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Does text structure instruction improve reading comprehension?

05/22/2021

Meta-analyses indicate that it is effective to teach kids about multiple text structures, and that text structure instruction is particularly potent when writing, graphic organizers, and guidance on watching for “clue words” are included.

Blast from the Past: This entry was first posted on March 17, 2019 and was reposted on May 22, 2021. 

I'm surprised this entry hasn't drawn more attention. These days I'm often asked, "How do you teach reading comprehension?" or "Shouldn't we stop teaching reading comprehension and focus on building knowledge?" This topic, teaching text structure, should be a valuable response to those questions. I have added references and some links to additional practical supports for such teaching and have tacked on a new conclusion that provides 10 reasons that reading teachers should focus on text structure. 

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.

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 (Wijekumar, et al., 2018).

For more information on research in this area, I’d recommend that you go to these sites:

As for the controversy between content and reading comprehension strategies: Should we teach content or strategies? The answer definitely is, “Yes.”

And here are 10 reasons why:

1. Research has consistently supported the idea of providing this kind of teaching. 

2. This is true even with the most rigorous research designs.

3. The effects sizes for these studies have ranged from moderate to high, meaning there is a good learning payoff from such teaching.

4. Research has been consistent on this for nearly 50 years — so the value of this kind of teaching is not just a fad.

5. Text structure instruction works across a wide range of grade levels, so whether you teach kindergarten, high school, or any of the grades in between there is good reason to believe this would be beneficial.

6. Text structure instruction has been found to be beneficial with English Learners.

7. Text structure instruction works with students with learning disabilities, too.

8. Given the emphasis on complex text, text structure instruction can be a valuable tool for helping kids to demystify a challenging text.

9. I suspect that text structure is a bit like vocabulary; that is, it is at that nexus that connects language learning and content knowledge.

10. There are are lot of great resources available for teaching text structure.

References

Bogaerds-Hazenberg, S.T.M.,  Evers-Vermeul, J., &  van den Bergh, H. (2020).  A meta-analysis on the effects of text structure instruction on reading comprehension in the upper elementary grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 1– 28. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.311

Hall-Mills, S. S., & Marante, L. M. (2020). Explicit text structure instruction supports expository text comprehension for adolescents with learning disabilities: A systematic review. Learning Disability Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731948720906490

Hebert, M. Bohaty, J.J., Nelson, J.R., & Brown, J. (2016). The effects of text structure instruction on expository reading comprehension: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(5), 609-629. 

Meyer, B.J.F., & Ray, M.N. (2011). Structure strategy interventions: Increasing reading comprehension of expository text. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 127-152.

Pyle, N., Vasquez, A., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Gillam, S., Reutzel, D., Olszewski, A., Pyle, D. (2017). Effects of expository text structure interventions on comprehension: A meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(4), 469-501.

Roehling, J.V., Hebert, M., Nelson, J.R., & Boharty, J.J. (2017). Text structure strategies for improving expository reading comprehension. Reading Teacher, 71(1), 71-82.

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through third grade: A practice guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sci­ences, U.S. Department of Education.

Wijekumar, K. (K.), Meyer, B. J. F., & Lei, P. (2017). Web-based text structure strategy instruction improves seventh graders’ content area reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 741–760. 

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., Lei, P., Hernandez, A.C., & August, D.L. (2018). Improving content area reading comprehension of Spanish speaking English Learners in grades 4 and 5 using web-based text structure instruction. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(9), 1969-1996.

Williams, J.P., Kao, J.C., Pao, L.S., Ordynans, J.G., Atkins, J.G., Cheng, R., & DeBonis, D . (2016). Close analysis of texts with structure (CATS): An intervention to teach reading comprehension to at-risk second-graders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 198, 1061-1077.