Does text structure instruction improve reading comprehension?

  • 17 March, 2019

Blast from the Past: This entry was first posted on March 17, 2019 and was reposted on May 22, 2021. 

I'm surprised this entry hasn't drawn more attention. These days I'm often asked, "How do you teach reading comprehension?" or "Shouldn't we stop teaching reading comprehension and focus on building knowledge?" This topic, teaching text structure, should be a valuable response to those questions. I have added references and some links to additional practical supports for such teaching and have tacked on a new conclusion that provides 10 reasons that reading teachers should focus on text structure. 

Teacher question:

I was wondering what the research says (or if you could point me in the right direction to find it) about explicit instruction for nonfiction text structure. Specifically, English Language Learners.

Shanahan response:

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

I’ve been waiting for this question for almost three years. That’s because there have been several fascinating studies on this topic.

This question focuses attention on an important current controversy: My colleagues Dan Willingham and E.D. Hirsch have made a strong case for focusing heavily on content to support reading comprehension—rather than teaching comprehension.

How much should we focus on reading comprehension instruction? Should we aim to increase kids’ knowledge of the world alone and just assume they’ll be able to apply that knowledge successfully to making sense of text? Are there any reading strategies or meta-knowledge (knowledge about reading or text) worth teaching?

Though you know I usually shy away from controversial positions (fake news?), this one might be worth a dip of my oar.

Educational standards these days heavily emphasize the reading of expository texts or informational texts. The National Assessment (NAEP), college entry exams (SAT, ACT), and all state accountability texts (PARCC, SBAC, and all of the other acronyms) include such passages on their tests, so kids who can’t read such text are up a creek!

The idea that it might be beneficial to teach students how authors organize or structure their texts has long been with us… at least since the publication of The Organization of Prose and Its Effects on Memory by Bonnie Meyer (1975). That wonderful book explored why some ideas are more likely to be remembered than others and reported that text organization played an important role in that process.

That makes sense to me. Many years ago, I myself did a study in which I rearranged a text’s sentence sequence randomly. Surprise! Readers weren’t able to summarize it. The arrangement and linking of ideas make a big difference in understanding and recall.

The question is can you teach students to recognize and use text organization to improve reading comprehension?

In 2016 and 2017, two major meta-analyses of such studies were reported (Hebert, et al., 2016; Pyle, et al.,). They differed a bit in grade levels (the latter including K-1), and methodology, but overall, they had similar conclusions. Teaching text structure improved expository reading comprehension.

Teaching kids to recognize how authors have organized a text and to use this information to guide one’s thinking about the text has proven to be a powerful tool even with younger kids. Recognizing whether an author is describing, comparing, linking causes and effects or problems and solutions, or sequencing steps or events is worthwhile. It reveals the author’s purpose and allows one to focus attention better on the key information—the content.

Joanna Williams and her colleagues in a series of well-designed studies found that it was possible to teach second-graders to identify and use the “compare-contrast” structure and that students could recognize and that it improved their comprehension of such texts. The kids could successfully generalize this ability to comparison texts covering new content, but it didn’t help them with texts with different organizations.

Interestingly, Williams and company monitored the kids learning of content across this study and found this instruction detracted in no way from their learning new content information.

I suspect the reason for this is that thinking about text organization requires that you think about content in specific ways. For instance, when one reads science, the causal explanations tend be particularly important. A reading approach that encourages the reader to try to connect causes and effects is going to focus attention heavily on this key content and how the ideas are related. The same would be true for texts that explore problems and solutions, or comparisons.

The meta-analyses mentioned earlier found that it was effective to teach kids about multiple text structures and that text structure instruction was particularly potent when writing was included in the instruction (and such writing would require students to focus on content in a way that is particularly powerful in increasing content knowledge). Another important feature of such teaching was the use of graphic organizers to illustrate the structures and to guide students to make use of these structures during reading.

And, it helps if this instruction teaches students to watch for “clue words” (e.g., moreover, however, first, second, consequently, because, for this, as a result, likewise, initially). Such words are often stressed these days since they are such a key part of academic language, but text organization instruction requires one to not just know their meanings, but to actively use these words to make sense of an author’s message.

Given all of that, I would definitely devote some instructional time to teaching students to use text organization, both in their reading and writing. This work would entail reading science and social studies content, and I would hold the students accountable both for understanding these major text organization schemes and for the content they were reading about, analyzing, and writing about.

The question also asked about teaching of text structure to English Language Learners. Usually, I’m stuck saying that a particular approach has been found to be effective, but there are not studies of this with second-language learners. That is not the case here. In fact, research shows this approach to be effective not just with native speakers, but with ELLs (Wijekumar, et al., 2018).

