How to Teach Expository Text Structure to Facilitate Reading Comprehension

Expository text can be challenging to young readers because of the unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary it presents. Discover ways to help your students analyze expository text structures and pull apart the text to uncover the main idea and supporting details.

Over the past 60 years, reading comprehension has changed its emphasis from the mastery of skills and subskills that are learned by rote and automatized to a focus on learning strategies, which are adaptable, flexible, and, most important, in the control of the reader (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991). One of the most efficient strategies for which there is an influx of research and practice is training students on text structure knowledge to facilitate their comprehension of the expository texts.

Readers of all ages must be aware of text structures if they are to be most successful (Meyer, 2003). The structure or organization of the text is the arrangement of ideas and the relationships among the ideas (Armbruster, 2004). Readers who are unaware of the text structures are at a disadvantage because they do not approach reading with any type of reading plan (Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980). However, readers who are familiar with text structures expect the information to unfold in certain ways (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002).

Students first learn to read narrative text structures, which are story-like structures that facilitate their learning to read. Consequently, students enter school having a sense of narrative structures as they appear in texts. Across the years of school, their awareness of text structures must increase as they progressively shift from reading a story line or casual text to reading for information (Lorch & Lorch, 1996). By the third grade, and obviously by the fourth, there is a noticeable shift to reading texts for information, information that is often dense and written in long passages (Gillet, Temple, & Crawford, 2004; RAND Reading Study Group, 2002).

According to The Nation's Report Card (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009), no significant differences in achievement of fourth graders were observed across groups. A part of this could be due to the ineffectiveness of current teaching techniques applied in reading classes. Reading teachers may find teaching text structure for expository texts an effective technique to improve reading achievement averages.

Why teach expository text structures?

Most expository texts are structured to facilitate the study process for prospective readers. These texts contain structural elements that help guide students through their reading. Authors of expository texts use these structures to arrange and connect ideas. Students who understand the idea of text structure and how to analyze it are likely to learn more than students who lack this understanding (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). The research literature in this field reveals that students' reading comprehension skills improve when they acquire knowledge of texts' structural development and use them properly.

Carrell (1985) argued that instruction on text structure indeed has a positive effect on the students' recall protocols. Meyer (1985) stated that knowledge of the rhetorical relationship of the ideas-main idea, major ideas, and supporting details-helps readers with their comprehension of the expository texts. Reading researchers have argued that knowledge of text organization or structure is an important factor for text comprehension (see Aebersold & Field, 1997; Fletcher, 2006; Grabe, 1991, 2004, 2008; Hall, Sabey, & McClellan, 2005; Horiba, 2000; Kendeou & van den Broek, 2007; Meyer, 2003; Meyer & Poon, 2001; Snyder, 2010).

Text features can help readers locate and organize information in the text. For example, headings help introduce students to specific bits of information. Presenting information in this manner helps students hold each bit of information in their short-term memory. Students then can process it or connect it to background knowledge and store it in their longterm memory. Without headings, information would be overwhelming, making it difficult to be processed effectively.

Structural elements in expository texts vary; therefore, it is important to introduce students to the components of various texts throughout the school year. It is also important to teach and model the use of these components properly at the beginning of the school year. The recognition and use of text organization are essential processes underlying comprehension and retention. As early as the third grade, students are expected to recognize expository text structures. Meyer (1985) classified these text structures as follows:

  • Description: The author describes a topic.
  • Sequence: The author uses numerical or chronological order to list items or events.
  • Compare/contrast: The author compares and contrasts two or more similar events, topics, or objects.
  • Cause/effect: The author delineates one or more causes and then describes the ensuing effects.
  • Problem/solution: The author poses a problem or question and then gives the answer.

The ability to identify and analyze these text structures in expository texts helps readers to comprehend the text more easily and retain it longer. To achieve better results, it is highly recommended to introduce and work on text structures in the order prescribed in what follows.

