Cause-and-Effect Relationships in Play, Picture Books, and Text

Cause and effect is the relationship between two things when one makes the other happen. In our attempt to make sense of the world, natural phenomena, and human behavior, we often turn to cause and effect. Authors, too, rely on this text structure to explain, show order, change character behavior, and create plot. Within the curriculum areas, cause/effect text structure often appears in science and social studies textbooks.

As a teacher, I found that cause and effect was one of the most difficult text structures for my students to master. Yet they could easily identify examples of cause and effect in everyday life. I attempted to bridge this gap between real-life and reading comprehension through explicit instruction in the cause/effect text structure, modeling, graphic organizers, and many examples in both fiction and nonfiction text.

Two teaching strategies are often effective in teaching students to recognize and understand the cause/effect text structure: teaching signal words (because, so, and since) and teaching the three types of cause/effect relationships (stated, unstated, and sequential). Stated cause/effect relationships are clearly stated in the text and often involve signal words. Unstated relationships require that students make an inference (see the article Teacher Resources for Making Inferences, Using Context Clues in Issue Two for more information). In sequential cause/effect relationships, effects may be part of a chain in which one effect goes on to cause a second effect, and so on.

Although identifying cause/effect text structure is only introduced to students in the upper elementary grades and continued into middle school, it is important that primary students develop an understanding of real-world cause-and-effect relationships. Cause/effect can often be observed in the imaginative play of kindergarten students, and picture books and purposeful questioning techniques can further develop this understanding. Students who leave the primary grades with a solid grasp of cause and effect in everyday life will find more success when confronted with the cause/effect text structures used in expository writing and textbooks.

Use the following resources to develop your own understanding of cause-and-effect relationships and how to effectively include these in your literacy instruction. For lesson plans and activities that focus on cause and effect, please see Investigating the Cause and Effect Relationships of Seasonal Change in the Science and Literacy department of this issue.


Skills Tutor: Identifying Cause and Effect
An interactive skills tutor from the Pearson Prentice Hall web site. Look under “Critical Thinking and Reading” to find the section on identifying cause and effect. While this is labeled a social studies skills tutor, many of the skills practiced are directly applicable to science text as well.

Teaching Cause and Effect with Picture Books
This blog post, from the National Writing for Children Center, discusses the use of picture books to teach cause and effect relationships. It describes five picture books that are particularly suitable for teaching cause/effect.

Reading Strategies for the Journey North Teacher: Recognize Cause and Effect Relationships
Journey North is a collaborative project in which students across the country share real data about wildlife migration and seasonal change. The web site contains an entire section dedicated to reading strategies and integrating literacy into science instruction. This particular page lists three questions that can help students recognize cause/effect relationships within expository text.

Learning Toolbox: IFF-2
Although the Learning Toolbox web site, produced by the College of Education at James Madison University, was designed to support students with learning difficulties, the strategies and techniques could be used with all students. This page outlines a strategy for identifying cause/effect: IFF-2. IFF-2 is an acronym for a process students can use to identify cause and effect relationships (identify an event; find one cause; find another cause and identify a cause; find one effect; find other effects).

Cause and Effect
This page provides two graphic organizers that may be useful for visual learners: a cause/effect tree and two column notes.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors  page. Email Jessica at

Copyright May 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license

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