Analyzing Text Structures
- Grades: 6–8
This week I observed that in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the level of task complexity and the level of thinking necessary to complete tasks both increase over time, which makes it more challenging to scaffold text complexity. For example, at the beginning of the year, my students started out utilizing text-based details that accurately addressed the writing prompts. We applied this to reading informational and literary texts.
Last week, we began analyzing text structure, comparing and contrasting how two authors utilize information from historical events when writing in different genres: nonfiction and poetry. Teaching students how to analyze author’s craft is challenging. It is even more challenging to engage them in higher thinking activities while increasing text complexity as we approach the end of the year. A pattern emerged in my quest to meet the instructional goal. The activities below depict how the focus began with comprehension of the text and then shifted to analyzing the author’s craft.
In what ways do authors use details from historical events to create writing in different genres, informational and descriptive?
For this unit, you will need at least two paired passages based on a historical event, nonfiction and fiction or nonfiction and poetry. I have a subscription to Scope, so I have access to paired passages.
Sample materials include:
- The nonfiction article “Imagine” on the Dust Bowl, by Alex Porter and Kristin Lewis, from the March 12, 2012, issue of Scope.
- “Dust Storm” excerpt from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
- Alternative descriptive passage: excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Chapter 1 describes the dust storm.
- Sticky notes.
Goal: Read for information.
Activity: Students read the article and engage in a think-pair-share discussion in response to multiple-choice comprehension questions. They answer the questions, discuss their answers with a partner, and come to an agreement on the answers. One handout is submitted for grading.
Goal: Analyze the text structure of a nonfiction article.
Activity: Students reread the nonfiction article. Working in mixed-ability groups of three to four students, they discuss how the article is structured or organized, paying particular attention to the headers. They reread the article, focusing on the cause and effect of the dust storm. Each group records one cause and effect on separate sticky notes, selecting accurate, relevant text-based details from the article. They create a class-size graphic organizer on the board, using sticky notes to place details in the appropriate cause and effect columns.
In this particular article, the structure is complex. It introduces the events on Black Sunday through a biographical lens. However, the structure shifts as the authors embed cause and effect information. For this reason, it offers great fodder for group discussion on text structure. Questions and answers might include:
- Q: How do the authors present the information at the beginning of the article?
A: The biographical approach hooks the reader and provides a personal account of the historical event, as well as a sequence of events.
- Q: Why do the authors use a flashback?
A: The authors use the flashback to introduce the causes of the dust storms, which are followed by the effects.
- Q: How do the authors close the article?
A: The authors revert back to the biographical approach. They bring closure to the article, or a type of resolution, by informing the reader about Ike’s life after the dust storm.
Goal: Explore the elements of plot in narrative verse.
Activity: Students read the excerpt “Dust Storm” from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Since this is the first time my students are exposed to narrative verse this year, it is guided, scaffolding toward independence and complexity. As a whole class, we discuss the plot structure (i.e., point of view, exposition, characterization, and conflicts), annotating the text. I project the eBook version of Out of the Dust onto my SMART Board, so the students can add digital annotations during our discussions.
Goal: Compare and contrast how two authors use information from a historical event in their writing.
Activity: In small, mixed-ability groups, the students work to complete a compare and contrast matrix. Each group has to identify one similar or different text structure to add to the matrix and present to the class. In the beginning, the discussions focus on identifying the authors’ craft, and then we explore why the authors made these choices. Observations might include:
- The point of view differs depending on the author's purpose, to inform or describe.
- Authors use sensory details in both genres to create imagery.
- Authors use figurative language in both genres to create imagery.
- Nonfiction writers chunk information together using headers.
- Nonfiction and fiction writers use transitions to indicate change in time.
- The nonfiction writers use a flashback, transitioning from biographical writing to expository writing to inform the reader of the causes of a natural disaster.
- Nonfiction writers use text features such as headers, pictures, and captions to add information beyond that of the text.
- One author uses informational writing while the other uses descriptive writing to depict a historical event.
- An author’s choice of words gives clues about how they feel about the subject (tone).
At first, I felt awkward exploring these uncharted waters, but in the end, my students enjoyed the shift to studying author’s craft. The students concluded that authors, depending on their purpose for writing, use varying structures and literary devices to meet their writing goals. This activity segues into a thematic unit based on the historical novel The Devil’s Arithmetic. During this thematic unit, the students read and analyze paired text from multiple genres. They will practice and reinforce these skills in their reading circles.
Author’s craft is a challenging concept. We welcome your ideas for studying it. Please feel free to share how you teach text structure in your classroom.