Many students struggle to recognize and use nonfiction text structures as a tool to assist their comprehension. Over the years, I tried many different strategies and resources to help my students master this skill. Some worked and some didn’t. And some, I had to create myself or tweak to fit the needs of my learners. In this post, I share some of my best resources and tips to teach nonfiction text structure so that you can also help your students experience that “lightbulb” moment.
The Importance of Nonfiction Text Structure
Readers who understand nonfiction text structures can approach informational texts with a plan for their reading. They’ll begin to recognize the organizational patterns and expect the information to unfold in certain ways. For example, students who can recognize a compare and contrast text structure will read to find comparison points and differences. Students who can recognize a problem-solution text structure will look for a problem, search for solutions offered, and evaluate the solutions based on information provided in the text.
When I introduced text structure to my students, I explained that writers use text structures to organize information or ideas a text. I usually write the following definition on the whiteboard:
Here are some things that worked in my classroom:
Tip #1 – Introduce the structures one at a time
I used this order:
3.) Problem and Solution
4.) Cause and Effect
5.) Compare and Contrast
This is the order followed by most textbooks. It’s chosen because students seem to grasp description and sequence easier than the other three. At this point, the goal is to teach the process of identifying text structure.
Tip #2 – Use visuals
An anchor chart will help students visualize the organization of each text structure. You can work on this together as a class.
Write the text structure, define it, provide a diagram and organizer showing the structure, and write out all the clue words for the structure.
The visuals are important here. They show students the hierarchy and relationships between ideas in the different text structures. You can find these free printables here. An important part of this is showing students the graphic organizers on the anchor chart so that they can understand the organization. Also, making sure students understand the simple definitions is extremely important. This may take a few settings for students to understand.
In addition to creating the anchor chart with students, introduce the posters or bulletin board to students. Hang these posters on a visible wall or hand them out to students to use as a reference.
These posters will really help your visual learners and help all students identify each structure. You can find them here.
I included a printable anchor chart that you can pass out to students so that they can work with it independently and use it as a reference.
With these visual printables, I included versions with different columns left blank. With these versions, you can have students fill out the different information that they have learned throughout your unit.
Tip #3 – Teach the “Clue Words” associated with each structure
Once students have been exposed to the different text structures that exist, you should introduce the different signal or clue words that can help students identify the text structure. Students will be able to identify text structures more easily if they become familiar with these clue words.
Explain to students that authors use clue words to show readers how the ideas are related. You can give students the reference sheet found here that has the clue words for every text structure they’ll learn. After working with this for a while, the clue words should start to become second nature for students.
With this free printable, I have also included sample passages about sloths. Each passage is written to fit the particular text structure.
You can use these passages to expose students to the text structure or to help identify the signal or clue words.
Tip #4 – Model how to find the text structure with students
Before students work independently, show them the process of finding a text structure. Take a short passage and read it with your students. While reading, stop and underline/emphasize clue words you find and fill out a graphic organizer with them (or have them do it independently from above).
Tip #5 – Use Graphic Organizers
Don’t expect students to immediately have a good grasp on the organization, relationships, and hierarchy of ideas and information in nonfiction texts. Graphic organizers will help them visualize these organizational patterns.
For the purpose of this unit, I would use the same short sloth passages found above to break apart the text structures into the graphic organizers for students. I included a set of passages without the name of the text structure included so that you can work with students to identify the text structure.
Now that students understand the clue or signal words, they can use these passages with the graphic organizers to really see and understand the organization of the text structure.
When they are working with the different text structure, hand out the graphic organizer so the entire organizational structure of the text is in place. I’ve created a series of graphic organizers that you can grab here. Students’ job now becomes to find how the ideas of the text fit into that defined structure.
There are three versions of each graphic organizer. One version is completely filled out and set up to help you teach the text structure. Pass this out to your students to use as a reference if they need it. This will further reiterate the important parts of each text structure.
Another version of the graphic organizer is blank.
You can use these blank graphic organizers with the short passages I provided. You can also use these blank graphic organizers with my Nonfiction Text Structure Differentiated Passages and Questions found here. Give students a short text of their own (from the above passages). You can use a gradual release of responsibility with your students. Start by guiding and modeling how to underline the clue words, then guide them to fill out the graphic organizer by pulling out important parts of the text that define the text structure. As students become more comfortable with this, you can allow students to work independently on a passage with the graphic organizer.
It’s important to remember that at some point during your unit, you most likely will need to differentiate. Some students might be able to work independently, pull ideas from the text, and demonstrate how the ideas are related in a blank graphic organizer. Other groups might need a partially completed graphic organizer or additional help with clue words. I have included both versions which you can use with your students.
The last set of graphic organizers is filled out with the answer keys from the short passages. With these, you can accurately assess students’ work to confirm whether they have mastered the content or not.
Tip #6 – Practice
One of the best things you can do is to allow students to practice these skills. I have created Differentiated Reading Passages and Questions for Nonfiction Text Structures found here.
The questions help students focus on how the information is organized and helps them identify key signal words that provide clues about the structure of the text. The best part is, the texts are differentiated so your students can each work at their reading level on the same skill.
Tip #7 – Show Your Understanding
I am a firm believer in mixing up formative and summative assessments. There is definitely a time and place for paper and pencil assessments. Of course, I think they are very important. When you can, though, try to also accommodate your visual learners.
For students to show their understanding of text structure, I created this All About Me Text Structure Booklet found here.
This is a fun way for students to apply their knowledge of the text structures (and get to know more about them, too!).
In addition to filling out graphic organizers for each nonfiction text structure, they also have to take what they’ve learned and write their own paragraph using the correct signal (clue) words for each structure.
Grab all of the free resources included in this blog post HERE.
See my Nonfiction Text Structure Differentiated Passages and Questions HERE. There are three differentiated levels of each passage for grades 3-6. In addition, each passage includes five questions that include a combination of short-answer, graphic organizers, and multiple choice. The questions will help students determine the text structure of a passage. They ask students to analyze how the information is organized and to identify key signal words found in the text.