Back to: Module: Helping Students Read
Understanding Textual Features and Structure
Books and other reading materials feature much more on their pages than just words. They have punctuation marks and different print styles. They use different ways of arranging the white space and the words on the pages. They sometimes have special sections, such as tables of contents and indexes. These, and many other things on the pages of books, are called text features.
Text features used over and over in almost all English writing are called text conventions or conventional features of text. Text conventions are practices that have been agreed on over the years. For instance, we put a period at the end of sentences. We use a question mark at the end of a question. We indent to show the beginning of a new paragraph. We put a table of contents at the front of a book and an index at the back to help readers find information.
Text features help readers understand what they’re reading. The writing in books for beginning readers is pretty simple. Most pages look almost the same—maybe a picture with one or two short, similar sentences. But as reading materials get harder, the pages have more on them, and the writing gets more complicated. Readers have to learn the meanings of the different things on the pages—the text features. These features help readers deal better with words, sentences, ideas, and the overall structure of a chapter or book.
Using Text Features Requires Instruction
Most young readers quickly learn the basic features of text. They see that sentences and names start with uppercase letters. They understand the meanings of the most common punctuation marks. They notice the spaces between words and sentences, and the indents at the start of new paragraphs. Even in the early grades, students learn that words inside of quotation marks are dialogue spoken by the characters. Beginning readers soon learn what different types (or genres) of writing look like. Poetry looks different from regular writing (prose). Letters and e-mails look different from prose and poetry.
As readers move up in grade level, it becomes more important for them to know what the features of text mean. There are new kinds of punctuation marks to learn, such as colons and parentheses. Some reading materials have special text features, such as headings, call out boxes, a glossary, or figures. Teachers can help students become stronger readers by teaching them about text features.
A good way to help students understand the features in written text is to give them practice and support in using those features. Here are some ideas:
- You might have students read a passage aloud without stopping for commas and periods. Then have them read it again, but this time, have them pause at commas and periods.
- You might help students learn to use indexes to find information.
- When students begin to read texts about science and social studies, you can help them figure out how to get information from headings, text boxes, charts, tables, and figures.
Students need many chances to practice finding and using text features. They need to experience the utility of these features. The following tool (“Supporting Students’ Understanding by Turning Subheadings into Questions”) uses one text feature, subheadings, to help students prepare to read a nonfiction passage.