A Deeper Look at Non-fiction Text Structure

Last week, I focused on how text features and signal words must be explicitly taught to help students understand that the “structure” of the text helps the reader better understand the main points of non-fiction. We teach different fiction genres to ensure students understand how to adjust their reading strategies, thinking and note taking.  A reader must adjust their metacognition differently when they read a myth vs. fairytale.  Non-fiction has differences in structure as well but we often forget to directly teach these to students. Don’t we read a social studies article differently than an essay on Global Warming?  This takes explicit instruction.

The main structure types of non-fiction are:

  • Cause and effect: describe cause and effect relationships.  The text describes events and identifies reasons (causes) for why the event happened.
  • Description: text that visualizes information which utilizes sensory and descriptive details that provides the 5W’s about a topic.
  • Sequential: chronologically organized from beginning to end
  • Compare and Contrast: comparisons used to describe an idea and similarities and differences are shared
  • Problem and Solution: author introduces a problem and presents solutions


Instruction of non-fiction text structure helps the student meet the depth of the Common Core Informational Standards.   The first three informational standards are organized under “Key Ideas and Details” and require students to interact with the text in a “surface” manner.  When you move on to standards 4, 5 and 6—notice that they are organized under “Craft and Structure.”

**Notice the words—CRAFT AND STRUCTURE!  Those words remind us as educators that the structure must be considered to fully meet these three standards.  Please view these three standards.

Craft and Structure:

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.


Within these three standards, students are challenged to do the following:

  1. Notice the word choice of the author.
  2. Analyze the structure of the text.
  3. See how the author’s choices “build” the text and how to interact with each section or part
  4. Determine the author’s point of view.
  5. Discern differences in the author’s opinion and their own.
  6. See subtle changes in how the author’s point of view changes the text and choices by the author.


When a student can identify the text structure of the text, it immediately alerts the brain to apply certain strategies as they read and to look for certain main points.  Knowing the text structure is important for many reasons including:

  1. The structure sets the purpose for the selection and lets the reader know what points the author WANTS to make to the reader. This allows the reader to search for this information rather than only discerning information from their own point of view. (RI.6)
  2. Text features and signal words help “lead” students to main points of the article. (RI.5)
  3. The structure helps students see which details are most important and sift through to determine relevant and irrelevant information. (RI.5 and RI.6)
  4. The structure helps the reader decide what kind of notes to take such as looking for the problem and list solutions or creating a timeline with an article written in chronological order. (RI.5)
  5. The signal words and text features help to point out what the author thinks is important and show their opinion or perspective. (RI.6)
  6. When a student “sees” the structure, they are able to more clearly organize their thoughts for a summary or to explain.

This is NOT an upper grade concept!  We do this with Kindergarten and small children when we read a story aloud. We stop and ask what is happening and model the structure of a story. When we read something, we look at the title and ask what the selection will be about which shows how the title relates to the book.  We must begin to show students how the small pieces of information are put together in a format to help the reader learn.  Seeing a text from the “macrolevel” or the overall level helps them see the framework or structure that the author “built” the selection. Powerful don’t you think?  If a student can SEE the structure—they can fully understand it. An added bonus to understanding text structure is that it aids the student when expressing their thoughts in writing.

Text Features or Text Structure?

Literary elements are the “skeleton” of fictional text.  These literary elements give fiction structure but what about non-fiction?skeleton-6  Non-fiction is “held up” by the text features and signal words which help to determine the “skeleton” or structure of the text.  An author creates a text structure by designing or writing the text by using common text features to “build” the main ideas.  8cxanm5cpThe signal words are embedded to let the reader know what ideas are important and to better understand them.  The main structure types of non-fiction are:

  • Cause and effect: describe cause and effect relationships.  The text describes events and identifies reasons (causes) for why the event happened.
  • Description: text that visualizes information which utilizes sensory and descriptive details that provides the 5W’s about a topic.
  • Sequential: chronologically organized from beginning to end
  • Compare and Contrast: comparisons used to describe an idea and similarities and differences are shared
  • Problem and Solution: author introduces a problem and presents solutions

Text features must be explicitly taught to help students navigate through informational and non-fiction text.  These features help readers “see” how the author crafted the article or selection. The use of subheadings, columns, graphics, and other features help the reader determine what is important.

Educators spend a great deal of time teaching text features because we want them to navigate the text effectively.  This intentional instruction is important—right?  The answer to this is “YES” but that is simply not enough for a young reader to fully navigate the text. They must be taught the different text structure types, text features that accompany each structure and the signal words that the author uses to organize a selection.  Together these elements are used to create a text and help a reader find and understand the main points of the selection.  Explicitly teaching signal words helps students determine how the author organized or structured the information for the reader to understand.  Signal words are the author’s way of helping  the reader see and understand the main points.  Signal words help suggest and show the reader how the author has structured their writing to help you better understand the text.

Click this site to see important signal words to focus on:  http://ptgmedia.pearsoncmg.com/images/9780205521067/downloads/SignalWords.pdf

What Questions Do Text Features and Signal Words Help a Reader Determine?

  1. How do I navigate a text?
  2. What main ideas and details does the author feel are important?
  3. What type of TEXT STRUCTURE does the non-fiction selection have? (The text features and signal words guide this!)

In conjunction with text features, an author uses signal words to help a reader determine the structure that was used to create the text. Please click this link to see a chart which shows the text structure types and signal words:  http://www.syracusecityschools.com/tfiles/folder836/3.11%20Text%20structure%20signal%20words.pdf

I have created a guide for students to use to determine the text structure of a text.  This is a step by step process and requires students to interact with the text and self question.  They must determine what they see and how it is organized using text features and signal words. Understanding the structure helps students to apply the correct type of note taking, look out for main ideas and to make sense of what the author finds important.

Click here for the guide:  analyzing-text-structure

What can you do to teach text structure explicitly?

  • Teach text structures using examples of texts and discuss how it has been organized.
  • Take text features out of a text and allow students to figure out where the features should go and why.
  • Discuss main idea sentences and key words that show a certain text structure.
  • Model how to preview a text and to collect information from the text prior to reading and information they can gain while reading in the form of annotation.
  • To solidify learning have students write using that specific text structure to ensure they understand how this type of text is crafted.

Check out resources below from FCRR which can help you gain more ideas about text analysis for students.  Student understanding of how something is written helps to aid their comprehension. We know that teaching by genre can help a student better understand fictional text by knowing what elements they are looking for as they read. Once a student knows they are reading a fairytale, they know that magic will be an element and contain a heroic event.  If the child is reading a tall tale, they will understand that hyperbole is an element which aids in the understanding that the story may not make sense at times but is meant in a humorous manner. Non-fiction and informational text takes many forms as well and deserves the explicit instruction that we provide when we teach literature.

Start noticing as you read non-fiction text what text structure the author has utilized.   Notice how you read differently if you know it is organized sequentially rather than in problem solution format. How does it change what you are looking for as you read? Do you take notes differently? When you notice how you read differently—you will see the importance of showing your students.


Florida Center for Reading Research Text Structure Resources:

FCRR: Text Analysis (Grades 2-3)

FCRR: Text Analysis (Grades 4-5)

FCRR: Expository Texts (Grades 2-3)

FCRR: Expository Texts (Grades 4-5)

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