PDF version Word version

Reciprocal Mapping: Scaffolding Students’ Expository Writing


Joyce C. Fine

Florida International University


“Why do you think you need extra help in reading?” I asked a preadolescent whom I had just begun tutoring.  He thought for a moment, looked me in the eye, and said, “When I read, I don’t know what’s important.”  


While this exchange was only part of the assessment process, his insight into his own situation taught me to pay attention to what students know and can articulate about their own reading difficulties. I shared with him that I thought he was really smart to be able to tell me what his problem was and that he would benefit from knowing how authors write. I explained that there are accepted “rules” or patterns for communicating ideas and that if he learned to recognize the way text was written, he would understand which set of “rules” the author had used and that that would help him be able to grasp what was important in the author’s message. Planning for intervention, I first introduced narrative text structure and then patterns of expository text structure. Soon the young man’s reading comprehension seemed to take off. With time, he had more confidence in his ability and, as a result, his overall general school achievement improved dramatically.        


The above experience also became a turning point in my own understanding of the importance of text structure for both reading and writing. Because reading and writing are reciprocal processes, the strategy described here, Reciprocal Mapping, is designed to support students using both reading and writing. Research in classrooms with narrative text structure with second graders and with special populations is described elsewhere (Fine, 1991, 2004). In this article, I will describe Reciprocal Mapping in detail, discuss the theoretical underpinnings of the process, tell why information text is used, and relate research in a third-grade classroom in which students’ understanding of expository text was mediated using this process.


What Is Reciprocal Mapping?  


Reciprocal Mapping is a strategy for teaching reading and writing by reading quality literature and examining author’s craft to improve students’ writing.  The teacher selects a text that is a well-developed, well-written example of a type of text structure. After reading the text, students do a retelling of the content while the teacher assesses and supports them in the retelling process. This might include asking probing questions when necessary. Then the students reread the text carefully with the teacher’s explicit instruction so that they will be able to create a graphic organizer depicting the author’s text structure. The teacher may guide the students in a whole class exercise in which the students use a prepared graphic organizer to write in boxes representing the parts on their individual copies. The readers carefully examine the writing to decide which key ideas to include. Then the students become writers by creating a prewriting plan of an original text on a graphic organizer that parallels the author’s plan drawn under the original graphic, as shown in the example of a problem-solution text structure graphic organizer in Figure 1.






Figure 1. Graphic of problem–solution text structure. The original book may be graphed on the top half.  The students discuss the main idea of the text and create a prewriting for their original text in a parallel graphic below the original book’s graphic.   


What Is the Theoretical Base for Reciprocal Mapping?


Reciprocal Mapping uses quality literature, graphic organizers, and explicit instruction as an activity that can lead students to higher levels of cognition about the processes of reading and writing. Quality literature is used to share the level of language for its aesthetic value and because of the influence it has on writing. According to Tierney and Pearson (1983) teachers need to help students see that both reading and writing are processes that share many of the same stages. For instance, whether students are reading someone else’s writing or creating their own writing, they need to focus on creating meaning. Much research has shown that teaching text structure improves students’ comprehension and writing (Flood, Lapp, & Farnan, 1986; McGee & Richgels, 1985; Harvey, 1998).  


Students use the graphic organizer to go through the process of recreating a visual of the author’s prewriting stage. It may be created by students drawing boxes and writing in the information or by providing the students with a graphic organizer pattern on which to write. In either case, students engage kinesthetically and actively process the text structure as they write it. The graphic organizer provides a visual link, a bridge from the words or abstract symbols back to the concrete picture level (Bruner, 1986).


The graphic organizer provides a support for the learner consistent with what Bruner called scaffolding (Ninio & Bruner, 1978). It supports students’ problem solving through their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), the level at which they can learn with the guidance from others to develop higher levels of understanding (Karpov, 2005). Having had teacher guide them through activities using a graphic organizer, the students are more likely to transfer their understanding to other texts. For this reason, the activity may be called a leading activity, one that leads the learner to a higher level of cognitive functioning.                     


Why Using Reciprocal Mapping with Expository Text?


There are many forms of expository text, including autobiography, biography, concept books, informational books about the natural or social world, fictionalized information books, and how-to books. These all share the common characteristic of telling about the real world in potentially fascinating way. For this reason many students find it motivational to read expository text and actually prefer it to narratives (Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003). By using Reciprocal Mapping with informational texts, students are preparing to learn how to better comprehend the form of writing that is found in most textbooks.