For more information on research in this area, I’d recommend that you go to these sites:


As for the controversy between content and reading comprehension strategies: Should we teach content or strategies? The answer definitely is, “Yes.”

And here are 10 reasons why:

1. Research has consistently supported the idea of providing this kind of teaching. 

2. This is true even with the most rigorous research designs.

3. The effects sizes for these studies have ranged from moderate to high, meaning there is a good learning payoff from such teaching.

4. Research has been consistent on this for nearly 50 years -- so the value of this kind of teaching is not just a fad.

5. Text structure instruction works across a wide range of grade levels, so whether you teach kindergarten, high school, or any of the grades in between there is good reason to believe this would be beneficial.

6. Text structure instruction has been found to be beneficial with English Learners.

7. Text structure instruction works with students with learning disabilities, too.

8. Given the emphasis on complex text, text structure instruction can be a valuable tool for helping kids to demystify a challenging text.

9. I suspect that text structure is a bit like vocabulary; that is, it is at that Nexus that connects language learning and content knowledge.

10. There are are lot of great resources available for teaching text structure.


Bogaerds-Hazenberg, S.T.M.,  Evers-Vermeul, J., &  van den Bergh, H. (2020).  A meta-analysis on the effects of text structure instruction on reading comprehension in the upper elementary grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 1– 28.

Hall-Mills, S. S., & Marante, L. M. (2020). Explicit text structure instruction supports expository text comprehension for adolescents with learning disabilities: A systematic review. Learning Disability Quarterly.

Hebert, M. Bohaty, J.J., Nelson, J.R., & Brown, J. (2016). The effects of text structure instruction on expository reading comprehension: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(5), 609-629. 

Meyer, B.J.F., & Ray, M.N. (2011). Structure strategy interventions: Increasing reading comprehension of expository text. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 127-152.

Pyle, N., Vasquez, A., Lignugaris/Kraft, B., Gillam, S., Reutzel, D., Olszewski, A., . . . Pyle, D. (2017). Effects of expository text structure interventions on comprehension: A meta-analysis. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(4), 469-501.

Roehling, J.V., Hebert, M., Nelson, J.R., & Boharty, J.J. (2017). Text structure strategies for improving expository reading comprehension. Reading Teacher, 71(1), 71-82.

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C., & Torgesen, J. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through third grade: A practice guide. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sci­ences, U.S. Department of Education.

Wijekumar, K. (K.), Meyer, B. J. F., & Lei, P. (2017). Web-based text structure strategy instruction improves seventh graders’ content area reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 741–760. 

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., Lei, P., Hernandez, A.C., & August, D.L. (2018). Improving content area reading comprehension of Spanish speaking English Learners in grades 4 and 5 using web-based text structure instruction. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(9), 1969-1996.

Williams, J.P., Kao, J.C., Pao, L.S., Ordynans, J.G., Atkins, J.G., Cheng, R., & DeBonis, D . (2016). Close analysis of texts with structure (CATS): An intervention to teach reading comprehension to at-risk second-graders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 198, 1061-1077.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Annie Snyder Jun 10, 2019 05:34 PM

I worked with Joanna Williams for six years as a research assistant, and I cannot tell you how happy I am to see this post!! Thank you for this.

Lura Hanks May 22, 2021 04:59 PM

I have been focusing professional development of teachers in the area of text structure for over ten years! The impact is insanely powerful! At all levels... I begin with the expected predictable patterns, and then can show how authors “mess with that pattern” and that when readers look for the expected and realize something is different, they begin to understand complex text! Perhaps the intended purpose was best conveyed through multiple structures present in the text! Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over Broadway is the perfect example!!! For struggling readers, focusing on the structure means that they can make meaning while reading to comprehend the authors purpose without having to read every word accurately!! (In summary.... it is how we all made it through college in our less preferred classes! You know we didn’t read every word of every text assigned! We knew where to find the info based on the organization of the text). All standards come to life through this lens!

Gayle Greenwald May 22, 2021 05:35 PM

Terrific current topic. Determining text structure was the single most important skill that helped my reading specialist practicum students increase their understanding of text. What are your feelings on this site's ( TAMU-CUSP Certificate?


Scott Geisler May 22, 2021 05:58 PM

I’m concluding my 1st year teaching mid school social studies to kids who for the most part have very little academic English or background knowledge whether or not they speak or read English fluently. I’ve come to the conclusion that next year I need to take a reading instruction approach first and foremost, and I know that fluency and vicab and academic language are what I need to center. I recall this post from 2 yesrs ago and recall that it resonated in my pre-service teacher’s gut at that time. I have also tried to center “text structure” in my lessons, but find myself always backtracking when I realize the sheer profundity of my students’s lack of reading skills and knowledge. On top of that (those), I wrestle with the proverbial firehose that is my district’s chosen textbook; it packs so much knowledge and so many varying text structures in each lesson — each purportedly designed to be learned in one 50 minute period — that I haven’t figured out a useful pattern within which to teach it at all.