How to teach expository text structure

Tompkins (1998) suggested the following three steps to teach expository text structures:

  • Introduce an organizational pattern: The teacher introduces the signal words and phrases that identify each text structure and gives students a graphic organizer for each pattern.
  • Give students opportunities to work on the text: The teacher provides the students with chances to analyze the text structures in informational books, not stories. At this stage, students learn the signal words and phrases in the text that identify each text pattern. They also may use graphic organizers to illustrate these patterns.
  • Invite students to write paragraphs using each text structure pattern: The students' first writing activity should be a whole-class activity, followed by small-group, partner, and independent writing activities. This involves selecting a topic and using a graphic organizer to plan the paragraphs. Finally, the students write a rough draft using signal words and phrases for the text structure, revise, and edit the paragraph to produce the final product. The teacher can then repeat these steps for each of the five text structures to ensure a comprehensive text structure coverage.

Having applied the procedure recommended by Tompkins (1998), we would like to share our own experience in teaching expository text structure and shed more light on the practical aspects of teaching text structure in reading classes. The first and most important thing for you as a teacher is to be well informed about different text structures for expository texts, the signal words and phrases for each text structure, and the appropriate graphic organizer specific to each text structure.

Before you prepare any instructional plan to start training students and embark on reading activities, you must model all the procedures. Meanwhile, the students watch you focusing on the steps you have mentioned, from recognizing the signal words and phrases to applying the graphic organizers to each text. After you have practiced for the first few sessions and students have collected enough background on what they are going to do, it is time to use the following recommended procedure:

  • Introduce the text structures in order, starting with description and finishing with compare/contrast. This order is followed in most textbook readings.
  • Introduce and work on a single text structure in each lesson. Do not combine them. Work on one text structure for three or four sessions, then proceed to the next one.
  • Prepare short passages (about six to eight lines) for the text structure you are going to work on in that session. As the texts are short, you can work on at least four texts according to the time allocated for each session.
  • Try to highlight and emphasize the signal words and phrases in each text and elaborate on a series of signal words for each text structure (see Figure 1). Tell students that authors of informational texts use specific signal words and phrases for each rhetorical structure.
  • After students are familiar with signal words and phrases, ask them to find these clues in structure of each text through signal words and phrases. Then, invite them to write some short paragraphs and use some of the signal words and phrases appropriate to each text structure.
  • Working with graphic organizers is the next step after teaching signal words and phrases. For the first few sessions of working with graphic organizers, prepare for your students a completed graphic organizer before they start working on the text. This will help them create a better image of the hierarchy of ideas and their interrelationships discussed in the passage. Graphic organizers help students list major ideas under the main idea of the text and put the supporting details under the related major idea. Having a graphic representation of the text's ideas helps readers comprehend and retain the content.
  • Once students are comfortable with different kinds of graphic organizers, you can give them an incomplete graphic organizer after they have finished reading the passage. Let them complete it on their own.
  • At this stage, the students would be able to work on a blank graphic organizer independently, elicit the ideas from the text, and demonstrate the hierarchy of the ideas in a graphic organizer. These activities may vary from partially blank graphic organizers to totally blank schematic representations. Variables like the text length and text difficulty will determine how much of the text may appear in this schematic diagram.

Figure 1: Graphic organizers and signal words/phrases

Note. Online sources for graphic organizers include and

As the students progress to the final stage, they are able to use the signal words and phrases as a clue to recognize the rhetorical structure of the text and create the appropriate graphic organizer for each text structure. They are capable of identifying the main idea, other major ideas, and supporting details of the text and put them in the graphic organizer to illustrate the subordination of the details to the main and major ideas.


As students progress through school, they face having to read challenging texts, texts that require them to read for information instead of simply reading for the text. Ask them to recognize the rhetorical fun. As students learn to read, they should learn to recognize different text structures so they can predict what type of information is included. Consequently, the basic need is for teachers to teach students to identify text structures and decide what information is most important in their readings.

Reading expository texts is critical for growth in reading ability and most urgent to rank normal achievers; the ability to read, comprehend, and analyze expository texts (i.e., identifying main idea, major ideas, and supporting details) could be good criteria to rank students' academic reading achievement. One way to measure and rank students' reading achievement of the expository texts is to teach reading through text structures. This will raise text structure awareness and is assumed to lead to a permanent improvement in reading skill.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Aebersold, J.A., & Field, M.L. (1997). From reader to reading teacher: Issues and strategies for second language classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Armbruster, B.B. (2004). Considerate texts. In D. Lapp, J. Flood, & N. Farnan (Eds.), Content area reading and learning: Instructional strategies (2nd ed., pp. 47-58). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Carrell, P.L. (1985). Facilitating ESL reading by teaching text structure. TESOL Quarterly, 19(4), 727-752. doi:10.2307/3586673

Dole, J.A., Duffy, G.G., Roehler, L.R., & Pearson, P.D. (1991). Moving from the old to the new: Research on reading comprehension instruction. Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 239-264.

