Tackling Text Structures: A Nontraditional Approach

Few could argue the importance of understanding text structure. When it comes to reading, having a grasp of structure will help a reader’s brain focus in on the important aspects of a text, helping to connect points and enhancing comprehension. For writing, being able to effectively choose and apply the appropriate text structure for the purpose of an individual piece is key for expressing a big idea or opinion.

While text structure is important, teaching text structure can sometimes be…well…dry as toast. Simply serving up pre-planned graphic organizers and lists of transitional words for individual structures, while important, may not capture students’ attention, at least not to the degree intended to have young readers and writers truly internalize text structures in order to make the best use of them in their reading and writing work. We need to find a way to have students experience text structures where they will actually be able to remember them and distinguish one structure from another.

So, here’s an idea. Perhaps we should introduce text structures within a genre that will grab students’ attention. One idea is to do a unit on writing commercials, which would fall into the opinion/argument writing realm, and show students how to choose the appropriate structure to match their purpose for writing their commercials. Granted, this may not be the style of writing students will do in an advanced high school class or in college, but maybe, just maybe, this approach will be engaging enough for students to truly grasp and understand text structures in a way that they will enable them to apply these structures in more challenging writing situations in their futures.

Let’s start to envision how this might unfold in the classroom. At the core, we want students to understand that a writer’s purpose will determine what text structure the writer chooses to use to craft their piece. Then, we want to model what these text structures will look like through the lens of commercial writing.

For the purpose of this article, I will use a household favorite in our home to demonstrate—Tide laundry detergent. Here is how a commercial for Tide might go, depending on purpose and text structure:

  1. Sequential – How do you get those grass stains out of your son’s football pants? First, pour a little Tide on the stain and scrub. Next, let the pants soak in a tub full of Tide and water. Finally, wash with Tide and enjoy the look of fresh, clean football pants, ready to go for the next big game….
  2. Compare/Contrast – Let’s compare Tide to another leading brand as each tries to get out these tough grass stains….
  3. Descriptive – Look at these football pants, covered in mud and grass stains going into the washing machine, but coming out white as snow, smelling like a spring day, fresh as the day they were first worn….
  4. Problem/Solution – Look at these football pants, covered in grass stains, dirt, and even a little blood. And the next game is less than 24 hours away. What can fix this horrible situation? Tide laundry detergent….
  5.  Cause/Effect – “Look at your son’s football pants. They’re so nice and clean. How in the world did you get them looking so fresh?”…”Simple. I used Tide….”

While the above examples are fairly simple and straightforward, they are pretty clear examples of common nonfiction text structures. What I would want to impress upon students is, whatever my purpose is for my commercial, that will dictate what text structure I choose to use. So, if I want to show how Tide is better than another detergent, my brain will pick a comparison text structure. If I want to highlight how Tide is the solution for all your laundry issues, I will choose a problem/solution structure.

For students, laundry detergent may not be the most exciting choice of topics, but the idea of writing commercials to experience different text structures could be the engaging unit that gets students over the hump with understanding different structures.

This investment of time in a nontraditional writing unit may pay off big in your students’ future writing and reading endeavors where the content and task is more challenging.

~ Tim Hargis

This post was written by guest blogger Tim Hargis of Kentwood Public Schools.

Tim Hargis is an academic support coach for the Kentwood Public Schools as well as an independent literacy consultant. He is the author of two books on teaching writing, The Writing Diner: Creating Active Thinkers in the Writing Classroom and The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing as well as the children’s novel, Ol’ Man Caudill’s Hat. He has worked as a classroom teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and as an adjunct professor of English at Grand Valley State University. Prior to teaching, Tim was a television news producer at WLWT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Tim lives with his wife and two daughters in Grand Rapids. 

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