About Text Structures: Discussion with Estelle Brettenny

Name of Scholar / Expert:

Estelle Brettenny

Who is Estelle Brettenny? 

Estelle Brettenny is a passionate occupational therapist (B.OT. M.OT. PDME) with more than 40 years of clinical experience. She has been specialising in metacognitive therapeutic intervention and learning health for Generation Z learners (older primary school learners, high school learners and students) since 1998. She is a certified trainer in the Cognitive Enrichment Advantage (CEA) (since 1997) and Thinking Maps (since 2011) and has completed numerous courses about the development of thinking and learning.

For more than twenty years, she has also been conducting extensive cognitive education training (the development of metacognition, thinking and learning) of educators and professionals in various provinces of South Africa.  She was part of the Board of the International Association for Cognitive Education (IACESA) for two decades (as President from 2013-2015), she is a founding member of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA) and an Honorary Member of the Institute for the Advancement of Cognitive Education (IACE).

As there is a real need for individuals of all ages to adapt their thinking and learning processes to keep up and remain healthy in this ever-changing world, she has integrated her knowledge and experience into a user-friendly approach, the BE MORE approach, which is suited for learners, parents, educators and professionals.

The BE MORE Approach incorporates a Mediational Coaching Approach, a Metacognitive Approach, a REAL Thinking and Learning Approach and a Functional Medicine Approach and is used in a variety of practical services and opportunities to empower individuals and groups.  Her focus is on: REAL Thinking and Learning to BE MORE.

For more information visit her website: http://www.brettenny.co.za

Please note:

The focus of this Blog will be on Text Structures. The Blog is therefore deliberately approached from a Text Structure perspective as text is written with a specific intent by the authors.

What is Text Structure in books and notes and how can it enhance or hamper learning?

Text structure refers to the way that information is organised in a text. Like builders use different structures to build a building (e.g. bricks, steel, cement, glass, etc.), authors use different text structures to build text. Myer (1975) was the first to describe different types of expository (informational) text structures (Roehling et al., 2017). According to various sources the most common text structures are: Description; Compare and Contrast; Sequence; Cause and Effect; and Problem and Solution; although the terms and definitions for these structures have varied across researchers (Meyer, B.J.F. and Ray, M.N. 2011; Roehling et al., 2017; Williams, 2017; Williams, 2018).  Each text structure has typical signal words (or clue words) that signal the text structure to the reader. The following signal words can for example indicate a Cause and Effect text structure: because, as a result, is caused by, if…then, outcome, so, thus, therefore, etc.

Signal words are also referred to as transitions and they act as road signs to help readers navigate a text. The transitions signal to the reader how the next idea or detail is related to the previous one.

Text structure instruction has been researched and refined over a period of more than four decades by Myer and her colleagues as well as other academic scholars. A meta-analysis of text structure instruction by Hebert et al. (2016) as cited by Roehling, et al. (2017) concluded that text structure instruction is an effective way to enhance expository (informational) reading comprehension and this is critical for academic success. Myer and Ray (2011) state that there is substantial and consistent evidence that text structure instruction increases recall from expository text; that the quality of the recall is better; that learners have increased understanding and use of signalling words; that learners can identify main ideas better and produce better summaries; etc. Text structure instruction also changes the type of ideas that learners underline as important and it even changes their eye movements while reading.

Despite of all the benefits associated with text structure instruction, understanding expository text is often a massive challenge for learners, especially for learners with language or other difficulties. Children are more exposed to narrative texts before they start school, e.g. watching TV and movies, listening to bedtime stories, etc.  Narrative texts usually follow a single structure with a series of events. If children were not exposed enough to other text structures before they enter school, they might experience problems when they have to read more informational texts in school.  When they reach Grade 4 they have to deal with expository text to a greater extent and the text become more unfamiliar, complex and challenging than those in narrative texts.  Thousands of learners struggle to understand and learn expository text (not only learners with diagnosed reading and learning difficulties).  Dymock (2005) provides a summary of key findings from research and mentions that many learners experience problems comprehending expository text as they cannot see the basic structure of the text and they get lost in the words. Learners who have a good understanding of expository text structure on the other hand have fewer problems with comprehension.

Unfortunately there are also numerous factors, related to how text is organised in books and classroom notes that can hamper learning from expository text (as discussed in the next section).

Regarding Text Structures in books and notes, what are some of the biggest challenges that learners, parents, teachers and practitioners face?

I recently (October 2019) did a small-scale survey with numerous parents, some educators and professionals to determine the top two problems that they experience with school books and classroom notes and how these problems affect learners.  The following themes regarding the main problems were identified:

  • The organisation of information in books and notes are not always logical and effective;
  • Text books and classroom notes are not always complementary;
  • Information in books and notes is incomplete sometimes;
  • The academic language used in books is often challenging;
  • The relevance of the work is not always clear; and
  • The print and appearance of the text are not always effective.


According to the information received from the survey, the above mentioned problems can lead to learners feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.  They often struggle with learning and waste a lot of time.

The above mentioned survey results link with literature. Although we might assume that school books and notes are written effectively, there is ample evidence in literature that this not the case. Williams (2018) state that textbooks are often badly organised and poorly written and learners must get information from disorganized text. The fact that expository text is organised in a variety of structural patterns, also leads to a serious challenge for many learners.  There are structural clues within the text, some easy to identify and some rather subtle.  When the text is not well structured, learners must expend cognitive resources on creating their own organisation and this might not always be effective (Williams, 2018).

Teachers, parents and practitioners are often oblivious to these challenges that learners face and are often unaware of the role of deliberate text structure instruction.  According to research learners require direct instruction in how to go about comprehending more complex expository text structures and teachers play an important role to develop and enhance these skills (Dymock, 2005).