There are common text structures in expository writing. These include description, sequence, comparison, cause and effect, and problem and solution (Meyer & Freedle, 1984). Research has shown that good readers look for these patterns (Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980).There are signal words that indicate which text structure is being used (Vacca & Vacca, 1999). Some texts use only one of these for their organization. However, most use a combination of the patterns (Tompkins, 2005). Reciprocal Mapping may be focused on learning one or any combination of these patterns. The more familiar students become with the patterns, the more comfortable they will be when reading information texts.      


Research in a Third-Grade Classroom


I was able to share the process of Reciprocal Mapping using expository text in a third-grade classroom.  Most of the students were very familiar with narrative text structure, or story grammar, but were not very familiar with expository text structure. One of the first considerations was how to create a smooth transition from a narrative to an expository focus.


To bridge from reading mostly narrative text to expository text, the classroom teacher had started with a science fiction narrative, The Green Book (Walsh, 1982). This was an excellent choice because, similar to expository text, this genre has lots of “facts, but they are not necessarily true. They are presented, however, in a believable format so that the invented world holds delight for the readers. It also has a combination problem/ solution and cause and effect text structure involving the very realistic, believable characters.


The characters in The Green Book had to solve the problem of what to do when their home planet is dieing due to the effects of pollution and is no longer able to support life. The solution, leaving the planet, entailed may other subsidiary problems or effects. These included the demands that the characters had to plan what had to be taken, get used to being on a space ship for a very long time, and finally, when they reached another planet, decide if the planet could sustain life (see Figure 2).


As a first step, the students retold the story chapter by chapter.  This allowed the teacher to check for comprehension of the events taking place. Then the class created a map using the expository test structure.  Because the third-graders were preparing for the state assessment test in writing, Florida Writes!, we were sure to include the opportunity to map the details under each effect.     


Figure 2: This is a graphic organizer showing the expository structure used in parts of The Green Book by J.P. Walsh, (1982). 


At the conclusion of this activity, the students were asked to write a retelling of the text as if they were telling it to someone who had not read it (Brown & Cambourne, 1987).  Based on the students’ retellings, it was apparent that the students would benefit from a mini lesson on signal words to familiarize them with how writers use key words to indicate a particular expository pattern. A list of signal words along with examples was shared with the whole group (Vacca & Vacca, 1999, p. 397). The list of words was kept in a personal portfolio for future reference while writing.   Following the mini-lesson there were teacher-student and student-student conferences to scaffold the students’ growth in the use of signal words. Students added them to their own work. Their written pieces were shared in a community meeting during a writer’s workshop session.          


Once the students had mapped the text structures in the science fiction book, we proceeded to map a fictionalized information book, Flute’s Journey: The Life of a Wood Thrush (Cherry, 1997). This book presents the problems of migratory birds by personifying the main characters, wood thrushes, birds whose existence is threatened by the destruction of its natural habitats. The book may be classified as a fictionalized information book because it includes much information, but it also includes anthropomorphic characters, Flute and his mate, Feather.


The Reciprocal Map again focuses on a combination of problem-solution and cause and effect structures (see Figure 3.) The solution had effects that are described with details and supports.  





Figure 3: A Reciprocal Map of the Flutes’ Journey displays the problem-solution and cause and effect text structure.



Using the map of Flutes’ Journey as the model, the students wrote their own prewriting plans on the graphic organizer. Students were given freedom to write about whatever they wished, but were reminded that their own experiences often make for the most detailed and interesting topics. One wrote about steps that his family had to take in preparing to move to another state when his dad had changed jobs. Another wrote about her practicing to reach her goal to be an Olympic skater, while another wrote about practicing her dance routines for her recital. Each of these was a true expository text with combined problem-solution and cause and effect text structure many details for support.  “Remembering Dances” is an example of the latter (see Figure 4).   




Figure 4: A student’s Reciprocal Map illustrates her thinking through the same type of text structure as was found in The Green Book.



Following the prewriting using the map, the student below was able to write her expository composition incorporating the combined problem-solution and cause and effect text structure.


Remembering Dances


Plea, suso, potopura? No, no, is it suso, plea, potopura?  I don’t know all the steps. All I know is I have a big situation. I can’t remember my dances. There are many little problems and solutions that come with not being able to remember dances.

