Teaching Text Structure and Signal Words: A Key to Reading Informational Text with Understanding


How much ‘informational text’ do you read in a day? (as opposed to narrative/fiction reading)? Consider ALL the reading you do – including all the ‘incidental’ and ‘necessary’ reading (like billboards, headlines, package directions, blogs, e-mail at work, etc.)

How much ‘informational text’ do you think your students read? How much do they NEED to do in order to reach their learning and career goals?

Informational (or expository) text is the text we use to learn about something. For most of us, informational text forms the majority of the necessary reading and writing we do in a day.  As adults at home, at work, or in our communities, we are constantly faced with informational text that we need to read with understanding.

EFF LogoIn recognition of this, the EFF Performance Continuum and the Curriculum Framework for the Read With Understanding standard emphasizes the importance of students reading a wide variety of different kinds of materials for varying purposes, particularly in real-world contexts. This aligns with the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading which states:  Reading is critical to building knowledge in history/social studies as well as in science and technical subjects. …Students must be able to read complex informational texts in these fields with independence and confidence because the vast majority of reading in college and workforce training programs will be sophisticated nonfiction.

Yet research shows that informational text presents greater burdens to reading comprehension over narrative text. This can present a problem since so much of what we need and want to read as adults is, in fact, expository in nature.

What strategies do YOU use to read informational text? To make it easier to analyze and comprehend?

At home, at work, or in our communities, adults are constantly faced with informational text that we need to read with understanding. We all use a variety of strategies when trying to comprehend text. One strategy that might be especially helpful to us, and a strategy that we can teach to adult learners, is recognizing text structure.

We all use a variety of strategies when trying to comprehend text. One strategy that might be especially helpful to us, and a strategy that we can teach to adult learners, is recognizing text structure.  Every informational text has a structure. Depending on what the writer of the text wants to accomplish with it – the writer’s purpose – the information in the text will be organized into one of several possible structures.

So for instance:

If writers want to focus on…  the text structure might be:
 Steps in a process or a logical chain of events …………………  Sequence
 Similarities or differences between two ideas ………………….  Comparison / Contrast
 The impact of an event or the reasons that something happened  Cause / Effect
 Details to elaborate on a topic …………………………………..  Description
 A way to resolve a situation, or a suggested course of action …  Problem solution

Skilled readers are able to identify the structure of the texts they are reading – even if they are not aware that they are doing it (since the more skilled a reader is, the more “automatic” this kind of behavior becomes). This ability helps to clue them in on the purpose of the text and to understand what they are reading more deeply. Teachers can explicitly teach students how to recognize and use text structure (as part of the process of reading that is described by the EFF standard Read with Understanding).

What approaches or strategies might you – as an adult reader -  use to recognize different informational text structures? What strategies do you teach your students to use?

An important strategy that writers employ to help readers understand their main points is the use of “Signal Words”. Signal words are the words in a text that suggest its structure.  Skilled readers use these signal words to identify and follow the text structure that the writer of the text intended. Let’s consider the most common kinds of text structure and some of the signal words used for each.  [Click on the image below to view the full-sized pdf document.]

But WAIT, here’s an important note to remember  (making things just a bit more complicated): While one particular text structure will probably predominate in any given text, other structures may also be present in that text. In other words, texts may include more than one text structure. You will need to assist students to determine the primary text structure for a document. If readers are aware of text structures, they can select strategies for reading comprehension that are likely to be effective.

Many readers need direct instruction to develop awareness of basic text structures. Teachers should provide explicit and systematic instruction in text structure, supported by scaffolding. Here are some practices that can be especially effective:

Suggestions for Teaching Text Structure via Scaffolded Instruction

Please share with us your thoughts on strategies for supporting adult learners in reading Informational Text – its importance both in and outside the classroom, how you address it, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc. Below are some questions to get you started:

  • What kinds of informational texts do you use in the classroom? How do you find and select informational texts to use with your adult learners?
  • What kinds of strategies do you teach your students to use when reading informational text with understanding? How do you teach these strategies (what examples or approaches do you use)?

We look forward to reading your thoughts and experiences.


Learn more about teaching Text Structure for Informational Text in the EFF online mini-course,
Using Text Structure and Graphic Organizers: Strategies to Enhance Reading Comprehension
or via other EFF professional development materials/services!


Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Duren Thompson, EFFTIPS Technical Editor, Center for Literacy Studies

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Posted on July 17, 2012, in Quality Practices, Reading and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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