Here are FIVE key things to try…
It always seems to make sense to read a text before analysing and exploring the way that a writer has chosen to structure it and why they may have made these choices. However, this approach does not support comprehension and can make it challenging for students to find the bigger picture or to consider how the words create a narrative.
“Many students experience problems comprehending expository text. There are many reasons for this, one being that they can’t see the basic structure of a text. Some students get lost in the words.” (Dymock, 1998; Dymock and Nicholson, 1999)
Here are some approaches that I use to familiarise students with the structure of a text, before or as we read.
Ask students to identify and explain the key elements of setting when considering the meaning in a title or the opening of a text. Looking for semantic fields that link to time and place creates a foundation that builds a clear picture from which a narrative can emerge. Think about the clues that writers may leave for the reader to pick up on. Consider the possibility that writers may purposely leave out clues about setting and what this may suggest.
List major characters and establish basic information about them as soon as possible. This again supports students in their comprehension of character development and helps them recognise quickly how these characters may change. For example, in An Inspector Calls, we learn that Mrs Birling is ‘cold’, Mr Birling is ‘portentous’ and Eric is ‘uneasy’ in the prologue. Students can make inferences here and start to think about where these traits may take the characters.
- Rising action
Ask students to think about the expectations they have for the characters and what barriers or obstacles these characters may come across. Considering their hopes, desires and goals also provides a sense of purpose to reading a text. The rising action may include actions and behaviours that could lead to certain consequences – students can think about what those consequences may be.
- Compare and contrast
Considering similarities and differences in characters, settings and events can reveal underlying meanings. For example, in John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, we have a vivid and positive image of Bruno’s house which we can later compare to the grim and prison-like house at Auschwitz. This symbolises a shift in the narrative and will support students in understanding where that narrative may lead. Thinking about and discussing the significance of similarities and differences can often reveal where the plot may take the reader and therefore guide a student’s understanding of the elements in a story.
- Hierarchy of importance
Thinking about why a writer may reveal certain events in a story at certain points and in varying detail for a reason is important. Rather than seeing events as independent of each other, making connections between them creates a ‘big picture’ that serves its own purpose. Ranking events or making explicit connections between them can reveal further, more significant meanings. Discussing why certain points are prioritised or played down by a writer can be very poignant as well. Paul Marshall’s character in Ian McEwan’s Atonement is largely absent and yet it is his behaviour that sparks the fateful events in the novel and conveys the privileges of his class when he continues to remain in the shadowy background.
Thank you for reading – perhaps knowing there were only five points made it easier..?
Here are some further posts on structure:
Jekyll and Hyde
An Inspector Calls