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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should We Teach Nonfiction Text Structure?

March 26, 2019

Teacher question:

I was wondering what the research says (or if you could point me in the right direction to find it) about explicit instruction for nonfiction text structure. Specifically, English Language Learners.

Shanahan's response:

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

I’ve been waiting for this question for almost three years. That’s because there have been several fascinating studies on this topic.

This question focuses attention on an important current controversy: My colleagues Dan Willingham and E.D. Hirsch have made a strong case for focusing heavily on content to support reading comprehension — rather than teaching comprehension.

How much should we focus on reading comprehension instruction? Should we aim to increase kids’ knowledge of the world alone and just assume they’ll be able to apply that knowledge successfully to making sense of text? Are there any reading strategies or meta-knowledge (knowledge about reading or text) worth teaching?

Though you know I usually shy away from controversial positions (fake news?), this one might be worth a dip of my oar.

Educational standards these days heavily emphasize the reading of expository texts or informational texts. The National Assessment (NAEP), college entry exams (SAT, ACT), and all state accountability texts (PARCC, SBAC, and all of the other acronyms) include such passages on their tests, so kids who can’t read such text are up a creek!

The idea that it might be beneficial to teach students how authors organize or structure their texts has long been with us … at least since the publication of The Organization of Prose and Its Effects on Memory by Bonnie Meyer (1975). That wonderful book explored why some ideas are more likely to be remembered than others and reported that text organization played an important role in that process.

That makes sense to me. Many years ago, I myself did a study in which I rearranged a text’s sentence sequence randomly. Surprise! Readers weren’t able to summarize it. The arrangement and linking of ideas make a big difference in understanding and recall.

The question is can you teach students to recognize and use text organization to improve reading comprehension?

In 2016 and 2017, two major meta-analyses of such studies were reported (Hebert, et al., 2016; Pyle, et al.,). They differed a bit in grade levels (the latter including K-1), and methodology, but overall, they had similar conclusions. Teaching text structure improved expository reading comprehension.

Teaching kids to recognize how authors have organized a text and to use this information to guide one’s thinking about the text has proven to be a powerful tool even with younger kids. Recognizing whether an author is describing, comparing, linking causes and effects or problems and solutions, or sequencing steps or events is worthwhile. It reveals the author’s purpose and allows one to focus attention better on the key information—the content.

Joanna Williams and her colleagues in a series of well-designed studies found that it was possible to teach second-graders to identify and use the “compare-contrast” structure and that students could recognize and that it improved their comprehension of such texts. The kids could successfully generalize this ability to comparison texts covering new content, but it didn’t help them with texts with different organizations.

Interestingly, Williams and company monitored the kids learning of content across this study and found this instruction detracted in no way from their learning new content information.

I suspect the reason for this is that thinking about text organization requires that you think about content in specific ways. For instance, when one reads science, the causal explanations tend be particularly important. A reading approach that encourages the reader to try to connect causes and effects is going to focus attention heavily on this key content and how the ideas are related. The same would be true for texts that explore problems and solutions, or comparisons.

The meta-analyses mentioned earlier found that it was effective to teach kids about multiple text structures and that text structure instruction was particularly potent when writing was included in the instruction (and such writing would require students to focus on content in a way that is particularly powerful in increasing content knowledge). Another important feature of such teaching was the use of graphic organizers to illustrate the structures and to guide students to make use of these structures during reading.

And, it helps if this instruction teaches students to watch for “clue words” (e.g., moreover, however, first, second, consequently, because, for this, as a result, likewise, initially). Such words are often stressed these days since they are such a key part of academic language, but text organization instruction requires one to not just know their meanings, but to actively use these words to make sense of an author’s message.

Given all of that, I would definitely devote some instructional time to teaching students to use text organization, both in their reading and writing. This work would entail reading science and social studies content, and I would hold the students accountable both for understanding these major text organization schemes and for the content they were reading about, analyzing, and writing about.

However, not all texts use these conventional structures (Fang & Scheppegrell, 2008). High school history textbooks are notorious for using more specialized structural schemes. In other cases, these structures may change by the paragraph — allowing the author to deal with multiple ideas about a concept (describing it, comparing it with other concepts, providing background information, and so on). It is important to not only teach students to identify these high frequency organizational plans, but to be flexible about it ... following carefully what authors actually do.

The question also asked about teaching of text structure to English Language Learners. Usually, I’m stuck saying that a particular approach has been found to be effective, but there are not studies of this with second-language learners. That is not the case here. In fact, research shows this approach to be effective not just with native speakers, but with ELLs (Kausala, et al., 2018).

For more information on research in this area, I’d recommend that you go to the ITSS website or this article on Reading Rockets: Implementing the Text Structure Strategy in Your Classroom.

And, as for the controversy between content and reading comprehension strategies: Should we teach content or strategies? In this instance, the answer is definitely, “Yes.”

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"Let children read whatever they want and then talk about it with them. If parents and kids can talk together, we won't have as much censorship because we won't have as much fear." —

Judy Blume