"Kind of a Fun Adventure": Utah State University Literacy Faculty Members Conduct Studies on Text Structure Instruction

An interview of D. Ray Reutzel, Sarah Clark, and Cindy Jones, conducted by Erika Feinauer

Assembled (with text structure imposed) by Sharon Black


When interviewed, a team of researchers discussed the importance of teaching expository text structures in early grades and reasons most teachers avoid doing this. They explained their research showing (1) the limited number of well organized exemplar texts available to teachers, (2) the inability of most teachers to identify structures in some of the good texts, and (3) a professional development presentation along with a protocol they developed that has helped teachers improve their understanding and use of expository texts.

At the Emma Eccles Jones Early Childhood Education and Research Center, located on the Utah State University Campus in Logan, Utah, a team of literacy researchers has been very busy reading children's books. While this might be viewed as an unusual task for researchers, Dr. D. Ray Reutzel, Dr. Sarah K. Clark, and Dr. Cindy D. Jones have been working together on a series of studies about teaching informational text structures to elementary students. The goal of this work is to improve children's comprehension of informational text. Reutzel noted the work has been "kind of a fun adventure."

Erika Feinauer of the Utah Journal of Literacy interviewed the team to learn more about this work. 

Erika has been ill and unable to write up her reactions and findings, so she has furnished a transcript of the interview and some patterns she was beginning to develop. As interviews tend to ooze as well as flow, the structure of this one turned out somewhat like some of the informational books that are difficult to teach. As Dr. Reutzel commented during the interview, "comprehension is increased" if the author provides a clear structure. So this interview account has had a structure imposed which required grouping, relating, and moving around interviewee's comments. Drs. Reutzel, Jones, and Clark have made revisions for greater accuracy. This imposed structure will first treat the researchers' ideas concerning the importance of teaching text structures to elementary students, followed by the problems that currently interfere with teaching it, culminating with procedures and findings of their research.

The Importance

When asked "Why is it important for teachers to know about text structure?" Dr. Reutzel responded "Comprehension is increased." Dr. Clark noted that the Common Core State Standards require that more informational texts be taught in classrooms: "You are going to have to create some organization around the text, so as a result, text structure becomes important." She also pointed out how learning about text structures helps students to better understand what they read by organizing it in their minds:

If they start to recognize and understand what you can expect from a descriptive text or here's what you can expect from a sequence text, then students can let go of some of what they don't know and start organizing the information as they're reading it.

Dr. Jones added, "Otherwise you've got a little piece of information here, a little piece there. So it becomes a shambles for the child who doesn't already have foundational knowledge about the topic to serve as an organizing framework."  She emphasized the need for an organizational structure with a metaphor:

It is like a miscellaneous drawer. So for a book about horses, you're going to throw everything in that drawer that you possibly can—kinds of horses, uses of horses . . . . How do we then organize that text or that miscellaneous drawer? It's just all thrown in there. When you're asking a child to then go through that drawer of knowledge, there are no "organizers," no way to store or to retrieve that information, and that's what text structure helps to do.

Dr. Reutzel mentioned another significant need for knowledge of text structures: Children need to be able to use books they read or have read to them as models for their own writing. "And when they read muddled, mixed, multiple messy texts, that may be [the way] the world is, but that's not the way good writing is." He expressed the desire that teachers and students will "learn from studying text structure that really high quality books help people comprehend." Dr. Jones agreed with this point and extended it: "With primary grade students, we really want the strongest texts possible, ones in which the author and the publisher have thought about organizational structure."

To illustrate that children can process and apply knowledge of text structures, Dr. Reutzel shared a classroom interaction he observed when the CEO of a company from which he had received a grant visited a second grade class in St. George, Utah.

One of the little kids asked the CEO, "Bob, do you know Melvin Burger who writes our books?"

And he says, "Yes, I know Melvin, he works for our company."

"Could you give him a message for us?"

And he says, "Well sure, what would you like me to tell him?"

"Tell him when he writes his books that he needs to put headings in there that match with the elements of the table of contents."

And the CEO is like "What? What have you done to these kids?"

Students actually expect authors to use conventions of writing that signal good text structure, and these are second graders! Well, those kids knew, and so . . . they had their teacher take post-it notes and make headings in the book that matched the table of contents so there was a clear tie from this entry in the table of contents to this heading for the section.

