Laying a strong foundation for writing nonfiction through mentor texts

We are moving from our researching phase  into our first draft phase in writing workshop – and my sixth graders are beginning to experience the inevitable struggle of transforming their notes  into interesting, well-written feature articles.  “Inevitable” I say, because I go through this every year, at exactly this same time.  Turning research into writing is challenge.  One of the ways in which I help my students navigate their way through this process is by sharing mentor texts every step of the way.

First: I lay a foundation of strong mentor text work with so that my kids have lots of exposure to great nonfiction writing.  We are so fortunate today, because now more than ever we have such a variety of nonfiction books to choose from. Here are some of my favorites:

A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano and Michael Carroll:

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How awesome is it to pick up a science book and be invited in with this line: In outer space, mysterious entities called black holes seem up to no good.  Of course, one wants to read on!  The engaging text is informative and entertaining, and the many nonfiction visual clues (illustrations, diagrams, font styles and sizes, maps, and so on) are exactly what I hope my students will learn from and want to emulate in their own writing.

We also read through and analyze a selection of Seymour Simon’s books:

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Seymour Simon can write about any topic, and one is immediately hooked – we want to read more, we want to learn more.  Simon weaves information into his narrative in such a natural way, and my students learn so much from trying to figure out where and how he does it.  This is exactly the type of mentor text work that serves as a meaningful reference point for their own writing when the time comes.

As well as excerpts from two of Mark Aronson’s books:

both of these are wonderful examples of effective ways of incorporating research, background information, and interviews – all of which my students will be trying to do in their own feature articles.

Then: we work with partners to examine articles from National Geographic’s “Extreme Explorer” magazine:

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These are short, well written articles which allow my kids to work in pairs to identify:

  • what does this text want me to know?

  • what does this text want me to feel?

  • what does this text want me to think?

  • how do the nonfiction conventions help me better understand the topic?

Throughout the process, we are also working once a week with Wonderopolis and our Wonder Trackers.  This is a reading workshop/writing workshop assignment that gives my kids continual practice with reading and appreciating nonfiction text – how it is written, and the elements used to make it interesting.

And, lastly, we do a couple of quick check charts just before we begin drafting:

This is a quick way to pull together all the various strands of nonfiction writing techniques we’ve been analyzing and discussing.  These stay up and serve as reference points throughout the writing process, and my students often use these when they are “stuck” or need some ideas as to how to infuse their writing with the sort of “details” that we writing teachers ask for, and they themselves demand as readers of nonfiction.

My sixth graders, like so many students, have worked hard to  gather together their research.  Their writing folders are brimming with cool facts and awesome ideas, and they want to use every single bit of it:

Our challenge is to  incorporate that research in such a way that their feature articles don’t read like breathless fact trains.  Although we will still need writing conferences and minilessons about leads, conclusions, and so on, our work together is made a bit easier because of all the work that came before.  There’s a wonderful podcast I’ve saved in which Franki Sibberson discusses the importance of teaching writing through the use of mentor texts with Ralph Fletcher, who had this to say:

…I think if you really want to write in a powerful way, you’ve got to read powerful stuff and just feel the power of it, because nobody writes out of a vacuum…I think that you need to see somebody doing something in order to do it well yourself, whether it’s baking bread, whether it’s skiing, whether it’s writing. And I think writing is very complicated, so when you read a powerful piece, what’s really wonderful about that is you see it in its gestalt, all fitted together. You still need to, at some point, break down the individual — it’s like wanting to be a dancer and going to see the ballet. You’re inspired. You may not be able to do many of the moves that they’re doing on stage, but you definitely need that in your head as you try to become a better dancer.

Whenever I’ve paused to second guess the amount of time I spend analyzing mentor texts with my kids, I listen to this podcast again and know that it it is time spent wisely.