For a start, you have to make time slots. Time slots are different pieces of time like a schedule. To do this you have to do any homework quickly so that you don’t take up valuable practice time. My mom always said: “Time keeps moving even if you’re not.” Also if you eat an after school snack you would have to eat it as quickly as a mouse scurries also not to take up practice time. And don’t forget to stay on task in school. Then you won’t have extra homework to do.

Not only do you have to make a schedule but you also need to visualize. To visualize is to review a step or dance in your mind.  A good way for anyone to start visualizing would be to put on the song you’re dancing to and lay down. Then close your eyes and pretend to watch the dance as you review in your mind.

Most importantly you must do one part at a time. To start you must have a large area where you can dance safely. Secondly, you must divide the dance into three parts.  Do part one three times. Then do the second part three times. Then do parts one and two together three times. Now do the third part three times. Finally do the whole dance three times and do it with music. 

Now you know some solutions for not remembering dances. They may not be a perfect cure but you can certainly improve by making time slots, visualizing, and doing one part at a time. Happy dancing!    


This third-grade student was able to organize and write about how she solved her own “big situation” and learned her dance routine. She systematically organized her thoughts and was able to include not only her own voice but that of her mother! 


By careful examining (through mapping) the text structure of a well chosen model, then planning and mapping their own texts (based on the model), they are able to create more sophisticated final results. By making reading/writing connections in this way, students’ writing tends to be longer, more complex, and more fluid. Reciprocal mapping allows students to more fully appreciate the author’s craft and develop an understanding of text structure needed for learning from textbooks.  Additionally, they develop a sense of voice by writing about what they know from their own lives. This process can also affect their reading comprehension as well as their motivation, because students learn that they have a method at their disposal for knowing what is important in what they read.  Then, when working from a well-understood model they are able communicate what they want in their writing in far more effective ways. Although experts know that reading and writing are indeed connected, a method like Reciprocal Mapping allows students both to grasp this and realize benefits of these connections.   



Thanks to Mrs. Karen Fletcher, third-grade teacher at Park Trails Elementary School, Broward County Public Schools, Parkland, Florida for allowing me to work with her and her class.




Brown, H. & Cambourne, B. ( 1987). Read and Retell. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Duke, N. K., & Bennett-Armistead (2003). Reading & writing informational text in the primary


grades. New York, NY: Scholastic.


Fine, J. C. (1991). The effect of direct instruction in story grammar using deep processing


on the reading and writing achievement of second graders.  (Doctoral Dissertation,


Florida International University, 1991) Dissertation Abstracts International, 52 (12),


4204A. (UMI No. 9210706).


Fine, J. C. (2004). Reciprocal mapping: Scaffolding students’ literacy to higher levels. In A.


Rodgers & E. M. Rodgers (Eds.), Scaffolding literacy instruction: Strategies for K-4


classrooms (pp. 88-104). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Flood, J. Lapp, D., & Farnan, N. (1986). A reading-writing procedure that teaches expository


paragraph structure. The Reading Teacher, 39, 556-562.


Harvey, S. (1998). Nonfiction matters: Reading writing and research in grades 3-8. York, ME:




Karpov, Y. V. (2005). Vygotsky’s doctrine of scientific concepts: Its role for contemporary


education. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s


educational theory in cultural context (pp. 65-82). New York, NY: Cambridge University




McGee, L.M., & Richgels, D. J. (1985). Teaching expository text structure to elementary


students. The Reading Teacher, 38, 739-748.


Meyer, B. J. F., Brandt, D., & Bluth, G. (1980). Use of top-level structure in text: Key for


Reading comprehension of ninth-grade students. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 72-




Meyer, B. J., & Freedle, R. O. (1984). Effects of discourse type on recall. American Educational


Research Journal, 21, 121-143.


Ninio, A., & Bruner, J. S. (1978). The achievement and antecedents of labeling. Journal of Child


Language, 5, 1-15. 


Tierney, R. J., & Pearson, P. D. (1983). Toward a composing model of reading. Language Arts,


60, 568-580.


Tompkins, G. E., (2005). Language arts: Patterns of practice (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:


Pearson, Merrill, Prentice Hall.


Vacca, R. T. & Vacca, J. L. (1999). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across


the curriculum (6th ed.). NY: Longman.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978).  M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman (Eds.). Mind in


society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard


University Press.




Children’s Books


Cherry, L. (1997). Flute’s journey: The life of a wood thrush. New York, NY: Guilliver Green/


Harcourt Brace.   


Walsh, J. P. (1982). The Green Book. Sunburst/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Lodi, NJ: Everbind.