Teaching text structures to boost comprehension: What makes for a good intervention?

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If your work brings you into contact with the Common Core standards, you probably know that they majorly up the ante for students to read and interact with expository (so, informational, not narrative) text, starting as early as kindergarten. A popular strategy to help students understand these texts is to teach the structures: cause-and-effect, compare/contrast, problem/solution, etc. The idea is that knowing the underlying organization of the information helps us create a working model of it in our minds, leading to better understanding and recall.

This article is a meta-analysis of expository text structure intervention research, meant to figure out, overall, if teaching text structures looks like a helpful approach for comprehension (for students with and without a learning disorder), and what characteristics of interventions give the biggest bang for their buck. They looked at 21 peer-reviewed studies from 1970 on that: a) used a targeted text structure intervention, b) provided data for students with LD, and c) looked at some measure of comprehension as an outcome.

Big Picture: Teaching text structures had a large, positive impact on reading comprehension.

The Finer Points: What made for a particularly good intervention?

  • Scaffolding of instruction, either by students gradually taking more ownership over the use of strategies, or gradually increasing the complexity of the passages
  • Focusing on just one or two structures, especially the ones that are easiest to recognize, like cause-and-effect and compare/contrast (but watch out: which structures work best might vary by content area…)
  • Intervention delivered by adults who understand text structures well themselves, as well as the treatment strategies. Seems like a no-brainer, but interventions that were led by researchers rather than less-specifically trained teachers were more successful.
  • The younger the student, the larger the improvement, as measured by standardized reading tests. So, think early elementary school. Students with learning disabilities showed the biggest benefits.
  • Treatments of 11–20 hours were more successful than either shorter or longer ones.

It’s important to note that some of these specific findings are preliminary, or need to be taken with caution, just because of the fairly limited pool of evidence they are coming from. Even keeping that in mind, teaching expository text structures is definitely good practice for a range of learners. The authors specifically recommend that we:

  • Explicitly describe text structures and teach associated signal words
  • Model uses of the strategy
  • Consider using graphic organizers
  • Turn over responsibility for the strategy to students over time

Pyle, N., Vasquez, A.C., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Gillam, S., Reutzel, D.R., Olszewski, A… Pyle, D. (2017). Effects of Expository Text Structure Interventions on Comprehension: A Meta-Analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(4), 469–501.