Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Text Frames and Nonfiction Writing

This is a really useful way to conceptualize nonfiction writing that works "both ways" - for reading and for writing instruction.  That is the essential insight of authors like Lucy Calkins, Katie Wood Ray, Laura Robb, Doug Buehl, and Ralph Fletcher.  (Or at least one insight common to all of them.)

What is a text frame?  It is a way of structuring or arranging ideas in a text.  It might be thought of as a kind of genre, a convention, a pattern, a formula, a rhetorical strategy, a heuristic, or even a trend.  The easiest example is chronological order.  A writer might choose to arrange her ideas in "time-order," or the order in which they occurred, or in a kind of beginning-middle-end narrative order.  This arrangement suits narrative - one of the most common ways and reasons for writing - because it tends to represent the experience of the story.  Writers often choose this strategy because it is common, engaging, and simple.  Readers can easily interpret and empathize with this arrangement.  

It makes sense to teach this text structure first for two reasons.  First, it is the simplest and most common.  Students will be able to understand it easily, because they use it and encounter it more often than any other.  Because it is so common, students will be able to apply this understanding to future encounters with chronologically-ordered text.  This ubiquity will also make it easy to locate models for students to learn from.  Second, pointing out this strategy to students, and suggesting that there are others, will help students notice large-scale textual patterns and help them think about the possibility of other patterns.  It will push them toward noticing holistic features - a powerful higher-order thinking skill.  

Hopefully, when you start to teach text structure, you will open a door for students to thinking about texts in bigger terms, on a larger scale.  When students seem to understand the concept of chronological order (which should not be a big leap), there are two good questions to ask:
  1. What kinds of texts are organized in way other than chronological order?
  2. Why would an author choose to compose a text that is not in time order?
Question 1 is really a reading question.  Question 2 is a writing question.  But both are really the same question.  I hope this helps explain how text structure - the concept as an instructional focus - illustrates how writing and reading instruction reinforce each other.  
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