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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

Art and Science of Teaching / Analyzing Complex Texts

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The Common Core State Standards in English language arts emphasize developing students' abilities to analyze both informational and literary texts at increasing levels of complexity. Analyzing a text boils down to discerning and describing the text's structure.
All texts, whether informational or literary, have at least two levels of structures (see Kintsch, 1974; van Dijk, 1980). Top-level structures represent the overall organization, such as a narrative characterized by rising action, falling action, and a conclusion, or an argument in which the author presents and supports a claim.
In contrast, bottom-level structures involve basic relationships among ideas. Understanding these relationships can help students grasp the underlying structure of complex texts.

Four Relationships

There are four basic relationships between ideas:
  • Addition: One idea is similar to or adds to another idea. For example, he is blond and handsome.
  • Contrast: One idea does not go with or subtracts from another idea. For example, he is fast but doesn't like to play sports.
  • Time: One idea occurs before, during, or after another idea. For example, she walked away before he arrived.
  • Cause: One idea causes another. For example, she woke up because the alarm buzzed.
Consider the following sentence: Mary called Bill after he left for work, but he didn't get the call because his cell phone was off. We understand this sentence because we've parsed it into its basic propositions—Mary called Bill, Bill left for work, he didn't get the call, his cell phone was off—as well as the relationships among these propositions. For example, Mary called Bill after he left for work (the relationship of time), and Bill didn't get the call because his phone was turned off (the relationship of cause). Although students often understand relationships among ideas in everyday speech simply because the human mind is hardwired to do so, they may need guidance in analyzing relationships among written ideas.

For Elementary Students

Teachers can start by teaching students about the four relationships. As students read information or listen to information presented orally, they can use symbols to represent the four relationships (Marzano & Heflebower, 2012): Addition is represented by an equal sign (=); contrast is represented by a not equal sign (≠); time is represented by an arrow (→); and cause is represented by a double-stemmed arrow (⇒).
For example, assume that elementary students have just read a text about Martin Luther King Jr. One student might focus on an addition relationship and diagram it as follows:
He was a minister. = He was a social activist.
Another student might focus on a causal relationship:
He promoted nonviolent protest to achieve civil rights. ⇒ He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The teacher should ask students to identify the signal words in the text that provided clues to the relationship.
Diagramming basic relationships among ideas doesn't have to occur within single sentences. In fact, identifying relationships that cut across multiple sentences or parts of a text is much more powerful. To analyze a section of a text, a student doesn't have to decompose each sentence and determine the net effect of all relationships. Rather, the student simply reads the text with an eye toward the basic relationships. When the student finds a specific relationship juncture, he or she mentally asks, How many ideas does this relationship include? The more expansive the coverage of the relationship, the more general and abstract is the student's analysis. The ultimate goal of such analysis is to articulate the author's underlying messages.

For Secondary Students

With secondary students, diagrams can include a discussion of the subtypes of each of the four relationships. Instead of a student simply noticing that a causal relationship exists, the student might also identify whether that relationship is direct cause, result, reason, inference, or condition, as specified in the figure at www.ascd.org/el1212marzano.
Students can use the basic relationships and their subtypes to parse more complex and abstract texts. For example, a student reading Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" might notice that the first stanza contains a strong contrast. The first four lines paint a joyous picture of a ship returning to port after a dangerous trip:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
The next four lines paint a different picture:
But O heart! heart! heart!O the bleeding drops of red,Where on the deck my Captain lies,Fallen cold and dead.
Focusing on the relationship indicator "but," the student would entertain possible relationships. For example, the student might interpret the relationship as straightforward antithesis—the captain of the ship has not survived the voyage. Alternatively, the term but might signal the writer's recoil at the news; he falls back from his outward description of the journey and plunges into an inward description of his own grief. (The heart he's talking about is his heart, and the blood—it's both of theirs.)

An Inroad to Understanding

By familiarizing themselves with relationships and their subtypes, along with the words that signal those ideas, students become ever more sensitive to—and vigilant in identifying—nuances in thought and language.

Kintsch, W. (1974). The representation of meaning in memory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Marzano, R. J., & Heflebower, T. (2012). Teaching and assessing 21st century skills. Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

van Dijk, T. A. (1980). Macrostructures. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.

As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.

He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.

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