As an occupational therapist, specialising with older primary school and high school learners for the past 21 years, the development of thinking and learning skills have always been infused in my metacognitive therapeutic intervention process. I have been trained in various approaches to develop metacognition, thinking and learning skills and is an experienced cognitive education practitioner and therapist.  Due to my own skills and my longstanding awareness of the problems with textbooks and classroom notes that are often badly organised and poorly written, I have been able to educate my clients and the parents of my clients about these challenges.  I use approaches that can enhance thinking and learning and the understanding of text (cognitive) structures (e.g. Thinking Maps) that enable learners to cope better with the challenges in text books and notes. There are however not enough practitioners or interventionists that fully understand the role of books and classroom notes to enhance or hamper learning and parents often compensate for these problems by doing summaries for younger children or relying on ‘band-aid’ approaches to support their children when they cannot keep up.

My opinion is that learner intervention alone cannot change the root cause of this problem that is affecting thousands of learners.  We are facing an even bigger dilemma with education (than what we have already) in South Africa (and world-wide) if authors of text books and teachers that create classroom notes are not aware of the importance of text structure and if deliberate text structure instruction is not infused in teaching.  Despite the advances in technology it has been said in the book, The Future of (almost) Everything (Dixon, 2019) that paper will still be with us for a long time and that busy executives still prefer to print out lengthy board papers or contracts.  They can read printed pages up to ten times faster than their on-screen speed to find what they are looking for and their recall is better with paper (Dixon, 2019).  Dixon also states that to make sense of the streams of data we are bombarded with daily, we need to know how to identify patterns (that could be indicated by text structures and signal words), see context, interpret, analyse, summarise, conclude, etc.

We must therefore address the problem with school text books and classroom notes and infuse deliberate text structure instruction in classrooms from primary school level.  This might be happening in certain countries, but it is definitely not happening in the average primary school class in South Africa and in many other countries.  Learners will be prepared more effectively for high school, for tertiary education and the world of work if they can comprehend expository text structures better.

My opinion is that deliberate and explicit text structure instruction should happen before an approach such as Thinking Maps is introduced. Despite being an experienced Thinking Maps trainer and practitioner, the most common challenge my clients (and the parents that sit in during sessions) verbalise when they have to deal with challenging expository text is: “I am not sure which Thinking Map I must use.” Lots of learners fall back on previous rote learning methods without adequate support.  Many learners also do not like ‘mapping’ of any kind but if they understand text structure it could help them to organise their work in a more meaningful way and create sensible headings and key questions when they make summaries even if they do not map the structure.

What are some recommended ways to teach children about Text Structure?

  1. Parent Education: Parents of pre-school children should be educated so that they can introduce different text structures from an early age during story reading, everyday activities, talking, etc.
  2. Text Structure Instruction: Teachers should be trained to infuse deliberate text structure instruction in class. The following 6 basic steps can be followed (more detail and practical examples can be obtained in the video of the talk on Books and Notes can Enhance or Hamper Learning as well as from other resources on the internet):

1. Explain what is text structure;
2. Introduce one text structure at a time, as well as signal words and mapping of the structure;
3. Practice all text structures and signal words in various and fun ways (without content and with subject content);
4. Increase the challenge level;
5. Teach superordinate and sub-ordinate structures; and
6. Use common terms for text structures in all classes and in the whole school.

  1. Intervention programmes: Programmes for at risk learners should be developed. The CATS (Close Analysis of Text Structured Texts) was developed in 2008 by Joanna Williams and her students (Williams, 2017). It is not a formal programme that can purchased but the basic concepts and principles could be used to develop similar interventions in South Africa and other countries.
  2. Visual Resources: Visual resources can be used by practitioners and teachers to do text structure instruction. The Visual Resource below (in which the story of The Three Little Pigs was used as an analogy) is part of a talk to illustrate how text structure instruction can be done in a classroom situation. A ±1½ hour video recording of this talk titled Books and Notes can Enhance or Hamper Learning has been done and will be available soon.
  3. Writing of Text Books and Classroom Notes: Most importantly, deliberate attention must be given to the writing of text books and creation of classroom notes by authors and educators so that text structure instruction is infused as part of the content so that the process of text structure instruction in schools will be a more natural and an easier process. The back of the Visual Resource provide:

a. Ten Basic Guidelines for Overall Structure of Classroom Notes/Books; as well as
b. Ten key Tips to Create Logical Content for Classroom Notes.

(Please refer to Resources (Tools) to download a landscape copy of this Visual resource)

What are some of the important signs that will indicate to parents, teachers and practitioners that learners are becoming more aware of Text Structure to enhance their own learning?

  • Learners will be able to identify the structure of a text and use signal words/clue words to help them with this process;
  • Learners will be aware of the fact that signal words can be misleading and that they need to reflect about the overall structure of a paragraph or main idea;
  • Learners will be able to form mental images that will help them to understand informational text easier;
  • Learners will be able to discriminate between different text structures in one paragraph or main idea;
  • Learners will be able to identify main ideas and supporting facts easier;
  • Learners will find learning, summarising and recall easier (with or without ‘mapping’);
  • Learners will cope better with creative writing tasks or writing of essays in Life Sciences or History, etc.;
  • In general learners will be able to comprehend expository text easier and feel less frustrated and overwhelmed and (hopefully) also achieve better results.

Visit our Tools and Research and Other Articles pages for Ms Bretteny’s recommended and applicable literature sources on Text Structures. 

Ms Brettenny’s Contact Details are as follow:
Cell: 082 430 7956
Email address: estelle@brettenny.co.za
Physical Address:
1 A Stepping Stone Street
South Africa

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