Understanding Text Structures in Nonfiction

Enhance your curriculum by showing how these standout nonfiction works reflect strategies of nonfiction writing. 

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When If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond hit bookshelves in 1985, it captured the hearts and minds of young readers as well as adults. The beloved book spawned eight companion titles that have sold more than 4.5 million copies and been printed in 14 languages. What’s the secret of its success? Text structure.

Nearly all fiction for children (and adults) has a chronological sequence text structure that follows Freytag’s pyramid —introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. This structure is so familiar, so expected, that when Numeroff deviated from it, readers took notice. And because her cause-and-effect text structure works so well, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie has become a classic that has stayed in print for decades.

In contrast, nonfiction authors routinely use a wide range of text structures to organize and connect ideas. When young readers know how to identify these structures, they can access, understand, and remember the ideas and information more easily.

Currently, most educators use text samples in basal reading programs to teach text structures, but you can create more powerful, more authentic lessons by using the high-quality text found in finely crafted children’s books instead of or in addition to the basal texts. In this article and the two that accompany it, we’ll share ideas to help you incorporate nonfiction children’s books into your existing curriculum and recommend some exemplary titles for this purpose.


Text Structure by Book Category
According to the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system, children’s books can be sorted into five major categories—active, browsable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. When students understand the characteristics of these categories, they can predict the kind of information they’re likely to find in a book and how that information will be presented. As a result, they can quickly and easily identify the best books for a particular purpose. They can also recognize the type(s) of nonfiction books they enjoy reading most.

Narrative nonfiction tells a story or conveys an experience. It has a narrative writing style and typically features the same chronological sequence text structure as fiction. The other four categories have an expository writing style, which explains, describes, or informs in a straightforward, accessible fashion. Most traditional and browsable nonfiction books have a description text structure, while active nonfiction generally features a sequence structure. Expository literature, which takes a creative approach to a specific topic, can employ a wide variety of text structures and choosing just the right one is a critical part of the writing process.

“Finding a structure often takes time,” says Marcie Flinchum Atkins, author of Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature. “I try on different ways of writing the same book using different text structures, until I find the right fit.”

“Figuring out the text structure is always an adventure for me!” says Laura Purdie Salas, author of Snowman ˗ Cold = Puddle: Spring Equations. “I love trying different approaches for the same content. It’s a little like a child playing dress-up for the day and seeing which outfit feels just right. Princess, dragon, zebra, racecar . . . what shape should these ideas take?”

In a 2017 interview, author-illustrator Steve Jenkins said, “The text structure for a book usually emerges as I’m doing research, making notes, and writing early drafts of a manuscript.” But sometimes the perfect structure is obvious from the start. “Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember was inspired by that phrase popping into my head when I read that macaques sometimes react violently to a human smile (a display of teeth),” he said. “From the beginning, I knew that I’d base the book on a series of similar admonitions (never clutch a cane toad, never cuddle a cub, never touch a tang).”

Because Jenkins planned to focus on the consequences of not heeding the playful warnings, he knew immediately the book would have a cause and effect text structure.

Nonfiction Books by Text Structure

Many expository literature children’s books employ one of the five text structures espoused by state English language arts curriculum standards that educators are already familiar with—description, compare and contrast, cause and effect, sequence, and problem-solution. Here are some examples:

Description

Provides an overview of a topic by describing major characteristics, features, and/or examples.

Examples:
Bonkers About Beetles by Davey Owen
Freaky, Funky Fish: Odd Facts About Fascinating Fish by Debra Kempf Shumaker and Claire Powell
A Hundred Million Billion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg
The Shark Book by Steve Jenkins
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton
 

Compare & Contrast
Focuses on how two or more creatures, ideas, behaviors, events, or phenomena are similar to and different from one another.

Examples:
Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds & Me by Susan L. Roth
Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor
Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci by Gene Barretta
Round by Jennifer Ward and Lisa Congdon
Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen

 

Cause & Effect
Describes the outcome or result of a particular event, phenomenon, or behavior.

Examples:
Because Claudette by Tracey Baptiste and Tonya Engel
Because of an Acorn by Lola M. Schaefer and Frann Preston-Gannon
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams
Never Smile at a Monkey : And 17 Other Important Things to Remember by Steve Jenkins
Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins
 

Sequence
Presents events or processes in the order they happened.

Examples:
How to Make a Book (About My Dog) by Chris Barton and Sarah Horne
How to Swallow a Pig: Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Out of the Blue: How Animals Evolved from Prehistoric Sea by Elizabeth Shreeve and Frann Preston-Gannon
Snowman ˗ Cold = Puddle: Spring Equations by Laura Purdie Salas and Micha Archer
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac


Problem-Solution
Describes a problem and presents a solution

Examples:
Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs by Kathleen V. Kudlinksi and S.D. Schindler
Make Way for Animals! A World of Wildlife Crossings by Meeg Pincus and Bao Luu
A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart and Higgins Bond
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger
What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? by Steve Jenkins

In truth, these five major text structures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to finely crafted expository literature. Many other books make use of a question-and-answer text structure or a list text structure. Here are some examples:
 

Question & Answer
A series of questions and answers guide readers through the book’s content.

Examples:
Eye by Eye: Comparing How Animals See by Sara Levine and T.S. Spookytooth
Can an Aardvark Bark? by Melissa Stewart and Steve Jenkins
Hatch! by Roxie Munro
What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Whose Hands Are These? by Miranda Paul and Luciana Navarro Powell

 

List
The book’s main idea is presented on the first spread, and each subsequent page or spread offers an example to support that idea. A concluding spread may summarize the content, link back to the opening, or offer a fun twist on the topic.

Examples:
The Beak Book by Robin Page
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals by Katy S. Duffield and Mike Orodan
Odd Bods: The World’s Unusual Animals by Julie Murphy
Play Like an Animal! Why Critters Splash, Race, Twirl, and Chase by Maria Gianferrari and Mia Powell
We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac


Other books utilize more specialized text structures that echo and enhance the book’s content. While the possibilities are endless, here are some examples we’ve noticed in multiple books.

Ladder
Information or examples build to a peak (the top of the ladder) and then reverse in the second half of the book. One well-known example is the fiction title A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead and by Erin E. Stead.

Examples:
Skulls by Blair Thornburgh and Scott Campbell
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes

Cumulative
Information slowly builds, using a set of repeated phrases. Many traditional tales, including “The House that Jack Built” and “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” use this structure.

Examples:
Here Is the Tropical Rain Forest by Madeleine Dunphy and Michael Rothman
The Nest that Wren Built by Randi Sonenshine and Anne Hunter

Counting
Information is organized by numbers. Some books invite readers to count up from one, while others feature a countdown.

Examples:
13 Ways to Eat a Fly by Sue Heavenrich and David Clark
Octopuses One to Ten by Ellen Jackson and Robin Page

Linked
Text, design, formatting link ideas or information from one spread to the next, often in unusual or unexpected ways.

Examples:
Move! by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin

 

Clustered

Information is grouped in ways that highlight relationships or important ideas. The groupings may surprise readers or encourage them to think about the topic in a new way.

Examples:
The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner and Adam Rex
Play in the Wild: How Baby Animals Like to Have Fun by Lita Judge

In the next article of this three-part series, we offer teaching strategies and activities for introducing nonfiction text structures to students.
 

Melissa Stewart has written more than 200 science books for children, including the Sibert Medal Honoree Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. She co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and edited the anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing.

Terrell A. Young is professor of children’s literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He has served as president of the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY), ILA Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R), and the NCTE Children's Literature Assembly (CLA).

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