Fletcher, J.M. (2006). Measuring reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 10(3), 323-330. doi:10.1207/ s1532799xssr1003_7

Gillet, J.W., Temple, C., & Crawford, A.N. (2004). Understanding reading problems: Assessment and instruction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Grabe, W. (1991). Current developments in second language reading research. TESOL Quar terly, 25(3), 375 - 406. doi:10.2307/3586977

Grabe, W. (2004). Research on teaching reading. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 44-69. doi:10.1017/S0267190504000030

Grabe, W. (2008, May, 29-31). Using graphic organizers to help develop reading and writing skills. Paper presented at the TESOL conference, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Hall, K.M., Sabey, B.L., & McClellan, M. (2005). Expository text comprehension: Helping primary-grade teachers use expository texts to full advantage. Reading Psychology, 26(3), 211- 234. doi:10.1080/02702710590962550

Horiba, Y. (2000). Reader control in reading: Effects of language competence, text type and task. Discourse Processes, 29(3), 223-267. doi:10.1207/S15326950dp2903_3

Kendeou, P., & van den Broek, P. (2007). The effects of prior knowledge and text structure on comprehension processes during reading of scientific texts. Memory & Cognition, 35(7), 1567-1577.

Lorch, R.F., & Lorch, E.P. (1996). Effects of organizational signals on free recall of expository text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(1), 38-48. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.88.1.38

Meyer, J.B.F. (1985). Prose analysis: Purposes, procedures, and problems. In B.K. Britten & J.B. Black (Eds.), Understanding expository text: A theoretical and practical handbook for analyzing explanatory text (pp. 11-64). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Meyer, J.B.F. (2003). Text coherence and readability. Topics in Language Disorders, 23(3), 204-224. doi:10.1097 /00011363 -200307000 -00007

Meyer, J.B.F., Brandt, D.M., & Bluth, G.J. (1980). Use of top-level structure in text: Key for reading comprehension of ninthgrade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 16(1), 72-103. doi: 10 .2307/747349

Meyer, J.B.F., & Poon, L.W. (2001). Effects of structure strategy training and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 141-159. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.1.141

National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). The nation's report card. Reading 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at grades 4 and 8 (NCES 2010-458). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from nces .ed .gov / nationsreportcard/reading

RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Snyder, L. (2010). Reading expository material: Are we asking the right questions? Topics in Language Disorders, 30(1), 39-47. doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e3181d098b3

Tompkins, G.E. (1998). Language arts: Content and teaching strategies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill

Structure to Facilitate Reading Comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 64: 368-372. doi: 10.1598/RT.64.5.9Akhondi, M., Malayeri, F. A. and Samad, A. A. (2011), How to Teach Expository Text


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I think it is important to note to students that an informational article can have more than one text structure.

I have used this approach now for three years in 8th grade. It is so helpful to analyze the structure and fill in the graphic organizers. Several high school students have commented to me that they are better able to take notes and analyze difficult text with these organizers. I have found it's best to find high interest, low-level text to introduce, then move on to the textbook or magazine articles, even editorials.Sites like are excellent sources, and provides ample practice and fantastic articles.

I like the ideas of giving graphs to give visual aid to help the students learn to look for signal words and main ideas of a text. It gives them a structure, but also a true way to grasp what they are learning.

I thought the article was full of great teaching techniques for teaching reading comprehension. I liked the steps the article gave for teaching text structures. I agreed with the importance of teaching signal words and using graphs. These strategies will be very useful in my classroom.

I thought this article was very informational and I took away some very useful teaching tools that will allow me to help my students become better readers understanding what they are reading. In doing this I will be able to teach the different text structures to the students who are at a disadvantage and help them to be able to comprehend by using text structures in expository texts. I also thought it was nice how the article gave the five text structures and three guides as a guide to use with students. The fact that if a student can realizes what they have read and retain it comprehend it will only allow for them to meet the requirements and where they need to be as readers.