These kids could see clearly how things ought to be structured, and good writing like that makes it easy for kids to get their head wrapped around things. Especially when they're conceptually difficult things that they're learning about.  So you have to think about that too, how the structure can leverage or actually make a little easier the conceptual understanding of the difficult ideas.

The Problem

The researchers mentioned two particular issues they have observed that hamper teaching informational text structure: (1) vague and inconsistent use of terms and concepts when referring to informational texts, and (2) lack of strong exemplar texts with which to teach informational text structures.

Terms and concepts. Dr. Reutzel explained, "In an age where we're talking about text and text complexity, not having clarity around the terms we use to talk about texts is, I think, fairly frustrating for teachers." Dr. Jones specified, "There's a lot of confusion about text structures and the different types of genres." Dr. Reutzel agreed and extended into causality: "We haven't done a good job preparing teachers to analyze and understand text as an object."               

Exemplar Texts. Drs. Reutzel, Clark, and Jones agreed that teachers don't have many exemplar texts to show students what the text structures are like and how recognizing them can help in understanding information. Having worked for 12 years for a company that required her to write such texts, Dr. Clark shared a reason for the poorly structured informational texts—as a regret, not a justification:

I have written a lot of these types of books. . . . The editor would say, "Put in anything and everything you can," because the editors were afraid that they would lose the attention of children if they kept the text simple. So as an author they would ask me to put in as many of what I would now call distractions [as I could] so that [children] are no longer focused on reading the text, but rather jumping all over the page saying "here this is interesting, and this is interesting." So in reality, we weren't writing the books for purpose of deeply comprehending the text, but rather the goal was just to keep children engaged with and reading the text.

Dr. Reutzel put this in perspective:

We're not suggesting that all texts—all the way through college—should be constrained to follow a clear, pure structure. What we are suggesting is to use instructional design principles: you start simple, you go to the complex; you start concrete, you go to the abstract. And so when we're talking about little children, what they need is clarity. They need simplicity. They need singularity. They need obvious. And if we don't have that for them, there is little chance later on that they are going to pick these mixed or multiple text structures out as they read more complex and less well organized texts. They just will never be able to do it.

The researchers emphasized a message for authors as well as teachers. Authors need to carefully consider how they organize and present information so that teachers can use their texts to meet these needs for children.

The Studies

Study 1: Developing a teaching process. Dr. Clark took the lead on the first study, which was published in 2013 in The Early Childhood Education Journal. This article provides a process for teachers to follow when teaching young children how to read and write informational text with an emphasis on text structure. Exemplar informational texts are read and then used as models for writing. The process begins as the students and teacher conduct a close reading of a well organized, well written informational text. The goal is to identify the title, the text structure, the signal words, and the other text features used by the author to support comprehension. They use a graphic organizer to collect and organize information presented by the author. The process is then reversed as students write a piece modeled after the exemplar text. Dr. Clark explained,

We examine a text closely to use it as a model for young children who are now required to write informative and explanatory texts with the newly adopted Common Core State Standards. Understanding how [published] authors organize information helps young authors understand how to organize their own informational text.

Study 2: Ordering and reading a stack of books. Dr. Jones took the lead on this study, which has been accepted for 2016 publication in The Elementary School Journal published by the University of Chicago Press. The researchers began by examining a list of 5,000 books from top publishers of children's books and then ordering a 5% sample. Dr. Jones noted, "Upon receiving the books, we found the books labeled "informational" were not always informational. For example, Apples for a Horse ended up being a narrative story. About 20% of the books ordered were narrative or biography rather than informational texts." Dr. Reutzel concluded, "So the teachers can't even count on the publishers' labels. That was the first ah-ha." Considering the purpose for the study, Dr. Clark explained,

I think that this particular study focuses on the text, and then we've taken into account how teachers can use that text and what text they have. . . . We know it's going to be difficult for teachers to do that right now because the affordances aren't there and the teacher training isn't there. And so if the affordances increase within the text and the teacher training increases . . . then we know it will have a more meaningful impact on children.

So the researchers began by examining books, asking what the available children's books afforded (or furnished) for the use of teachers in teaching informational text structure. When they started trying to categorize the books that actually were informational, other weaknesses became apparent. As Dr. Clark noted, "We had a tough time even amongst ourselves determining what was a good example of sequence, or description, or compare/contrast, etc. We found that there aren't a lot of really good exemplar books that teachers can use in their instruction." Dr. Jones further explained,

In our content analysis, the most frequently used text structure was description. Of the five common text structures, description is the least sophisticated level of organization, as the information is presented in a catalog approach with each point representing the same or a relatively equal order of importance. In reading texts using a description structure, readers are left to themselves to retrieve, organize, and store the information. A description structure often results in a list of ideas that promotes recall of peripheral rather than essential information.

