Going Beyond Content: Fostering Students' Exploration of Text Structures and Purpose
I bet we can all recall a time that we asked students to read a fascinating selection
only to realize through discussion and practice that few actually completed the
assignment. Lucky teachers have only one such example; most of us can cite many
times that students' failure to complete required reading baffled us.
Secondary students are required to read hundreds to thousands of pages of text per
school year. That task is exceptionally daunting because of the vast differences
among types of text and purposes for reading. Students construct meaning from Shakespearean
sonnets far differently than from a textbook chapter about balancing chemical equations.
Similarly, students' purpose for reading affects the complexity and extent of their
learning, whether they are working with fiction or nonfiction.
Educators know that most of the pages students read are laden with unfamiliar, content-specific
vocabulary and concepts, so they create prereading activities to generate interest
and activate prior knowledge, during-reading activities to create meaning, and post-reading
activities to extend and apply new knowledge. These strategies, effective as they
are, focus largely on content. What many students need to supplement content-based
reading strategies are text-based ones to help them familiarize themselves with
the type of text and identify their purpose for reading. Incorporating into each
reading assignment one or more activities to build familiarity with the structure
of the assigned selection and establish purpose arms students with additional advantages
as they navigate the text.
The interaction between students and text is more meaningful if students have enough
familiarity with the text structure to take ownership of its message instead of
relying on the teacher to explain it. When we assign one reading selection after
another without giving any attention to their navigation, is it any wonder that
many students don't complete the reading? They opt instead to get what they can
from the subsequent discussion, realizing that we will make meaning for them. Vacca
and Vacca (2005) refer to this practice as "assign-and-tell" and assert that it
"dampens active involvement in learning and denies students ownership of and responsibility
for the acquisition of content" (p. 5). One valuable way to facilitate students'
independent meaning creation is to teach them about text structure.
Conventions of Text and Print
Allen (2004) suggests that teachers first help students identify the purpose of
various conventions of text―such as headings, subheadings, legends, and diagrams―and
conventions of print―such as italics, boldface type, and punctuation. If students
need practice identifying the purposes of those elements, you might have them compare
each one across texts. (How is boldface type used in my biology
book, and how is it used in my favorite novel? How do graphs and charts contribute
to my history book, and how do they contribute to my favorite magazine?)
When conventions of text and print are second nature, you might begin to teach and
model the identification of story grammar in narratives and types of informational
organization in expository text. Story maps reinforce that pattern for students
by requiring them to show connections among the plot points (exposition, climax,
resolution), setting, characters, theme, point of view, and so on, in a narrative.
Similarly, in an expository piece, a well-selected graphic organizer such as a Venn
diagram, a problem-solution chart, or an idea web can help students comprehend the
text by highlighting its informational pattern (Johns & Lenski, 2005). One last
type of text structure to keep in mind is computer-based text. Students are adept
at making meaning from the cryptic language of text messages, emails, and instant
messages, but they need to be taught how to make educational decisions with technology.
For instance, each year I have to teach students who I know are technology-savvy
how to navigate links on an informational website and how to determine which sites
are appropriate for research.
If you ask a student his or her purpose for reading, the likely answer is either
"because it was assigned" or "because I want to do well on the test." While those
reasons are valid, they are too extrinsic and time-specific to foster lifelong learning.
I've found that I can help students identify intrinsic and strategic purposes for
attacking each assigned selection when I brainstorm with them different situations
that require reading―for example, finding box scores in the newspaper, figuring
out what programs are on television, following a recipe. As we categorize the responses,
my students easily see that they read primarily for entertainment or for information;
but they also recognize that there are many nuances of each category and that sometimes
they can skim the text but at other times they must read word for word. So as I
assign each new selection of text―regardless of whether the reading will be completed
in or out of the classroom―I ask students to help establish a purpose. (Are
we reading this to enhance our knowledge? To assemble something? To win a basketball
game? For sheer enjoyment?) By my modeling this process consistently
and involving students in it, the students learn to do it independently. And students
who can do this―who can set a purpose for reading―are better prepared to tackle
the text structure and extrapolate the information that fulfills their needs (Johns
& Lenski, 2005).
Structure and Content
Modeling the Structure: Writing Questions
Who said we have to separate content-based and text-based teaching strategies? One
way to deepen meaning and extend knowledge of content is to analyze and model the
text structure. I do this with my high school students by involving them in the
creation of review questions using Bloom's taxonomy. I first teach the six levels:
knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Next
I share a list of the verbs commonly used for each level of questioning―such as
compare for the comprehension level and
create for the synthesis level―and model the categorization of questions
from the textbook into their corresponding levels. Then I assign each student the
task of writing a certain number of questions for each level of the taxonomy that
highlight important concepts from their current narrative or expository text selection.
Comparing-Contrasting the Content with Other Resources
Another method I utilize regularly requires students to compare and/or contrast
a narrative or a situation in an expository piece to familiar song lyrics or movie
plots. For instance, I ask students in Senior English to write an essay comparing
and contrasting a poem from the Romantic Period to a modern song. As students explore
the similarities between "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
and "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers or between "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern
Abbey" by William Wordsworth and "Country Roads" by John Denver, they see that both
the content and the structure of the "old" selections are actually familiar and
Both methods, the question-writing activity and the compare-contrast activity, are
effective ways to connect the teaching of content to the teaching of text structure
and purpose. I would think both these methods could be easily implemented using
social studies and history textbooks and probably science textbooks too.
However, by far the simplest way to encourage students to connect content and text
is by fostering self-monitoring of text content and structure during reading. Teach
students to question themselves at various stopping points in the text. (How
does the material I read relate to the chapter title and subheadings? Can I learn
from these pictures and maps? Can I relate the graph to what I read?)
Such self-monitoring of content, structure, and purpose enables readers to synthesize
all the components of reading text more effectively.
Students remind me daily that making meaning from texts is challenging. In meeting
that challenge, it is essential to prepare them to navigate different types of texts.
We have to teach explicitly that which comes naturally to us: text structure and
purpose. Arming students with such skills not only enhances classroom instruction
but also prepares students for formal tests such as the OGT and SAT. Familiarity
with text structures and the ability to establish purpose for reading will come
in handy on such assessments as students tackle everything from directions to writing
prompts. More importantly, students who can synthesize content, text structure,
and purpose can most effectively construct meaning from any type of text they encounter
in school, in the workplace, and in everyday life.
Allen, J. (2004). Tools for teaching content literacy.
Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Johns, J. L., & Lenski, S. D. (2005). Improving reading: Strategies
and resources (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. A. (2005). Content area reading:
Literacy and learning across the curriculum (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn
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