Reading Like a Writer, Step-By-Step: Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts

Mentor Texts Series FINAL

This week at Two Writing Teachers we will be sharing ideas about teaching writing with mentor texts: from published books, to student work, digital media, to teacher-created texts. This blog series will inspire you to dive in and find the perfect texts to learn from with your students.


The first time I had ever heard of a mentor text was in a lecture hall at Teachers College in New York City, about 14 years ago while I was a graduate student. It had been a long night. I had gone from teaching all day, to one evening graduate course with one instructor, straight into a second class with Lucy Calkins. The old wooden seats were hard and uncomfortable. My stomach growled. I could feel a headache coming on. Then she started to read aloud Shortcut by Donald Crews. Good stories have a way of putting you in the moment. Everything else seemed to fade away, and I was completely pulled in.

The first time through, Lucy read the whole thing, almost start to finish, stopping maybe a few times to say something in reaction to the story. But the second time through she said, “Pay attention to how Donald stretches out this tiny, small, little moment. This whole scene probably only took a few minutes in real life, but he stretched it out bit-by-bit and told what happened, one tiny step at a time.”

Then she read just a few pages again. “We might not be able to have Donald Crews with us here tonight, to tell us how he wrote this book. But we can study his writing, mentor ourselves to it, and learn from him this way. He can be our mentor author. Now write a small moment of your own, just like Donald Crews, stretch it out bit-by-bit.”

Shortcut remains one of my favorite mentor texts to this day. And time and time again, I’ve returned to the template of how Lucy introduced a mentor text. First, I always read aloud for meaning, just to enjoy and understand the story. A regular read-aloud.

Second, I read it like a writer, to pop out the strategies the writer may have used, for craft, or to imagine the process the writer might have gone through to create the text that is in my hands.

Last, I connect what we’ve noticed on the page back to the writer: a real live person did this — and so can you! Not try it!

The last part, trying it, is crucial. Katie Wood Ray says, in Wonderous Words, “I can see a structure used in several different texts, understand it as separate from any one of the topics in those texts, but until I write a little bit of it myself, I only know it as a reader. I haven’t pushed myself to know it as a writer” (1999, p. 144).  

Reading Like a Reader

When I’m planning to read aloud a book for the first time to students, I plan ahead for the places I might want to model my own thinking. I plan the best spots to think aloud or react to the story. I also plan ahead for the best spots to give the students a chance to stop and think about the text. Often I’ll prompt students to jot something down, or talk with a partner, or dramatize a part of the text. I often open it up to whole class discussion as well. Sometimes I plan to read aloud the entire text first, without stopping much at all, and then reread with more conversation built in.

Reading Like a Writer

When I’m planning to read aloud a book to students to support their writing, it is almost never the first time they’ve seen the text. They’ve already listened to and discussed the story at least once, if not more than that.

Almost always. For example, a few weeks ago I visited a third grade classroom to demonstrate a lesson on informational writing. Thinking that I was using the same mentor text as their teacher, I opened up a page of Deadliest Animals by Melissa Stewart, planning only to study the first page of what I thought was a familiar book to the kids.

“WHOA!” “COOL!”they all reacted. It was then that I realized my mistake. They had not heard this book before. When I stopped after just the first page to ask them to notice the lead, the kids were unhappy. “Why can’t you read the rest of it?!” “Don’t stop now!”

That day, my teaching point about the lead was completely lost because the kids were so enticed by the seeing the book for the first time. It wasn’t fair to ask them to set aside the rest of the text — also the lead is even more interesting to study once you know the whole book. (In case you were wondering, I abandoned ship and read them half the book before moving on with our writing time. But that’s another story.)

It would have been much more effective as a writing lesson if the students had already known the book Deadliest Animals. That way, I would have been free to refer to just one page of  a familiar, beloved text. Once they knew the book, I could have returned to Deadliest Animals again and again to study different strategies and devices used by the author, Melissa Stewart.

Now Try It!

Step 1: Pick a book to read aloud to your students. Aim for a book that is both a GREAT book to read aloud, and is somewhat similar to the type of text your students are writing.

Step 2: Read the book to yourself as a reader, thinking, “What comprehension work should I demonstrate for students by thinking aloud as I read? Where are good places to stop and have a conversation?” Mark places to stop using post-its.

Step 3: Reread the book as a writer, thinking, “What, specifically, is the writer doing that I could teach my students to do?” Mark the particular pages you might use. These are pages you might use in a minilesson, or a conference, or a small group. The best mentor texts can be mined for many teaching points.

Step 4: Try creating your own example of writing, modeled after the mentor text you just planned.

You might also refer to your favorite professional books on the subject. Speaking of which, our own Stacey Shubitz has a new book coming out titled Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. See below for details!

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • Craft MovesThis giveaway is for five copies of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts by Stacey Shubitz. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for five different lucky readers.
  • For a chance to win one copy of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts, please leave a comment about this post on any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, May 8th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Monday, May 9th.
  • You may leave one comment on every post in our Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts blog series, which runs May 3rd – May 8th.   
  • Please be sure to leave a valid email address when you post your comment, so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse Publishers will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the email field only.)
    • Stenhouse will ship a print or ebook to winners in the United States and Canada. If you live outside of the U.S. or Canada and you win a copy of Craft Moves, then you’ll receive an ebook.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Beth will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – CRAFT MOVES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.