Implementing the Text Structure Strategy in Your Classroom

teacher talking with elementary student during lesson

Learn how to implement a research-based text structure strategy that infuses text structures at every step of reading comprehension instruction, beginning with the introduction of the lesson, previewing of text, selecting important ideas, writing a main idea, generating inferences, and monitoring comprehension.

Introduction

The Text Structure Strategy (TSS) stems from research showing that the content of most texts is organized using a hierarchical structure. The information presented higher in the content structure of a text is connected to better recall than information presented lower in the content structure (Meyer, 1975). Meyer and colleagues found that the hierarchical structure of texts fit into one or a combination of two or more of five specific text structures:

  1. Comparison
  2. Cause and effect
  3. Problem and solution
  4. Sequence
  5. Description

These text structures are used to organize every text regardless of genre (e.g., expository, narrative) or content (e.g., science, social studies, current events, sports).

In expository texts such as history, events can be studied using a cause and effect structure nested within a sequence of events.

When reading a narrative text students are often asked about the moral of the story or the actions of the main characters. These ideas can be studied using a problem and solution and/or a cause and effect lens. Most novels, textbook passages, and short reading pieces may contain descriptions of events and sequences nested within the causes and effects of the event.

The Text Structure Strategy was designed, developed, and refined through many years of research. After the initial identification of the five text structures, Meyer and colleagues conducted additional research about what and how good readers remembered information (Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980). They found that good readers were able to take advantage of signals within the text to select important ideas and generate a gist. This gist helped them recollect more important information after reading.

Once this pattern was established, new interventions were developed to study whether children in elementary grades would benefit from being taught the strategy to identify signaling words, write a main idea scaffolded by the text structure, and remember more information (Meyer & Poon, 2001; Meyer et al., 2002; Meyer et al.., 2010; Williams et al., 2005).

A series of large scale studies have been conducted by Wijekumar and colleagues to study the efficacy of the TSS instruction delivered via a web-based tutor to students in grades 4, 5, 7, and 8 (Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2012; Wijekumar et al., 2014; Wijekumar, Meyer & Lei, 2017). The studies also included newer adaptations for Spanish speaking English learners (Wijekumar, Meyer, Lei, Hernandez, & August, 2018).

All these studies have shown that it is possible to teach children in grades 4 through 8 about using text structures to improve their comprehension of expository and narrative texts. A complete chronology of the refinements to the TSS through research evidence is presented in Wijekumar et al., (2014).

In this article, you'll find important elements of the evidence-based text structure strategy that are relevant for classroom teachers. We organize the information around questions that frequently arise during teacher professional development sessions conducted by our team.

How is the Text Structure Strategy different than what we already teach in the classroom?

Text structures are integrated in all state standards (e.g., Common Core State Standards — CCSS, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills-TEKS) for language arts. They are frequently listed directly in standards about teaching comprehension of expository texts.

They are indirectly tied into standards on narrative texts where children are required to think deeply about a text and engage in higher-order thinking — for example, why did the character behave that way? (implying a cause and effect relationship). Students are asked to compare the problems and solutions between texts.

Based on the inclusion of the text structures in state standards, almost all textbooks include instruction about text structures. A complete list of English Language Arts (ELA) approaches designed to promote comprehension in four textbook series shows that cause and effect is taught as a separate skill to be learned (Beerwinkle, Wijekumar, Walpole, & Aguis, 2018). Compare/contrast is also taught using T-Charts or Venn Diagrams. Sequence and description are frequently used to organize passages and children are asked to engage in activities such as numbering the water cycle. Problem and solution was rarely used within the textbooks reviewed.

In every instance, instruction about text structure was done as an independent skill to be learned separate and distinct from writing main ideas, summarizing, generating inferences, and comprehension monitoring. Our observations of teachers using these textbooks to guide instructional practices in classrooms show that teachers use the following sequence of activities to teach reading within the ELA classroom (Beerwinkle, Wijekumar, Walpole, & Aguis, 2018):

