How to build a perfect text - then deconstruct it

19th November 2017

Welcome to Part 5 of my Teaching Reading Blog. This week I am going to focus on ways you can help your students understand the importance of structure, its function and tips for analysing the author’s intention.

Teaching structure in writing often is far easier than analysing structure, but like my previous blog about imagery, once students have had the process modelled to them, it will become more straightforward over time.

There are two aspects of teaching structure that you have to consider: text level (the text as a whole) and sentence level (where you consider sentence structure and punctuation). Let’s begin with analysing the whole text.

1.      Understand the features of each text type. Many text types have features in common, so it is important that students know this. I often start with a question like, “how do we know this is a newspaper article?” because newspapers can be seen daily any time a child goes into a supermarket or corner shop. It opens up the conversation in an informal, relaxed way. List the different features they come up with on a piece of paper that you can then pin to your working wall. Next, show a text to the whole class on your board. Model how to look for the feature, highlight and then annotate. Depending on the age of the students, this can take anywhere between half an hour to the full lesson.

Once you have modelled the annotation, give out a different text to your students. Ensure that you have one text between two students at the very least, though I like to give one to each student so they can look back at it whenever they wish. It will then be their turn to look for the features.

2.      Create blank templates for students who need support. It can be daunting to write a new text type, and even if it is a text type students have studied before, there will always be more to learn. Even when I was working with secondary students, I sometimes gave them a blank template to use, for example with formal letters because this way they were less likely to miss something out. Slowly take away the template so that they can become more independent over time.

3.      Show a range of structures in fiction. Most of the fiction we give to students will follow the chronological sequence, so we must be aware of this and show students a wider range of structures including dual narratives, circular narratives, flashbacks, stream of consciousness etc. I know that budgets cannot always extend to buying new books; in this case I would recommend looking at short stories within your guided/ shared reading so your students get some exposure. Without seeing a range of structures, your students will only use the ones they have been taught, which means most of what they write will be in chronological order. Talk to the students about why each of the structural devices is important. For example, if a character has a flashback, is it to a time when their life is different to what it is today? What do we learn about each character through dual or multiple viewpoints?

When we teach about internal structure- of punctuation and sentence type- we must avoid generalisations. It is all too easy to tell your students that short sentences are used for effect- but what effect?

1.      Make comments about sentence types that are relevant to what you are reading. Short or one-word sentences may be used to build tension, but what are we supposed to be feeling as readers? Do they reflect the tentative steps that a character is taking? Does that list show how far the narrator is from achieving a goal? Although structural analysis can be difficult, use techniques that make it easier- drama often works well. Have one student reading the text while their partner shows what is actually happening.

2.      Study texts from a range of historical periods. Victorian literature is far different in structure to modern day texts, and it will give you the opportunity to look at lots of multi-clause sentences and a range of punctuation. Studying an author like Charles Dicken will open up the conversation to serialisation, and how he created a product that the masses wanted to read each week.

3.      Study poetry. Poetry doesn’t get the percentage of teaching time I think it should, so you must use your time carefully. Free verse poems are the best to study poetry because of the punctuation they can hold, and studying enjambment (where content goes over the usual line break) will open the students’ eyes to a range of styles rather than the traditional rhyme scheme that all of my primary students seem to love.