Saturday / June 22

Teaching Students to Read Text Structures Like Experts

Teaching Students to Read Text Structures Like Experts

A list is a very common and simple text structure (it’s even cited as a text type in many next generation standards documents like the Common Core). But even lists embed other text structures to make them more powerful. Simple lists aren’t organized or categorized; what are called significant lists are structured through categories to get powerful work done.

Understanding how texts can be usefully structured would help you generate your list, and understanding text structures will also help you read a list. My wife writes grocery lists in the order she wants me to go through the store – first around the outside and then through the aisles. I would call this a process description structure. My daughters tend to classify their lists into fruits, vegetables, bakery. Knowing how the list is structured helps me to read it, and to use it to guide my way through the grocery store.

This same thing is true across all nonfiction texts and it’s one of the challenges that novice readers like our students face when they begin to read more complex nonfiction: texts are structured at the global and local levels and you have to pay attention to this as writers and readers.

If you are reading excerpts of the Lewis and Clark journals with students (something I’ve done with students from elementary, middle, and high school as part of various inquiry units into exploration and discovery, dealing with trouble, science writing, knowledge-making, etc.) then you know that students need to understand that the journal is a genre that embeds lots of text structures. Understanding that the genre of a journal organizes entries chronologically and records significant events, findings, and insights helps guide the overall reading. But readers still need to notice how to read embedded text structures that use different ways of categorizing to organize thought.

Early on Lewis lists the supplies bought and loaded. (The significant list being one way to organize thoughts through categories.) Later on both Lewis and Clark list the various rivers and drainages they have passed, and of flora and fauna unknown to science. Sometimes they provide overview summaries. Lewis, in particular, embeds beautiful and detailed descriptions of geologic formations, of plants, birds, and animals. They both often describe problems and challenges encountered and how they plan to solve them; Lewis describes many medical issues encountered by the men and theorizes as to causes. (Summaries, descriptions, problem-solution, and cause and effect are all text structures that organize thought in unique ways.)

As we’ve mentioned in our previous blogs, expert readers recognize and read texts as something (e.g. as a journal, letter to the editor, or another text/genre that uses a global organization and embedded text structures to achieve particular purposes) and as being about something (e.g. about the challenges of travelling West and of discoveries made, i.e. as having a conceptual topic and entering a conversation about that topic).

The takeaways:

1) Texts are structured for meaning and effect, and if you don’t notice and unpack how the structuring works on both the global and local levels you’ll miss much of the meaning and effect, and

2) Nonfiction texts embed many different text structures into their superstructure, so readers have to be on their toes, following the overall roadmap of the text, but being alert to text structure moves at particular moments that help navigate that smaller part of the text.

In our new book Diving Deep Into Nonfiction, Michael Smith and I introduce how to notice text structures with paintings and other visual texts.

For example, we use double portraits like American Gothic to help students notice comparisons. Double portraits are a genre that explore the nature of relationships, and often how context affects that relationship. So we notice that the woman is younger than the man, is standing behind the man, is looking askance and in a different direction from the man. These noticings are tipped off by what we call rules of rupture – any time there is a shift or asymmetry in a text we know that the artist or author wanted us to notice this and explain this surprise. Next we notice the pitchfork front and center (privileged positions are a kind of rule of notice known as a call to attention – in writing, this rule tips us off to pay attention to introductions of sections, of new characters or ideas; of conclusions, etc.). We notice that the pitchfork is repeated in the man’s overalls and in the church window in the gable of the house (this repetition is a call to attention). We note that artists expect us to read paintings from side to side and down to up, and sometimes even corner to corner. By reading down to up we notice another comparison: the pitchfork can mean earthly work, or even imply the devil, while the gable and church window imply heaven. By reading from side to side we see that the couple has different worlds of work: gardening tools and the porch are over her left shoulder, the barn awaits over his right shoulder.  Once we’ve noticed these comparisons, we know we need to explain them and the commentary they contribute to the painting’s possible topics of farm life, of religion, of gender roles and how any of these might affect relationships. Missing the embedded comparisons within the genre would mean missing many meanings of the painting and how the painting is structured for meaning and effect.

Of course, it’s important to move quickly from visual texts to practicing the same kinds of noticing and interpreting with written texts. Right now I’m reading the book ACTIVIST ART with some 5th graders. The overall structure offers a definition of activist art with plenty of examples of how this kind of art works for social change and justice. One spread in the book is called “Arts and Culture”. We can tell it is going to use a comparison/contrast structure because the two headers are “Art At Work” and “Art At Play”. First we read about the role of art in the workplace, then we learn about its role in our lives outside of work. At the end, we get another embedded comparison as we are told that art contributes significantly more to the economy than sports. This direct statement is another kind of rule of notice that must be attended to. For me, it is also an example of a rule of rupture (I’m surprised) as well as a rule of reader response (it really grabs me and I wonder if this can possibly be true given the billions of dollars generated by sporting events). The next spread is called “The Arts and You” and we quickly see that this one is organized as a classification – as the different positive effects on people like yourself of engaging with the arts.

Knowing how to recognize text structures is something expert readers know how to do. Our job as teachers is to let students in on this kind of secret thing that experts know and do, and then to give them the tools and practice they need to make it happen when they read on their own.

Written by

Jeffrey Wilhelm is an internationally respected teacher, author, and presenter who has authored or co-authored more than a dozen professional texts and programs that have redefined secondary school literacy instruction.

He is the author of Uncommon Core and the upcoming title, Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

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