  1. Activate background knowledge and discuss some interesting features of the text.
  2. Pre-teach or teach vocabulary in context. Provide definitions and examples for children who are unfamiliar with the words.
  3. Preview the text — skim the text, read headings, and/or read segments of the text. These activities may be done as a large group, small group, sustained silent reading, or some combination of classroom organization.
  4. Focus on the “skill” of the week or a combination of skills. Typically, the textbooks focus on some aspect of the text. Some observed foci include: genre, main ideas, summaries, inferences, comprehension monitoring, writing, and author’s purpose.
  5. Teachers have also been observed to ask students to select important ideas from the text and provide a main idea. The observations reported by Beerwinkle et al., showed that over 90% of teachers used strategies such as “Beginning-Middle-End”, “First sentence and last sentence”, read the passage again, and look for what is important.
  6. Depending on the focus of the week, teachers may ask students to complete a graphic organizer on cause and effect and a T-Chart, or Venn Diagram for a comparison.

An important distinction between the Text Structure Strategy and these applications of text structures listed above is where and how the text structure is introduced during the instruction. In the observed list of teacher activities, the text structure is presented in step 6 after all other instruction has been completed.

Integrating the Text Structure Strategy throughout instruction

In contrast to the textbook approaches and observed classroom practices, the TSS is integrated into every text in every ELA, science, and social studies lesson. The TSS-infused approach is presented next with highlights showing important contrasts to current practice:

  1. Plan how to incorporate higher order text structures to guide instruction (see sample planning page below)
  2. Activate background knowledge and discuss some interesting features of the text including mentioning that there may be a comparison, cause and effect, and/or a problem and solution within the passage.
  3. Pre-teach or teach vocabulary in context. Provide definitions and examples for children who are unfamiliar with the words.
  4. Preview the text — skim the text, read headings, and/or read segments of the text. These activities may be done as a large group, small group, sustained silent reading, or some combination of classroom organization. Include looking for signaling words and reminding children that there may be some comparisons, causes and effects, and problems and solutions.
  5. Include regular and spiraling instruction about selecting important ideas while reading, writing a main idea, generating inferences, and monitoring comprehension. Most importantly, utilize main idea sentence starters to scaffold the students. Each step is described in more detail below.

Select important ideas while reading

Ask students to focus on causes and effects, problems and solutions, and comparisons. Because sequence and description are so prevalent there is little reason to ask students to focus on those. For example, during reading ask students to annotate text with cause and effects, comparisons, and problem and solution. In the TSS instruction, we ask students to write a C next to the cause and E next to the effect.

Write a main idea using the text structure

Main ideas can be generated at the paragraph level (pick some important paragraphs) and/or passage level. Regardless of which level the main idea is generated on, children are scaffolded with specific patterns based on each text structure. They are:

Comparison: _______ and _____ were compared on _____, _____, and ______

Cause and Effect: The cause is _______ and the effect is _______

Problem and Solution: The problem is ________ and the solution is ________

Sequence: First, ____, Second _____, Third _____

Description: The topic ______has the _____, ______, _____ features.

Generate inferences using the text structures

If the passage contains information about a problem that was solved, then students can be asked to infer what the cause was based on the solution proposed. E.g., The problem was that whales were dying in the arctic ocean and the solution proposed was to stop the hunting of whales. Can you infer the cause for the problem (i.e., whales becoming extinct) based on the solution proposed? Clearly, the cause for demise of whales was the hunting and not any other factors such as pollution.

Monitor comprehension using the text structures

Again, students can be guided to connect their memory and utilize text structures to check for comprehension. E.g., Do I know what the problem was? Do I know the cause for the problem? How was the problem solved?

A complete cycle of the ELA instructional cycle is presented in the Appendix. Additional information on how the higher order text structures (i.e., comparison, cause and effect, problem and solution) can be used to improve comprehension is presented in kid-friendly videos below:

Comparison

Comparison (in Spanish)

Problem and Solution

When and where should I use the Text Structure Strategy?

The TSS instruction focuses on guiding many of the comprehension promoting activities using one of the more complex and higher order text structures (comparison, cause and effect, problem and solution). Therefore, TSS applications use the text structures to guide selecting important ideas, writing a main idea, generating inferences, monitoring comprehension, and writing. That means the text structure can be introduced early in every lesson as the reading materials are initially previewed and throughout the lesson at every turn. This promotes students to connect their memory structures and comprehend using the logical connections presented by the text structures (e.g., What is the cause for the problem? Does the solution address the cause?).

How should I resolve conflicting information from the textbook?

