The goal of using mentor texts in the classroom is quite simple: students learn by example, so in order to learn awesome writing skills, kids need to read awesome examples of writing!
Mentor texts are how we accomplish this! I like using a variety of engaging picture books to teach important skills including writing to sources, responding to reading, making connections to themes, analyzing writing prompts, and more.
Don’t just stop at picture books, though! It’s a good idea to include a variety of texts: non-fiction, narrative, biographies, poetry, etc. One of the big parts of Common Core is the skill of switching between genres. For example, using a non-fiction text with a prompt calling for narrative writing.
The Common Core curriculum standards for writing emphasize the skill of writing to sources. Students need to be able to read a text, analyze a writing prompt related to that text, and write a response using the text as a source.
Let’s break down how we use mentor texts to teach our students how to be successful with writing!
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READING THE MENTOR TEXT
In order to analyze and respond to a writing prompt based on a text, students have to fully understand the text. Sounds pretty basic, right? I agree, but sometimes we teachers get ahead of ourselves and skip over important steps to scaffold our kids’ ability to comprehend text.
Here are my suggestions for reading mentor texts with students:
- Read the text aloud with the whole group, all the way through. Put on your best performance voice, and take your students on a journey through the story. Resist the urge to stop and analyze, question, or check for understanding. Just let them experience the story!
- Address any difficult vocabulary they may encounter. Don’t overwhelm them, but preview the text for a few words that are key to understanding the story. Conduct a mini lesson on these select words, and perhaps put them up on a word wall or chart with a visual cue to accompany them. When it’s applicable, use the context clues strategy to help students figure out the meanings.
- Lead the class through questions that deal with content. They can’t analyze well if they don’t fully understand the story! Be specific too, and reference particular sentences or parts of the text. This is a great way to model using the text as a source for writing, as kids see you referencing the text itself.
- Teach students how to annotate using sticky notes! This is a great option when you are limited in class materials and/or want to cut down on paper in the classroom. Here are some resources for annotating with sticky notes.
- Provide students with the opportunity to encounter the text individually and/or in small groups. It takes more than one reading to fully understand a text. Some good spots to do this:
- At the technology center, have students listen and watch a Youtube reading of the book. Most of these videos have super engaging animations and music as well, so kids really love these.
- Use small group time to have students work through the text together. They can complete lift-a-line activities, answer text-dependent questions, or analyze a writing prompt together with their groups.
WRITING TO SOURCES
One of the best ways to introduce students to this concept is to model it for them, especially as you first introduce the concept. Choose a particular skill to focus on. For example, zero in on how the author uses point of view to advance the story, or highlight how characters are developed.
I suggest working through your own writing in front of the students. After reading the text out loud, model the analysis and writing process for them. Project the prompt and walk students through your own writing process. Show them how you annotate the prompt, pick out details from the text, and construct your response.
Students, especially our kiddos who struggle, can really benefit from this behind-the-scenes peek into what writing looks like.
Seeing you model the process makes it more concrete for them. They can also see that writing is never perfect, and it’s okay to struggle and make mistakes. Be sure to show them some of that too!
CONNECTING TO THEMES
I’m a big fan of using familiar mentor texts to draw connections with themes and to work on developing those important social-emotional skills.
For example, most children know the story of the Three Little Pigs. In teaching point of view, I love using the picture book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs as our mentor text. We read the picture book and the traditional story together, and after some whole group and small group discussion, students are asked to analyze based on point of view.
We hone in on the main idea and supporting details in each story, all the while discussing how point of view plays a part in storytelling. To tap into the social-emotional aspect, you could ask students to reflect on what it means to understand someone else’s point of view.
How does knowing the other side of the story impact how they feel about the “bad guy” in the book? There are so many important lessons here about empathy and understanding others! Kids can draw a lot of parallels in their own lives as they think about times their sibling told mom a story that differed from their own understanding of events 🙂
I have a full set of prompts covering seven core texts that walk your students through the whole process: from analyzing the prompt, to finding text evidence, then drafting, revising and publishing. It’s all there for you! Check them out here: Mentor Texts Writing Prompts (Theme: Point of View).
Other important themes I teach with mentor texts include “Be Yourself” and “Growth Mindset.” Amazing picture books like The Day You Begin, Giraffes Can’t Dance, and We’re All Wonders help students appreciate their own uniqueness. Writing prompts ask students to reflect on times when they felt different or had a hard time fitting in. Reading about other characters as they struggle with the same issues is a great way to encourage empathy and compassion for self and others.
For Growth Mindset, we read books such as Salt in His Shoes about young Michael Jordan and the time he almost gave up on basketball. This, along with other books like Rosie Revere, Engineer, and She Persisted, teach students about the importance of persevering and moving forward even when we face great challenges.
Mentor texts are also great for connecting writing lessons to other disciplines. For example, you can use a variety of texts to connect to Social Studies. In my History & Culture Writing Prompts, we explore Separate is Never Equal and The Story of Ruby Bridges, two true stories that connect students to the struggle of students facing segregation in schools. The picture books give us a basis for analyzing the stories, and then we carry the facts and emotions of the issues over into our Social Studies lessons.
Long story short? Mentor texts are the best!!!
Kids love connecting with stories, and nothing makes great writing more apparent than enjoying the work of great storytellers.
What mentor texts do you use in your classroom? Any student favorites to share?? Let me know in the comments!
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