Text structure is often neglected in instruction; however, there are a few reasons it should be emphasized.
1. It Provides Necessary Academic Vocabulary
The Common Core Standards challenges students to analyze the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in exposition or argument; however, students are generally not aware of the different structures authors tend to use, so explicit instruction on types of structures is imperative. To analyze structure in a text, students must first be given the academic vocabulary for thinking about the structure in a text. Too often structure is minimized to the sequence of ideas within a text. While sequence is a kind of structure, there are several others that authors use, and knowing them helps students analyze authorial purpose and central idea.
Other text structures students will encounter include descriptive, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and problem and solution. To introduce these structures, I provide students with a chart defining and elaborating on them. Guided practice of analyzing structure in several mentor texts helps scaffold toward independence of this reading skill. The “Student Voices” series in The Seattle Times is an apt source of mentor texts. In the most recent column of the series, Rhea Panela, a senior at University of Washington, reflects on her choice to transfer to a public high school and the difference it made in her college experience. Elements of both cause and effect and compare and contrast structures are present in her article, “I wanted a high-quality education, and I found it at a South Seattle public school.” Students like to debate over which is the primary structure, which elevates their understanding of the nuances of the different structures.
2. It Makes Rhetorical Analysis more Accessible
Study of authorial craft is essential but problematic. Knowing specific rhetorical devices is beneficial, but the fact is many are obscure and not encountered in the types of texts people face daily. Yet, being able to analyze an author’s rhetoric is essential for perceptive interpretation of a text. I introduced Panela’s article the same way I do with texts at the beginning of the year before we have studied rhetoric – I ask them what the article is “about.” Even though it is late in the year when they see this article, they revert to summary despite knowing that question is asking for analysis of the author’s purpose and central idea. I am then met with responses such as, “It’s about a girl who transferred to a public school after going to private school for her whole life.” Students revert to summary because they do not see the usual suspects of rhetoric they studied all year (imagery, chiasmus, parallelism, etc.).
Knowledge of the different organizational patterns authors use provides a foothold for students to reach perceptive analysis in the absence of obscure devices, allowing them to see how the author is manipulating language to achieve his/her purpose. Despite the lack of specific syntactical devices, students are then able to see structure as rhetoric, which elicits more meaningful interpretations such as, “Panela uses a cause and effect structure to challenge the popular belief that private schools better prepare students for college.” Such a response reflects a more perceptive understanding of Panela’s article than simply gleaning the idea she transferred schools.
3. It Helps Students Organize Their Own Writing
The first time I taught text structure in this manner, I realized my students had never thought about the overall structures of their own writings outside of generic transitions and formulaic templates. Our study of structure as a reading skill then became crucial for writing. We revisited our mentor texts from the previous unit and read as writers, analyzing how authors chose particular structures, not randomly, but to best achieve their individual purposes as writers. In doing so, I learned students had not really thought about purpose in their writing before outside of doing a task the teacher wanted. Studying structure not only helped them to organize their ideas, but to create specific purposes in their writings. A good example is a recent student of mine who, for an assignment to write an article on things to know about the year after high school, wanted to write on the topic of taking a gap year before college. Before considering structure, his purpose was ill-defined; he knew what topic interested him, but did not know what exactly his purpose was as a writer. When prompted to choose one, he referred to his notes, which inspired him to use the structure of problem and solution in order to propose the gap year as a solution to the desire to attend college despite not feeling ready.
Knowledge of authorial purpose is crucial for teaching structure and purpose together. Please refer to my earlier post if you would like resources for teaching authorial purpose. Also, if you would like further information about the different types of text structures, visit: http://www.adlit.org/strategies/23336/.
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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