Regardless of what topic is being taught and how the textbooks are organized, ideally, teachers would infuse important TSS ideas into instruction every time the students read and guide their activities and thinking around higher-order questions that are outgrowths of causes and effects, problems and solutions, and objective comparisons between ideas in the text. Text structures can be nested and students can compare the causes for the problems. If the textbooks (or teacher practices) present conflicting instructions on writing a main idea (e.g., first sentence and last sentence, Beginning-Middle-End) then refrain from using those and instead substitute the TSS main idea patterns that are logical, simple, and easy for students to use.

Which text structures should I teach first?

Many teachers and publications recommend the teaching of sequence and description text structures prior to teaching other text structures. As noted earlier, problem and solution is rarely taught and some text structure interventions suggest that cause and effect and problem and solution are similar and therefore can be reduced to just cause and effect.

Five recent research studies that have received the stamp of approval from the What Works Clearinghouse and been reviewed carefully show that upper elementary grade students can learn the comparison and problem and solution and cause and effect text structures (Wijekumar, et al., 2014; Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2017). Williams et al., (2005) and Williams, Stafford, Lauer, Hall, & Pollini, (2009). have taught comparison text structure to children as young as second grade. Additionally, the TSS used in the recent research studies begin with the comparison text structure and is followed by problem and solution, and cause and effect. Sequence and description are left to the end because children are quite familiar with them and do not appear to need further assistance with those.

An important consideration for teaching text structures can be linked to what high stakes assessments at the state and national levels in upper elementary grades measure. In many instances the types of questions on these tests are classified as measuring higher order thinking skills. These questions focus on causes for the problem, effects of the solutions, and even comparing alternative solutions. The ability for students to draw parallels from the passages on these tests to their own lives through lessons learned from a story, the moral of the story, and other take away messages requires students to see how the problem was solved. Students must also be able to compare the events of the test passage to similar experiences they have faced and be able to evaluate the solution presented in the text. Thus the research and foci of high stakes assessments lead us to advocate for the teaching of cause and effect and comparison text structures early in the academic year.

Should I teach one text structure at a time or combine them?

The TSS approach has been to present students with focused instruction on comparison, followed by problem and solution. When two text structures have been learned, children are shown how to combine the text structures. When cause and effect is learned, children are shown how to combine problem and solution with cause and effect.

We do acknowledge that most texts used in textbooks, novels, and many resources used in classrooms do use multiple text structures. Ideally, teachers would always acknowledge these text structures. Then whenever they are teaching, utilize the text structures to promote comprehension at every stage of instruction. If students are completely unfamiliar with the higher order text structures, teachers may want to use these practice passages for each text structure.

Should I use graphic organizers?

As students are completing main ideas, you may consider using a paired graphic organizer. Please note the following are the graphic organizers used in the TSS instruction reported in the research studies reported above: Additionally, note that the graphic organizers are used during the selection of important ideas prior to writing the main idea. This promotes logical connections and a strong main idea reporting the most important information in the text.

Comparison: Main Idea T-Chart

Main idea using the pattern Desert, Tundra, and Grassland Biomes were compared on Plants, Animals, and Temperature.

  Desert Tundra Grassland
Plants      
Animals      
Temperature      
 

Comparison: Venn Diagram

 

Cause and Effect: Main Idea Paired with Graphic Organizer

Main idea: Because of high temperatures in the desert, plants develop adaptations to heat.

Cause Effect
High temperatures in deserts Plants adapt to the environment (e.g., cacti)
Dry air and high heat Fewer people living there

Should I use text structures for all genres of text?

It has been the practice in all TSS implementation to acknowledge that text structures can be used for all genres of text. As stated in the introduction, expository texts are all about causes and effects, problems and solutions, and comparisons with sequence and descriptions nested within. The National Reading Panel mentioned the story structures in the context of teaching narrative texts (NRP, 2000). In most instances, students are reading stories for enjoyment but the underlying goal is to get them to understand the moral of the story and also to apply that in their own lives. A popular novel titled, “Because of Winn-Dixie” is about a child who learns how to adapt to a new setting with the help of a friend. The story revolves around a character and can be remembered using a cause and effect lens. Thus, we advocate the use of the TSS is all readings based on the findings from the research studies.

