Teaching Text Structure to Young Readers

As adults, we don’t tend to think much about text structure. Because we’re already fluent readers, we absorb the structure of the text along with its information — and without much fuss.

The structure of a text — particularly a non-fiction one — goes a long way toward building our understanding, though, even if we don’t often notice it. The way the information is organized in a paragraph, chapter or book helps our brains understand which bit of information is most important and how to categorize the rest. This supports our comprehension and helps us to file away facts in our minds for future reference.

For the young readers in your classroom, being able to identify and understand the purpose of common text structures is a skill often identified in your language arts curriculum. They may be asked direct questions about text structure on standardized tests, but being able to analyze the way information is organized also helps beginners know where to look for facts and understand the author’s purpose in writing.

Perhaps most important of all, understanding text structure eventually helps your students become better writers. It’s the template they’ll eventually follow in their own paragraphs and essays, so the foundation your lay now will serve them well for a lifetime of writing, whether they become novelists or just need to send a clear email to a coworker.

So how can you get started teaching text structure to your young readers? First, it helps to understand the most common text structures employed by non-fiction writers.

7 Common Text Structures

  1. Cause and Effect: These texts explain something by highlighting an event and detailing the results. Science and history texts often use this structure. Key words to look for include “because,” “therefore,” and “why.”
  2. Chronological: These texts organize events in the order they happened. This structure is common in current events, history and in works of fiction or memoir. Key words include time markers like “first,” “next,” “then” and “finally.”
  3. Comparison / Contrast: These texts are basically descriptive, but deal with two or more topics to highlight similarities and differences between them. This structure is useful in all subjects. Key words include “more,” “less,” “as [adjective] as,” “than” and “however.”
  4. Order of Importance: These texts present facts or information in a hierarchy, typically with the most important item first. This structure is often used in news stories and science, but can be used in a range of topics. Key words include “most,” “least,” and “important.”
  5. Problem and Solution: These texts begin by laying out an issue and then explaining how to solve or rectify it. This structure is common is science, math and social studies as well as a wide range of informative articles. Key words include “issue,” “problem,” “trouble,” “fix,” “solve” and “how.”
  6. Sequence / Process: Similar to chronological texts, this structure puts items in order, but with an eye to explaining the way something should be done. This is often seen in lab reports and how-to pieces. Key words include time markers like “first,” and “next” as well as “how” and “why.”
  7. Spatial / Descriptive: These texts describe a scenes, typically organizing that information by location; for example, describing a room by moving from the doorway to the opposite wall. This structure is used in fiction and non-fiction alike. Key words include prepositions like “above,” “below,” “behind,” etc. Adjectives are also a hallmark of this text structure.

Tips for Teaching Text Structure to Elementary School Students

The whole concept of text structure can be a bit dry, but you can make sure your students get the gist by following a few tips to make the subject easy for them to grasp.

1. Explain Why Text Structures Are Important

To get your students on board, it helps to tell them why they’re learning about this topic — just make sure you do this in kid-friendly language. That means skipping the bit about the state tests and focusing on how understanding an author’s purpose will help them understand the readings. You can also point out that it’s a good way to organize writing for reinforcement later.

2. Use Age-Appropriate Examples

The best way to talk about text structure is to show examples rather than just talking about them in the abstract. It’s best to keep your examples short and sweet — and make sure they’re at your kids’ reading level. You can pull a paragraph from your classroom library, but it might be easier just to write your own. You can also check out this great SlideShare for inspiration.

3. Discuss and Dissect the Sample

Have your students read your sample and pick out sentences or words that show how the writer get the point across. For example, which words show that a comparison is being made? After working through a sample or two, you can have students solidify the concept by writing their own short piece that follows the structure you’re teaching.

4. Brainstorm Key Words

This is also a good time to have your students brainstorm key words that they can look for — they’re bound to come up with many more examples than we listed above! For each text structure, see if your class can fill a piece of chart paper with words that will tip them off to the text structure in use. These posters make a great resource to hang around your classroom as a reminder for future language arts lessons.

5. Take It Slow

Trying to attack all seven text structures in one lesson would be deadly. It’s best to do one at a time — and to spread your lessons across a week or more. You’ll have plenty of chances to revisit the information throughout the year as you read for learning. This is a natural way to reinforce the concepts in a more meaningful way, so keep those reminders coming throughout the course of the year!

Other Resources

Check out our nonfiction text features posters!