Rhetorical competence: Anaphors, organizational signals, and refutation cues. Oh my!

If you’re an SLP who works with older elementary children and above, you’re probably already targeting strategies to improve reading comprehension. And you likely already know the differences between narrative texts and expository (informational) texts. But are you targeting rhetorical competence to improve expository text comprehension? Have you... even heard of rhetorical competence (RC)? Don’t panic if this is foreign to you—we’ve got a handy breakdown of some common rhetorical devices, based on this new article.

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  • Direct readers to think about an earlier referent in the text

  • e.g. Students are getting hurt because of unsafe playground equipment. A potential solution for this problem

Organizational Signals:

  • Help readers create a mental representation of the main ideas and text structure

  • e.g. “A second issue to consider is…” or “The first reason…

Refutation Cues:

  • Signal to readers that an incorrect belief is being asserted and then refuted

  • Many people think that ____, but actually ____

Now that you’re up to speed, on to the study*. The authors examined (1) how RC develops between 3rd and 6th grades, (2) how RC contributes to comprehension of expository texts, even beyond skills such as decoding and inferencing, and (3) if the relationship between RC and comprehension is moderated by grade level and other reader characteristics. The findings are detailed and dense, so here are the results that you, the practicing SLP, should focus on:

  • All measures of RC were correlated with improved comprehension of expository text. (Strong RC and strong text comprehension tended to go together.)

  • RC contributes to a student’s expository comprehension above and beyond that student’s inferencing skills, decoding ability, prior knowledge, and working memory. This means that the ability to use rhetorical devices makes a unique contribution to comprehension.

  • RC develops slowly over time and was not even complete in the 6th graders included in this study, meaning it is a skill you can target across several grade levels.

Sadly, this study didn’t tackle how to target rhetorical devices. But as the communication expert, you are uniquely positioned to explicitly draw attention to rhetorical devices in text, especially with readers who may already struggle with comprehension. Keep your eyes open for these features in the texts you’re already using, giving you the perfect opportunity to build rhetorical competence!

*Keep in mind, this sample featured typically-developing Spanish students, but there are enough similarities in text structure that the findings apply to English-speaking students as well.

García, J. R., Sánchez, E., Cain, K., & Montoya, J. M. (2019). Cross-sectional study of the contribution of rhetorical competence to children’s expository texts comprehension between third- and sixth-grade. Learning and Individual Differences. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2019.03.005