Mentor texts are increasingly becoming an important part of how I structure my writing time with students. I first learned about this concept after reading Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6. This wonderful book was so inspiring! The worst part about reading it was that I had done so during the summer – I desperately wanted to start teaching a writing unit immediately!! The authors include numerous examples of how they use quality children’s literature to teach young writers sophisticated, thoughtful writing “moves” that make you want to grab the nearest picture book and give it a try. It’s so good that I find myself re-reading parts of it and treating it like a reference book.
Mentor Texts to Teach Writing
Mentor texts are books, poems, or articles that teachers can use repeatedly with students to help them improve their writing abilities. So often we view literature from the reader’s perspective, and that’s understandable when our purpose is to help our students become better readers. However, those same stories are also excellent examples of good writing and they offer many possibilities for our students as writers.
Full of Curriculum Potential
Katie Wood Ray, in her book Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom(2002), shares: “As we develop teaching relationships with authors and their work, we will find that certain texts seem to surface as very important to teaching. These are texts that are just full of curriculum potential (p. 147).”
Building Familiarity with Mentor Texts
In order to gain the most benefit from mentor texts, it’s important that students be very familiar with the text. These stories should be thoroughly known to students so their concentration is on what the author did as a writer and not on comprehending the story. I really struggled with this concept because my instructional time doesn’t leave me a lot of wiggle room for read-alouds, much less on revisiting these texts over and over again. Then it dawned on me…use what I already spend time reading and discussing. For me, that means some of the stories from our reading series.
A Pragmatic Choice
Now I know that in the world of balanced literacy a reading series is viewed (at best) with suspicion. Shrug. This is what I have to use so I figured to make the best of it. There are many well-written stories in my series, some of them I look forward to with enthusiasm. All of them are taken from quality children’s literature available as chapter or picture books by award-winning authors. Bottom line – find the silver lining and use the best of what’s available.
I treat these stories as “writing coaches” that show students how writers use words, sentences and text structure to craft their messages. After we’ve spent several days examining the story as readers, we then can use them as mentor texts for improving our writing. For example, when writing a nonfiction essay about voting, we looked back at a nonfiction text for an example of how and when to use subtitles. Another story was used as a model of how writers use a long sentence followed by a very short one for comic effect.
Choosing Mentor Texts
I’m not where I want to be with this concept. I still think I have a lot to learn about effectively using mentor texts with students in such a way that truly does strengthen their writing skills. I also think it’s something worth exploring. To that end, I plan to re-examine the stories in our reading series for examples of excellent writing that can be imitated by my students. As I do that I will ask myself a few questions:
- Is this an entertaining story? Basically, did we like it? If we plan to go back to a mentor text repeatedly then it had better be a story we actually enjoyed reading.
- Are there examples of “writer’s moves” that students can use their own writing? For example, does the author use figurative language or a sentence pattern that will elevate their ability?
- Can this story be used to teach a writing genre required on our new Common Core State Standards?
Thinking Like Writers
Obviously, young writers need help with using mentor texts to imitate writers. In my class, I model this thinking out loud and make it as visible and concrete as possible. For example, when my class wrote memoirs, I used Fireflies! as a mentor text of how a writer chose a small moment in time and expanded it into a complete story. Sometimes we read stories as readers, and we might make connections with the text. When using a mentor text, however, I will ask my students to “think like writers” and notice what the author did in the text. We then mirror those “writing moves” in our own pieces.
Apprenticing with a Master Writer
Writing is a form of art, and all great artists first learn by apprenticing themselves to a master artist. When we introduce our students to seeing literature as a mentor, we invite them to imitate what a more skilled writer is doing when they write. It’s not enough just to tell kids how to write well. Mentor texts show them how it’s done in a very real context.