Common Core Part 2: Moving Forward with Informational Text

General Guidelines and Procedures for Teaching Text Structures

Make a commitment to shifting more of your teaching to lessons involving informational text.  Knowing that students enjoy this kind of reading and that quality non-fiction texts abound should make this shift easier for you.  Look for multiple opportunities in the instructional day (for example in the content areas) for students to read and analyze informational text.  (By sixth grade, according to the The Common Core State Standards, students should be reading and working with informational text 80% of the time.)

Recognize that writers of non-fiction do so with a specific purpose in mind and that good non-fiction has voice.  Non-fiction writers will often write with a text structure in mind, knowing that it will help get their points across to the reader.  Be aware, though, that it is not unusual (particularly in longer works like a whole book) for writers to use multiple text structures.

Familiarize yourself with the five most common expository text structures—description, sequence, cause-and-effect, compare-and-contrast, and problem-and-solution.  (The next section and its related resources will help you to understand the characteristics of each type of structure.) Once you are comfortable with them you should begin using those structures as a lens through which to look for texts to use in your instruction. Some suggestions are available in this article.  Look for others in your school or classroom libraries, and don't forget about sources such as Scholastic News, Time for Kids, Reading A to Z (if your school subscribes), and other children's magazines.

Share and swap resources with teachers on your grade level team.
Regardless of which structure you are teaching, there are some best practices you will want to use as you proceed in your teaching.

Impress upon students that text structures are put in place as a way of organizing information.  Teach only one structure at a time.  Spend multiple sessions with each type of structure so that students have repeated practice.  Once students have some confidence with a structure, add some fun by holding a scavenger hunt over a period of days.  Provide a bin of materials (some of which you chose because of the structure you are practicing) for them to sift through, “hunting” for the structure. 

Use texts that are “pure,” that clearly illustrate the one structure you are working on at a particular time.  This may mean that you have to create some samples yourself—six to eight sentences each.  Though this may seem contrived, you want to give students as much support as possible finding the attributes of the text structure, especially in the beginning.  Some excellent teacher-created samples of paragraphs and paragraph frames and accompanying posters can be found here and here.

Begin with shorter texts, or use portions of texts as a way to assure looking at only one text structure.
Use texts that do not have an overwhelming amount of new, specialized vocabulary.

Teach the signal words and phrases that are common and typical for the structures.  Provide a visual (poster) or anchor chart that students can refer to as they are reading if necessary.  The posters here and here include signal words. If you have one, use an interactive whiteboard for students to highlight and label signal words. Choose a color for each text structure, and highlight its signal words in that color so students can associate by color, too. They can use this same color to underline with markers on printed handouts.

Use tried-and-true practices with informational texts just as you would with narrative texts.  Skim and scan the text as a pre-reading activity to predict text structure and what will be learned, introduce vocabulary, andask questionsrelated to the structure to help students as they approach the text.  Re-tellings afterward reinforce the main ideas and supporting details and give you some insight into your students' understanding of the ideas put forth in the text.

Model first for students everything you will be asking them to eventually do independently.  Scaffold your instruction, following the gradual release of responsibility model.  A progression that makes sense might look like the following:

  • Introduce a text and its corresponding structure with some sort of a poster or anchor chart.  Some excellent ones are available at this Scholastic blog.
  • Introduce the signal words and phrases associated with that structure.  Remind students that these are some common signals, but that they are not necessarily going to appear each time the structure is used.  They should think of them as possible clues or hints as to what type of structure they are reading. Use color coding to reinforce signal words for text structures.
  • Project the text and provide students with a copy of the text.  Have them skim and scan for the signal words.
  • Introduce a graphic organizer for the text that is already filled in.  As you read the text to students, use a Think Aloud technique to point out where and why relevant parts were placed in the graphic organizer.  When modeling in this way, be sure to use a graphic organizer that matches exactly the text you are using.  (For example, if there are three steps to a process in a sequential structure, be sure that your graphic has just three boxes or three lines on a chart.)  If necessary, tweak graphic organizers you find to suit your purposes.
  • Gradually give students more responsibility.  After a few sessions of modeling on your part, invite them to share in the work of filling out the graphic organizer.  Later, give them guided practice highlighting signal words and phrases and filling in a graphic organizer in reading groups, and eventually have them apply what they learned independently.  Some useful sources for pre-made graphic organizers have been reviewed for you here and here.  Others can be found in this collection from Daily Teaching Tools.
  • Ask specific questions about text structure to guide students’ thinking.  (“Which signal word might be best to show ______?  Is that what the author uses?  Are there other word choices that work for this idea?)
  • After many opportunities to practice with shorter texts, consider using the scroll technique found here for mapping longer texts such as magazine articles or textbook chapters.  This is a hands-on technique that works well with partners and small groups.
  • Create a strong connection between reading and writing.  When learning to read a structured text, practice writing one as well.  Model this first, of course, and use a writing Think Aloud before asking students to try this. If available write on an interactive whiteboard or projector so you can save and revisit the text you write collaboratively or use it as an example when students try writing on their own.