Maybe structure is the simplest place to start thinking about how I break down each unit; then I can break down each lesson in concert, and tie the content knowledge goal into that. Maybe incorporate fluency modeling and practice through paired reading as well.

Thank you, Tim, for the refresher and for going deeper in this timely, timely post. Lots to think about for next year still, but it is structure you’ve provided me in that endeavor!

Timothy Shanahan May 22, 2021 06:18 PM


I love research based, easy to use, really provides the right guidance. It's not a commercial site so I can tout it here. This is one that school districts definitely should pay attention to.



Kay Wijekumar May 22, 2021 07:33 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, Your synthesis about reading is most valuable to the discerning teachers!! We have recently opened up our text structure practice based professional development through a Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant from the US Department of Education. In summer 2021, we will be offering excellent sessions using the intelligent tutoring platform and Zoom. Any persons interested in learning how to use the text structure instruction in English language arts, science, social studies, and other subject areas and also in different genres (e.g., narrative, poetry), they will find our PD very useful and the thousands of resources valuable.
PD dates are June 7-8, July 19-20, or August 2-3. The minimal fee can be waived if more than 2 teachers from a school would like to attend together.

Jill May 22, 2021 09:27 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan,

Thank you for reposting this question. After reading about the importance of teaching text structures on your blog two years ago I tried to incorporate this into my lessons with my first grade students, but most of the research I find points to second grade as the starting point. Can you please provide some resources for how to best teach text structures specific to first grade?

Joan Sedita May 23, 2021 02:29 PM

This post does a great job of summing up the value of explicit instruction about text structure to support reading comprehension. But I'd like to point out that it is also helpful for supporting students' writing skills. An important part of learning to write is emulating how others write. When we teach students to unpack the text structure of something someone else has written, it shows them how to use text structure in their own writing. We should therefore encourage students to "read like writers" ... i.e., attend to the structure of something you are reading to support your comprehension, but to also to learn something that you can use in your own writing. In my Keys to Literacy work training teachers across all grades and subjects, I suggest that there are multiple levels of text structure that need to be taught including teaching the structure of paragraphs, patterns of organization (and the related transition words/phrases), and larger text structures associated with certain types or genres of writing (informational, opinion/argument, and narrative being the most obvious). But I think even teaching students about sentence structure to develop syntactic awareness can be considered part of teaching text structure.

Timothy Shanahan May 23, 2021 10:46 PM

Jill --

For grade 1 guidance go to:

good luck.


Timothy Shanahan May 23, 2021 10:50 PM


I can think of two situations that match what you ask about. The first is when one could characterize a structure in multiple ways, such as a social studies chapter that might be seen as purely descriptive or enumerating (just a bunch of facts) or as a social study chapter that is going to tell you about the culture, language, religion, government, and economy of a place. Research would suggest that the latter of these would be best because it would provide better memory support. Nevertheless, either would give readers support so in a way it doesn't necessarily matter which if they can see a structure. The second is the more common problem... the researchers treat structure as if an author uses one, but there are 6 sections to this article and one of them is descriptive, two others are problem solution, and so on. In those instances, you teach kids to break the text into parts based on what appears to be the author's purpose. That analysis of a text is really useful for increasing understanding and recall.


Anila Nayak May 23, 2021 02:37 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan,
I have been using Thinking Maps with my students grades 3-5 to hone in on text structures and following it with writing. I have gradually pushed for transfer encouraging students to recognize the organizatinal design the author used to craft the content. I have English Langauge Learners and they are learning to identify signal words that point to organizational structure(s). I am so happy to be validated in my apporach. It is not always straightforward when there are multiple structures within an article. Any suggestions in how to tackle that?
Also thank you Kay Wijekumar for the information about the event in the summer. I am looking into joining the sessions.

Anila Nayak May 23, 2021 02:37 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan,
I have been using Thinking Maps with my students grades 3-5 to hone in on text structures and following it with writing. I have gradually pushed for transfer encouraging students to recognize the organizatinal design the author used to craft the content. I have English Langauge Learners and they are learning to identify signal words that point to organizational structure(s). I am so happy to be validated in my apporach. It is not always straightforward when there are multiple structures within an article. Any suggestions in how to tackle that?
Also thank you Kay Wijekumar for the information about the event in the summer. I am looking into joining the sessions.

LBTC Jun 30, 2023 10:48 AM

Nice knowledge-gaining article. This post is the best on this valuable topic. I like your explanation of the topic and your ability to do work. I found your post very interesting

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Does text structure instruction improve reading comprehension?


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