" in the box in the middle, and then put causes on the left and effects on the right--but they were able to actually find what to put in the boxes in the text on their own.)

Over the next few days, we'll be working to use the text structure to help us find answers to questions. In cause and effect text, this is hugely important. It's too time-consuming for a reader to scan back through an entire text to find an answer. But with a firm grasp on the idea that "causes come before effects", students will be able to target their search and find answers more efficiently.

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