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Teaching Text Structure Improves Reading Comprehension

Text structure should be taught starting in the primary grades.

Post by Joanna P. Williams, Teachers College, Columbia University

Many children who do not have trouble learning how to read do have trouble understanding what they read. Yet surprisingly, comprehension instruction did not receive much attention from reading professionals until the 1970s, with the arrival of the cognitive revolution. Having renounced behaviorism, psychology’s new cognitive paradigm defined mental activity in terms of information processing and viewed comprehension as the integration of information from a wide variety of sources. Applied to reading, comprehension is seen as a product not only of the information presented on the printed page but also of the reader’s prior knowledge. Despite its importance, true comprehension instruction is still not widely offered to children in the primary grades. But young children can benefit from explicit comprehension instruction (Meyer & Wijekumar, 2010; Williams, 2003), and teaching them about the ways in which text is structure is a promising focus for such early instruction.

Text structure. Text structure is one specific type of prior (or background) knowledge that skilled readers possess. Good readers can identify important information in a text and are aware of how other textual information relates to the important propositions. They can do this even when, as often happens, the text is not well organized. These readers are applying cognitive patterns—rhetorical structures—that they have already acquired, first via their oral language experience and later via their reading. These patterns guide them to the recognition that (for example) a given text compares two entities, or that it presents a problem and a solution to that problem. Readers who can identify the structure of a text are better able to locate the information they need for successful comprehension.

Expository text is challenging for many students as it often deals with complex and unfamiliar content and is structured in a variety of ways. Although recently there has been a press toward providing all students with more exposure to expository text, many students are still often finding expository text hard to understand. One problem is that the instruction in many classrooms is discussion-based, with little or no explicit instruction. In addition, because content-area textbooks may be too difficult for students to read easily, teachers often read them aloud in class and rely on this approach in conjunction with class discussion to impart information. This has the adverse and unintended consequence of further reducing opportunities for students to develop their ability to read expository text on their own.

Instructional intervention. My students and I developed a full-year intervention to teach text structure to second-grade students at risk for academic failure (Williams, 2008). The intervention is called the Close Analysis of Structured Texts (CATS). The content of the intervention fulfills the New York State Standards for second-grade social studies and focuses on U.S. communities past and present: Native Americans, Colonists, Pioneers, Immigrants, and present-day City-dwellers. CATS is based on text processing theory (Kintsch, 1998) and incorporates classic principles of instructional design. Specifically, students are introduced to content in small increments, moving from the simple to the complex. Teachers provide modeling, including scaffolding that fades as instruction progresses, and opportunities for guided and independent practice and ongoing feedback. Students are taught the five basic text structures (sequence, comparison, cause-effect, description, and problem-solution; Meyer, 1975), along with linguistic signals (clue words such as but, finally, because; graphic organizers; and generic questions that help students focus on essential textual information).

A central feature of CATS is a series of short texts that have a very strict structure in which paragraphs are pared down to their essentials. This allows students to identify the underlying structure of simple, well-structured texts. Through practice, students can more quickly develop a specific mental representation for each individual structure. This mental representation serves as a template that they then can bring to bear (as prior knowledge) on the longer and less-well-structured texts that they encounter in their regular reading. Students do close reading and analysis of these texts, underlining the central information, circling the clue words, and crossing out distractor sentences. They summarize the paragraphs, both orally and in writing. Of course, close attention to text structure cannot serve as a complete reading curriculum. The intervention also included teacher read-alouds from social studies trade books, class discussion, vocabulary instruction, and whole-class and individual activities that incorporated a substantial amount of writing. The content of the short well-structured texts was taken from the content of the trade books.

Below are two examples of target paragraphs taken from the Comparison module of CATS. The first paragraph was used in the introductory lesson. The second comes later; it is longer, and it includes distractor sentences (details not part of a comparison or contrast).

Example 1: Saltbox homes and Dutch Colonial homes were the same and different. Saltbox homes were made with wood; however, Dutch Colonial homes were made with brick. Both Saltbox homes and Dutch colonial homes were cold in the winter. Saltbox homes had one room, but Dutch Colonial homes had many rooms.

Example 2: Town criers and post riders were the same and different. Both town criers and post riders were important people for communication in colonial times. Town criers delivered news to the people; post riders also delivered news to the people. The town criers walked through the streets, but post riders rode horses. Post riders delivered letters that were written with a goose feather and ink. People heard the news right away from the town crier; however, it took a month or two months for a letter to be delivered by a post rider.

A series of randomized clinical trials has provided solid evidence for the effectiveness of this intervention. First, we conducted evaluation studies of each of the instructional modules separately (one for each of the five text structures). Findings were promising with second and third graders, middle school students, and adolescents with learning disabilities. We then did an evaluation of the full-year program with second-grade students (N = 258; Williams, Kao, et al., 2016). In all of the evaluation studies, we compared CATS to a program that did not contain text structure instruction but, rather, focused on the content, as is more traditional in reading comprehension instruction. Both programs covered the same social studies content and used the same materials, including the well-structured paragraphs. In these studies, intact classrooms were assigned to one of three conditions: CATS, the comparison program, or a no-treatment control.

Outcome measures were based on oral and written summaries of texts that students had not seen before the test. The summaries of the CATS students included more accurate information than did those of the other two groups. This was true even for texts that contained information completely unrelated to the content of the intervention, as well as on texts that were ill-structured. In addition, students who received the comparison program did not acquire more social studies content than the CATS students. This was assessed via vocabulary and recall of details about the content of what had been taught in class. Thus, including text structure training did not deprive children of the opportunity to learn content. Findings from the year-long evaluation were positive and significant: 21 out of 22 comparisons showed significant effect sizes, ranging from 0.52 to 2.00, and the other comparison showed a positive but non-significant, effect size of 0.34.

In conclusion, our evaluation of the CATS intervention demonstrates that children can benefit from explicit comprehension instruction as early as second grade and that achievement can be increased by encouraging a focus on text structure. Such instruction provides a strong foundation for further progress as students encounter increasingly more complex texts in higher grades. Text structure is a valuable component of comprehension instruction at all levels, and it is important to start it early.

This post is part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President Bonnie J.F. Meyer. The series, centered around her presidential theme of "Welcoming and Advancing Research in Educational Psychology: Impacting Learners, Teachers, and Schools," is designed to spread the dissemination and impact of meaningful educational psychology research. Those interested can learn more about this theme in Division 15's 2016 Summer Newsletter.


Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meyer, B. J. F. (1975). The organization of prose and its effects on memory. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: North-Holland.

Meyer, B. J. F., Wijekumar, K., Middlemiss, W., Higley, K., Lei, P., Meier, C., & Spielvogel, J. (2010). Web-based tutoring of the structure strategy with or without elaborated feedback or choice for fifth- and sixth-grade readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 45, 62-92.

Williams, J. P. (2003). Teaching text structure to improve reading comprehension. In H. L. Swanson, Harris, K. R., & Graham , S. (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities, 293-305. NY: Guilford Press.

Williams, J. P. (2008). Explicit instruction can help primary students learn to comprehend expository text. In C. C. Block & Parris, S. (Eds.), Comprehension Processes: Research-based best practices (second edition). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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, 108, 1061-1077.