Why Teaching Text Structure Matters for Writing Instruction

For the elementary level, most state standards expect three main types of writing genres.  Broadly, these are narrative, opinion/argument, and informational.  There are of course many types of writing that can fit within those categories, too.  Narrative alone can include memoir, realistic fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, to name a few.  Then there’s nonfiction, which can be structured in a multitude of ways.  But how do we help our students write in all of these different genres successfully?  How do we help them grasp how these kinds of texts tend to do?  The answer all comes down to teaching text structure.

It’s the secret sauce to writing well in any genre. 

Teaching text structure isn’t just important for reading; it’s just as important for writing.

Here are some tips for simplifying how it works.

Tip Number 1

This one is super important. And that is to be sure to begin the work of teaching a new genre of writing well before you ask kids to put pencil to paper.  Like at least a few days before. We have to take some time for immersion–to show examples of this new kind of writing and unpack it together.  Kids, like all people, need to see it before they do it themselves. 

Not only do they need to see it, they also need to talk through some examples of this new kind of writing, to unpack how it goes.  When you unpack it, you’re essentially teaching the ways this kind of text is structured.  Just like constructing a building must begin with a frame that will hold it all together, kids need to understand how each kind of writing is held together.  All types of writing have a structure.

Teachers often skip this crucial step, and are soon frustrated that their students’ writing isn’t as strong as they’d hoped it would be.  This causes them to have to spend more time teaching it than anticipated, thus never truly reaching the end goal because kids just weren’t ready for it to begin with. Not understanding the text structure first is like slapping up walls and a roof on a new building without the structural supports underneath it in place.  It won’t hold up, and it’ll soon be a mess because the necessary foundation was never built.  

Tip Number 2

Now comes teaching the text structure.  Teaching kids how to write in a specific text structure doesn’t come from task cards bought online.  Nor does it come from prompt after prompt after prompt or confusing acronyms.  it doesn’t even come from fill-in-the-blank sentence starters or graphic organizers–at first, anyway.  It starts with showing kids how, both through reading and through writing.  

Showing examples of any type of writing as part of an immersion phase through reading is the first step, as explained in tip 1.  It paves the way by providing kids with a clear picture of the end goal. But it doesn’t actually show kids how to do it.  This is where modeling your own writing is imperative.  After looking closely at other authors’ writing, now is the time to show students how to do it through thinking aloud.

Teacher helping student write
Image from Peopleimages.com

Once kids have seen examples of the finished product, it’s time to model the process, starting from the beginning.  And that means beginning with text structure as the foundation.  Keeping that framework in mind makes it much easier (for both you and your students) to begin: it guides  how to shape and how to refine a piece of writing from scratch.  Steve Graham and Karen Harris, developers of the popular Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model, include modeling and thinking aloud as a key facet of strong writing instruction.  This is a key component of any strong writing instruction, whether it’s attached to a fancy label or not.  

It’s also the piece that’s very often neglected in the writing component of scripted curricula.  There’s a lot of directing kids to do the work without showing them how

What about the graphic organizers?  The sentence starters?  

Tip number 3

This is where it’s now time to bring in a graphic organizer. It’s a visual reminder of what the structure is like.  If, for example, you’re modeling how to write a narrative, it can be helpful to have handy a picture of that structure in graphic format, like a story mountain.  Using that graphic can serve as a visual reminder that all stories begin with a character introduction, a setting that sets the tone, and a rising action, for example, helps writers keep in mind how that text structure goes. It can also be used as a planning tool, to shape the way the writing will go.

From there, after showing and unpacking several examples, after examining the text structure, and after the explicit instruction of modeling it through thinking aloud, if there are some students who still struggle, they might benefit from sentence starters.  This is especially true of our English language learners.  However, this is a huge scaffold, so  use them sparingly.  Everyone doesn’t need it, so everyone wouldn’t get it.   For the most part, if students do need them, they shouldn’t need it for too long.  Because it’s a scaffold, it should be scaled back until, hopefully, it’s removed completely as kids’ skills develop.  

The ultimate goal, after all, is to write strongly with independence.  

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Who is Coach from the Couch??  I’m Michelle, a 24-year veteran educator, currently a K-5 literacy coach.  I continue to learn alongside teachers in classrooms each and every day, and it’s my mission to support as many teachers as I can.  Because no one can do this work alone. I’m available to you, too, through virtual coaching calls!  Simply email me at [email protected] or reach out for a coaching call!

Or, consider joining my Facebook community–a safe, supportive environment (really–no blaming or shaming allowed!)  where you can ask questions, learn ideas, and share your thoughts among other literacy-loving educators! 

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