Tips for Reading Nonfiction

Need help reading the websites, speeches, and articles featured on this site?
Use these core strategies to tackle even the most complex informational texts.

Analyze Text Structure

Writers organize information in their texts according to their purpose for writing and their topic. If a writer’s organizational choices are effective, readers can better identify, understand, and analyze the central ideas in the text.

Here are some common structures that writers of informational text often use:

  • Main Idea and Details In this type of organization, a writer introduces the most important idea at the beginning of the text and then supports that idea with specific details, such as facts, statistics, and examples. In some longer texts, each key supporting detail is identified in a subheading or topic sentence (which is generally found at the beginning or the end of a paragraph).
  • Chronological Order With this structure, a writer describes events in the order in which they occurred. Look for signal words such as before, during, and later, and phrases that include dates and times.
  • Sequence / How-To This structure is often used to show the individual steps in a process. A writer might include a numbered list of steps, or use signal words like first, next, then, and finally.
  • Cause-Effect When a writer is describing how one event, idea, or trend is the direct result of another, the text must be organized to show these relationships. In addition to a simple cause-effect relationship, you might read about one cause having many effects, multiple causes leading to a single effect, or a chain reaction of events, with each event causing the next. Writers will use signal words — because, since, as a result, consequently, due to, if . . . then, and therefore — to make these relationships clear.
  • Comparison-Contrast When comparing and contrasting two or more subjects, a writer will organize ideas to clearly identify similarities and differences. Words and phrases like similarly, also, too, however, but, unlike, and yet signal this structure.
  • Classification A writer will use this text structure to describe the different parts or categories of a broader subject or topic. Some signal phrases to watch for include one feature, another type, and this kind. In some cases, each part or category is identified with a subheading or section break of some kind.
  • Problem-Solution In a problem-solution text, the writer analyzes a problem and then proposes or examines one or more solutions to that problem. Signal words include problem, reason, propose, conclude, answer, and solution.
  • Order of Importance To craft arguments or persuasive texts, a writer might use order of importance, either beginning or ending with the most compelling point. Look for signal words such as most important and best.
  • Multiple Structures It’s important to be aware that writers often use more than one text structure in a single piece of writing. Perhaps there are several kinds of relationships to describe or a more complex situation to examine. Pay close attention to any signal words the writer uses to cue a change in the structure.

When you are analyzing the structure of any text, use these strategies:

  • Identify the topic and purpose. Consider what the text is mostly about and why the writer might have written it.
  • Locate signal words. Notice and highlight any signal words that might help you follow the writer’s central ideas and identify the text structure.
  • Track the ideas. Use an outline or graphic organizer to keep track of the writer’s central ideas and supporting details.
  • Evaluate text structure. Consider whether the writer uses an appropriate structure to communicate information. Is the text easy to follow? Do signal words help you understand the connections among the ideas?