Monday, January 16, 2012

Teaching Text Structure...Efficiently

In a perfect world, I'd be able to explore nonfiction text structures over the course of several weeks. But the real world of teaching is often far from perfect! This year, state testing is earlier than ever (thanks, PDE!), which means that I have fewer instructional days to cram everything in.

When teaching text structure, then, what can we safely skip over? My chest constricts a bit at the thought of skipping anything--it's all so important for young readers. But there are times when we need to take a few shortcuts. Choosing what to take out and what to keep becomes important.

DO: Skip the intro
Given large amounts of time, I like to begin a text structure unit with an overview of the different structures. This helps students to see the relationships among the structures and put everything together into a cohesive whole.

However, when time is short, it's okay to jump right in. I like to start with chronological order. Because it mirrors the structure of narratives, it's a good place to begin. As we go, then, we put together the pieces of the different structures.

DON'T: Skip real connected texts
Sometimes it's tempting to treat text structure as a fill in the blanks concept. Hand out a paragraph, find the text structure, move on to the next. But text structures are most interesting to consider when we think about how authors use the different structures to convey meaning. Always be sure to bring the focus back to making meaning. The question is not, "What's the text structure?" Instead, the question is, "How can the text structure help me to understand the text?"

DO: Focus on whole-class lessons
Trying to fold text structure into guided reading can be a daunting task. If you are short for time and preparing for state testing, it's okay to work with whole-class texts and lessons. This can take several different forms. You may want to do a shared reading with a grade level text, and then have pairs of students read leveled texts, with all students looking for the same text structure clue words and using the same graphic organizers. Or you may want to have all students work with grade level text. If testing is approaching, it's important for struggling readers to have some coping skills for grade level text. You can scaffold the task for them by highlighting transition words in a text or giving them a partially-completed organizer. But seeing that grade level text can help students to feel more confident ahead of the test.

DON'T: Skip summarizing
It can be tempting to skip writing summaries in the different text structures. However, this is an important step. You've read the texts--why not summarize? Even if you need to just make a quick choose-the-best-summary task, you'll find that taking the time to address summarizing within each text structure will help you in the long run.

DO: Pre-assess students to see what they already know
If you know that teachers in previous grades address text structure, it may be worth taking some time to find out how much kids already know. A carousel activity is a quick way to do this. Put each text structure on a large piece of chart paper. Hang up the charts around the room. Break up students into small groups and give each group a marker. Have them visit each chart and write down what they know about that text structure. This has the added benefit of reminding students of what they may have learned in the past. It's always funny to see those kids who claim they have never heard of text structure before challenged by their former classmates--"Mrs. X taught us that! You were there! Remember?"

DO: Come back to text structures!
However you decide to structure your unit, be sure to come back to text structures to pick up anything you may have missed. Being able to use and understand text structures helps readers to comprehend nonfiction text. Testing or not, text structure is an important topic to teach.


  1. Great tips Emily! I know I'm feeling the stress of the cram coming. Thanks for the well thought out post!

  2. I also wanted to say thank you for posting this and all of your text structure resources. I am currently teaching a unit on text structures, and I am definitely feeling the pressure.