Study 3: Giving teachers stacks of books. Dr. Reutzel took the lead on this study, which has been accepted for publication in The Journal of Educational Research in 2016. This study involved a closer focus on what teachers actually knew and could apply. Dr. Jones designed what Dr. Reutzel called "a really nice series of questions and tasks . . . for teachers to do so we could assess their knowledge of text types, text structures, genres. Could they sort them? Could they talk about them?" The researchers recruited participant teachers and gave each teacher a stack of books to sort as informational, narrative, or mixed. Accuracy was 67%—"pretty good" according to Dr. Reutzel. The next stack they gave the teachers was to be sorted by text structure. Books had been chosen this time from the "decent exemplars" from the study on affordances. Accuracy was 37%.

The next logical step was to find ways of improving teachers' knowledge and skill in discerning and working with informational text structures. The group created an instrument called the Informational Text Structure Survey, which enabled them to "walk the teachers through a very carefully written protocol, a flow chart and a rating chart, that gets them down to a decision that would be reliable."

Dr. Reutzel described the project:

So that launched this next big piece, which was "Okay let's develop a professional development. So we created a training program for how to use our new instrument. And we went out . . . and spent with [participant teachers] two and one-half to three hours in two different sittings. We actually had two projectors going. One was showing the books and one was taking us through the protocol. Toward the end of the training, teachers felt fairly confident.

The researchers tested their protocol and professional development strategy by having the participating teachers show what they could do—in contrast to what they could not do on the earlier attempt, for which they had had no instruction or printed guide. Dr. Reutzel noted, "The teachers' accuracy increased to 77% [approaching mastery] . . . We increased reliability very remarkably, the accuracy went way up, and for two and one-half hours and this little instrument you get something."

Planned extensions. The stack of books remains, and the researchers are still generating new ideas and new directions. Dr. Clark brought up the need for work with preservice teachers. She reported,

We also played around a little bit—worked with pre-service teachers to see if they could use the Informational Text Structure Survey . . . without any experience as a teacher. They were not as good as the teachers were at identifying informational text, but there was still improvement after the training.

She shared her own experience in working with this group:

I would venture to say there just isn't a whole lot of this type of comprehension instruction going on at the pre-service level. . . . It's not one of the common topics that are discussed. I've been teaching undergraduate for—seven years maybe. I don't see any talk of this in the research literature. It's very common to talk about comprehension strategies such prediction, retelling, summarizing, etc.

She noted the importance of involving preservice teachers at this particular time:

With the influx of informational text, and with the Common Core State Standards, it's something we need to address at the preservice level and not wait until [student teachers] are in the classroom teaching before they get some sense of what text structure is and how it influences comprehension of informational text.

The researchers concluded that increased training at both the preservice and the graduate level would substantially impact student outcomes.

Drs. Reutzel, Jones, and Clark freely shared their experiences with these research studies: convictions, intentions, surprises, frustrations, hard work, inferences, changes, and new directions. They face future research with new ideas, enthusiasm, determination, and a degree of humor. All this is the nature of research, and the team is doing it successfully. 

Dr. D. Ray Reutzel is the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming and is an elected member of the Reading Hall of Fame.

Dr. Cindy Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Leadership at Utah State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on literacy instruction. Her research focuses on effective literacy instruction and the reading-writing relationship.

Dr. Sarah K. Clark is an associate professor at Utah State University. Her research interests are in the area of enhancing literacy education, both in supporting effective teaching and instruction and in providing support for struggling readers.

Study References

Clark, S. K., Jones, C. D., & Reutzel, D. R. (2013). Using the text structures of information books to teach writing in the primary grades. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(4), 265-271.

Jones, C. D., Clark, S. K. & Reutzel, D. R. (In press). Teaching text structure: Examining the affordances of children's informational texts. Elementary School Journal.

Reutzel, D. R., Jones, C. D., & Clark, S. K. (In press). The Informational Text Structure Survey: An exploration of teachers' sensitivity to text structure. Journal of Educational Research.