What is Sequencing?
Sequencing is an essential reading skill that students must develop if they are to fully understand all reading material. Luckily, sequencing comes naturally to most children as the concept of chronological order is reinforced from very early on through the practice of the routines of daily life.
From the very first days of kindergarten, children are taught the importance of doing things in order. Each daily task contains its own inherent sequence. From tying their shoelaces to getting ready for school, children pick up an understanding of the importance of performing tasks step-by-step.
The importance of a defined beginning, middle, and end is further emphasized from the first fairy tales students encounter through to the later classics of English literature. While it is clear our students have a sense of what sequence is right from the start, understanding how a sequence comes together, and developing the necessary skills to identify its component parts, is another matter and it is this that will serve as the focus of this article.
Why Teach Sequencing?
Given its importance in our daily lives, it is no surprise that there are a myriad reasons to teach sequencing skills to our students. Strong sequencing skills help students:
● With their reading comprehension of a text, especially narrative texts.
● Understand the structure of a text and how it is put together.
● Understand how texts are kept cohesive through the use of linking devices such as connectives and transitions.
● Organize information and ideas in their own writing.
● Develop problem-solving skills that are important in other curriculum areas too.
For our students, being able to identify the sequence of events in a piece of writing is essential for them to gain a clear understanding of what they are reading. An important reading comprehension strategy, sequencing allows students to make sense of how events unfold in their reading. In turn, these reading skills will help students in their own writing. It will help them to construct a cohesive and logical flow to their writing that readers can follow easily.
There are a multitude of applications for good sequencing skills outside of the English classroom too. They are needed to effectively perform the steps of a science experiment in the correct order, for writing a set of instructions, for making sense of an historical series of events, and they are an important aspect of problem solving in mathematical computation.
How to Identify Sequence in a Text
In its simplest terms, identifying sequence in a text involves identifying the beginning, the middle, and the end.
One of the easiest ways to recognise the order of events is to look out for the sequencing words or transitions that are used to connect the various parts of the text.
Some of these words and phrases also act as signals to provide an indication of whether the event will be located in the beginning, in the middle, or toward the end of the text’s chronology.
There are a wide variety of ‘signal words’ and the following represent just a few of the most common, as well as where they are most likely to occur.
● Once upon a time / Once there was
● In the beginning
● First of all
● After that
● In the end
● After all
For more complex narratives and technical nonfiction genres that comprise more moving parts, other techniques need to be employed.
Use Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers are a great way to to help students arrange their thoughts more efficiently in a range of areas - and sequencing is no exception. There are a number of different graphic organizers that lend themselves well to displaying sequences of events.
Let’s take a look at two of the most suitable:
The timeline is the most commonly used form of graphic organizer used for displaying events in chronological order. They can come in a wide variety of forms, including vertical, horizontal, and illustrated. Students can get creative with timelines in a number of ways. For example, they can create parallel timelines whereby the main character’s timeline runs alongside a timeline depicting concurrent historical events. Or, they could create a map timeline which places the timeline onto a map depicting distance, place, and dates of events. Timelines are great for sequencing the events in fiction and nonfiction genres alike.
ii. The Story Sequence Chart
This graphic organizer visually represents a set of stair-steps. Students should write the events of the story on each step of the stairs in the order they occur, starting with the first event on the first step and with each event that follows written on the next step above. This is also a useful way for students to represent nonlinear narratives, such as in medias res. This organizer is a helpful means to unravel more complex chronologies. The finished chart helps the student to see each of the events in the story in the order that they occurred.
Sequencing Activities: Help Students Get Their Ducks in a Row
There are a range of ways to encourage student awareness of the importance of sequencing for the comprehensive understanding of a text. Using the graphic organisers mentioned above is one such way of helping students to identify the main events of a text.
Here are a few more activities to help students get to grips with sequence in their reading.
Order Out of Chaos
In this activity, divide the class up into smaller groups of three or four. Give each a copy of a short story (for differentiation purposes, you could assign groups based on ability here and give each a story according to their level). The short stories should be cut up into paragraphs (or individual sentences). In their groups, students reassemble the story according to how the think the chronology should be. If all groups use the same story, the class can then compare their choices at the end. If each group has a different story, they can read their story to the other groups at the end and explain reasons for their decisions.
Telling It Like It Was
The preparation for this activity works well as a homework as it gives students time to rehearse. However, it also works well after any reading activity to assess a student’s understanding of the sequence of events and their overall comprehension of what they have read.
Have students retell the events of the story, article, poem etc in their own words. If the text was nonlinear in its chronological structure, have them relay what they read, but this time in a linear form. Obviously, you may need to allow them some preparation time in such instances. I find telling students they will have to retell a story before they read it is a powerful tool to get them focused on that reading - fear is a peerless motivator!
You can also further expand on this activity by having students rewrite what they have been reading. This will challenge them to consider the importance of sequencing, both from a reader’s point of view and from that of a writer.
Spot the Sequence
Sometimes it can be difficult to extract a coherent chronology of events or steps from a convoluted text. It may be, for example, that in a fictional work the narrative perspective shifts between different characters and time periods. A good solution to this is to utilize the timeline as described above. Here, students can often match events to dates or times and then reassemble them in chronological order on a timeline.
But, what about nonfiction then? Or when there are no dates available? For example, when a process is described rather than an event?
In such instances it is good practice for students to use the following prompts to help identify the underlying sequence.
Encourage your students to ask themselves:
● What happened first, second, third etc?
● What happened before or after a specific event or step?
● What happened in the end?
Encourage students to look for context clues to help them extract the sequence from the text if it seems somewhat vague initially. A good understanding of story structure will help them to identify the exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution and understand how these relate to the sequence. It will further help signpost the chronology, even when the story is told in a nonlinear way.
For nonfiction in particular, the transition words / sequencing words outlined earlier in this article will often help immensely too.
In the End
The concepts that underlie sequence are normally not that difficult for students to grasp, as they experience an order to events constantly in their everyday life. In the context of reading comprehension skills they will usually be specifically concerned with the time order of events, or the steps that are taken in a text. For our students to become strong, active readers they must clearly identify the order that things happen or are done in their reading. For full comprehension of the most complex reading material, lots of practice will be required.
To that end, support your students to ensure they are familiar with as many variations of the sequencing / transitioning words as possible. Encourage higher level students to familiarise themselves with more sophisticated expressions of common phrases such as In the beginning like Initially or Primarily. The more context clues they can recognize too, the more efficiently they will perform this task.
There is no shortcut to the development of any of the key reading comprehension skills - and sequencing is no exception. First, students must understand what sequencing is. Then, they must understand how to identify it in a variety of text genres. After that, they must gain lots of experience through practice activities such as those outlined above. Finally, they will become confident, active readers capable of getting the most out of everything they read.