Back to Basics: Mentor Texts (Part of TWT’s Big Picture Series)
In Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K – 6, Lynne R. Dorfman and Rose Cappelli write, “Mentor texts help writers notice things about an author’s work that is not like anything they might have done before, and empower them to try something new” (2007, 3). Many of my fourth and fifth grade students have used mentor texts to explore new possibilities, thereby lifting their writing to new heights. When a child studies text closely, it allows them to learn a new technique to improve the piece of writing they’re working on and then, due to the close study they did, will allow them to transfer their learning to future pieces of writing.
So what are mentor texts? They’re books, stories, essays, articles, or poems that you use with one child, a small group, or your entire class. Mentor texts can be used in a conferences or in strategy lessons to help a young writer learn a new skill or to hone a skill s/he should work on based off of what you think the writer needs next (i.e., to work on structure, focus, voice, etc.).
I feel published authors’ texts serve as excellent mentors for our students when they’re writing narratives and poetry. My former students’ writing has served my present students well since it’s written within the structure I’d like them to use for non-narrative assignments, such as personal essay, literary essay, persuasive letters, and memoir. Furthermore, my own writing for the non-narrative genres, and for writer’s notebooks, has been exceedingly helpful to my kids since they not only learn from my structure and craft moves, but they get inspired when they see I’m doing the same work as they are.
I’ve found my students seek out mentor authors and mentor texts when we embed talk about author’s craft into our read alouds. For instance, I’m reading The Graduation of Jake Moon to my students in Interactive Read Aloud now. I stopped and noticed the way Barbara Park structured a sentence a couple of days ago and marked it while I was reading aloud, explaining why I liked it (out loud) to my kids. Since I collect and love picture books, my kids are coming up to me asking, “Can I borrow ______ because I like the way…” or “I’d like to use ______ as a mentor text because I like the way the writer writes.” This is powerful for me to hear since I’ve instilled a belief in my students that they can learn more about writing from studying the work of published authors.
Last year I put together a list of mentor texts I used in my classroom. If you need a list to start from as you embark on your own mentor text journey, then click here. However, my list shouldn’t just become your list… your list should include your favorite books because that will make your teaching more powerful.
Finally, if you’re looking for a way to create teaching points from some of the text you want to use, then check out some of the craft tables I’ve created for A Sweet Smell of Roses, The Pencil, and Those Shoes. Having a bunch of teaching points ready-to-go makes conferring with mentor texts, alongside the writers you teach, a bit easier.
Want more information on mentor texts? Just click here to read everything we’ve written about mentor texts since we started Two Writing Teachers in June 2007.