I teach special education. I have a group of students that are reading at below grade level, at a 2nd grade level. They struggle with reading comprehension, text structures and organization. The use of graphic organizers and signal words or phrases is an excellent idea to help them visualize what a story is about. Narrative text is hard for my students to comprehend and by adding expository text they can become very confused. Students need to be taught how to identify and analyze expository text so they can plan and know what to expect as they read informational text.

Understanding text structure is an important part of reading comprehension and this article does a great job of explaining the procedures of how to teach expository text structures. By learning the different text structures used in expository text, readers will comprehend the text easier and retain it longer. I like the way that it is explained how to teach this method in a step by step process. The step that stood out to me was the use of the graphic organizers to help students visualize what they are reading. As stated in the text, students must learn to recognize different text structures so they can predict the type of information in the text, which in turn makes teaching text structure to our students a priority.

I teach students that are severely handicapped so this concept in teaching them reading comprehension is hard to teach. In my room all of my students but one is non verbal so we read books and stories to them and ask them questions but very little is retained so my question is how could you approach reading comprehension with this type of students?

After reading this article, I also agree with utilizing the Expository Text Structure strategies. This approach allows students to analyze and identify text structure as well as build upon their reading comprehension. My favorite strategy I use is the graphic organizer. Students are able to recognize the main idea, major idea and the supporting details of a given text. Students may also apply the “teach to teach” model to provide mastery learning skills. This approach also makes learning exciting by allowing students an opportunity to connect ideas based on their background knowledge. As teachers we must continue to implement strategies for the purpose of promoting students’ overall comprehension skills.

Teaching expository text structures can be challenging but this article gave some great examples on how to accomplish this. I like the idea of using graphic organizers. When students learn this task, they will become better readers and be able to understand things more clearly. This will be something the students will be able to use throughout their lifetime. Being able to read and comprehend is an essential part of our everyday life, so it is very important that all teachers find the best ways to teach it. This article was very imformative and the examples given seem very useful and beneficial. I am excited to try them.

I thought this article was very intresting and helpful. The main purpose of expository text is to inform or describe what the story or book is about, so when the student reads they are understanding what is being read better. They can use this technique forever when reading and comprehening.

I appreciate that this article supports educators in giving students the tools to discover and learn for a lifetime. Sometimes I feel like teaching methods are too specific and they are limited to certain areas where they can be applied. Teaching text structure gives students tools they can use for a lifetime, not just their time in formal education.

I agree that this article was very informative on explaining and how to teach expository text structures. I never did really think about using this type of strategy to help with reading comprehension, but will definitely use this in my class. I have students are have a great deal of difficulty reading and especially with reading comprehension. I like that the article breaks down how to teach this strategy. It appears very easy to use and student friendly. I also like that fact they mention using graphic organizers. I feel they help the student see what is in the text as they are reading and makes the text or information easier to comprehend.

I thought this article was very informative. The article talked about reading comprehension and how students will be able to comprehend what they are reading if they have a knowledge of the text organization/structure. This makes it easier for students to locate and organize the text in the reading. This is true, because if I started reading an article that had no text structure/organization/feature, I would be confused with what exactly I was reading and would become easily distracted. It is very important that teachers are knowledgeable about text organization, so they are able to teach this to their students.

The procedures the article lists on how to teach expository text are great. Students need to learn the difference of the texts that they will be reading. As the article states, knowing what type of text is being read leads to having a plan for reading and knowing what to expect from the reading. I believe that using graphic organizers assists students in understanding and comprehending the information they have read. Learning the signal words and phrases to look for to find the information needed to comprehend the material is a very important skill. The students comprehend the information by listing the main ideas and supporting details on the organizer. Teaching the students by using the procedures the article stated will improve structure awareness and therefore should improve reading skills.

I agree with the article about how crucial it is for a teacher to be able to identify and analyze text structures in expository texts and how this helps readers comprehend and retain information longer. I thought this article was very helpful in stating how to teach expository text structure to students. For example, it talked about introducing an organizational pattern, giving opportunities for students to work on texts, and having students be able to "practice" writing paragraphs using each text structure. I agree with this article about how crucial it is for a teacher to be well informed about diferent text structures for expository texts, signal words and phrases, and know when to use appropriate graphic organizers for each text structure. I agree that raising text structure awareness will help a student be more successful in reading and comprehending text.

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