Text structure strategy: sample lesson

Here’s an example lesson commonly used in upper elementary classrooms about biomes.

Stage of Instruction Instruction with Text Structure Example
Introduce Lesson Activate background knowledge and customize introduction based on classroom context. Teacher: “Have you ever visited El Paso, TX? It is considered a desert? What kind of place do we live in?
  Mention text structures to start guiding the children Teacher: “Today we are going to read about four biomes, then we are going to compare them”
Vocabulary Instruction Define terms, present examples and non-examples, and present root words Teacher: “What is a biome?”
“Biome is a place”
“Bio” can be the beginning of many different words….
Preview Passage Read the titles, headings, any important highlights, and text structure signaling words Teacher: “So the title says comparing biomes. I see the word comparing in the title, that must mean that they are going to present differences and similarities between biomes in the passage”
Read for Comprehension Read and annotate Teacher: “How is a desert different from a grassland?”
Select Important Ideas Use the structure of text to select important ideas Teacher: “What are the biomes being compared and on what elements are they being compared?”
Write Main Ideas Use the text structure specific main idea steam Teacher: “The marine, desert, tundra, and grassland biomes were compared on their plants, animals, and temperatures.”
Generate Inferences Use the text structures to make inferences Teacher: “Why do you think fewer people live in desert areas?”
Monitor Comprehension Use the matrix to check comprehension Teacher: “Fill in the matrix organizer to check to see if you remember all the information about each biome that is being compared”

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Conclusion

The TSS has been developed, tested, and refined over 40+ years and has consistently shown improvements in reading comprehension with children as young as second grade. The TSS approach presented here infuses text structures at every step of the reading comprehension instruction beginning with the introduction of the lesson, previewing of text, selecting important ideas, writing a main idea, generating inferences, and monitoring comprehension. An important difference between the TSS and other implementations of text structures is that text structures are integrated into each step and not an independent and separate step in the instructional process. The success reported in many research studies show that there is merit to this approach for classroom instruction.

References

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Meyer, B. J. F. (1975). The organization of prose and its effects on memory. Amsterdam: North -Holland.

Meyer, B. J. F., Brandt, D. M. & Bluth, G. J. (1980).  Use of the top-level structure in text: Key for reading comprehension of ninth-grade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 72-103.

Meyer, B. J. F., Middlemiss, W., Theodorou, E., S., Brezinski, K. L., McDougall, J., & Bartlett, B. J. (2002). Older adults tutoring fifth-grade children in the structure strategy via the Internet. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94 (3), 486-519.

Meyer, B. J. F., & Poon, L. W. (2001). Effects of the structure strategy and signaling on recall of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 141-159.

Meyer, B. J. F., Wijekumar, K., Middlemiss, W., Higley, K., Lei, P., Meier, C., & Spielvogel, J. (2010). Web-based tutoring of the structure strategy with or without elaborated feedback or choice for fifth- and seventh-grade readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 62-92.

Wijekumar, K. K., Meyer, B. J. F., & Lei, P. (2013). High-fidelity implementation of web-basedIntelligent tutoring system improves fourth and fifth graders content area reading comprehension. Computers & Education, 68, 366-379.

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., Lei, P. (2012). Large-scale randomized controlled trial with 4th graders using intelligent tutoring of the structure strategy to improve nonfiction reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Technology Research and Development. 60, 987-1013.

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., Lei, P.-W, Lin, Y., Johnson, L.A., Shurmatz, K., Spielvogel, J., Ray,M, & Cook, M. (2014).  Improving reading comprehension for 5th grade readers in rural and suburban schools using web-based intelligent tutoring systems. Journal of Research in Educational Effectiveness, 7:4, 331-357, DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2013.853333

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., Lei, P-W, Hernandez, A., August, D. (in press). Effects of web-based text structure instruction for 4-6th grade Spanish Els reading comprehension. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Williams, J. P., Hall, K. M., Lauer, K. D., Stafford, K. B., DeSisto, L. A., & deCani, J. S. (2005). Expository text comprehension in the primary grade classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 538-550.

Williams, J. P., Stafford, K. B., Lauer, K. D., Hall, K. M., & Pollini, S. (2009). Embedding reading comprehension training in content-area instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 1-20.

Kausalai (Kay) Wijekumar, Andrea L. Beerwinkle (2018)

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