What is a mentor text? You may have heard the term mentor text or mentor sentence bandied about on the internet. But how can you choose the best mentor texts and use them to improve your students’ writing?
The time for our dreaded annual poetry unit was looming. I groaned just thinking about the tooth pulling pain of helping students learn to appreciate writing poetry. For years, we gritted our teeth, grinding our way through the different poetic forms. But one short book changed all that.
Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, features a boy protagonist who absolutely, positively hates poetry and refuses to write it. As I read the first chapters, the room quieted as students saw themselves in the main character. Hands flew up to ask what this boy did to face his dreaded assignments.
As we worked through this mentor text our poetry lessons became something the students anticipated. “When do we get to start writing today?” they would ask as they popped up from the carpet after a mini-lesson. “I have a great idea for a new poem!”
During Open House, I watched students, with chests puffed out like balloons and proud smiles on their faces, placing the class poetry book in their parents hands, opening it to the pages featuring their own writing.
I had finally found the secret key to igniting a love of poetry in my students.
Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) in which we read and analyzed a book about using mentor texts by Ruth Culham. It was published by the International Reading Association and it changed the way I thought about my teaching practice. It’s The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing. In it, she shared her experiences and included many examples of student writing, as well as research to back up the practice.
A newer book that I’m reading now and gleaning new insights from is Micro Mentor Texts by Penny Kittle. This book has ideas for all grade levels.
What Does the Term Mentor Text Mean?
In her book, Ms. Culham explains how powerful mentor texts are. They’re not just for narrative and descriptive writing. They can be used to guide and teach
- Informational writing (Think of documentaries, biographies, science, and news reports.)
- Narrative writing (Great fiction writers always begin by practicing the styles of master writers.)
- Argumentative writing (Courtroom attorneys know that their cases often depend on how well written their opening and closing arguments are. Students can study great speeches as mentor texts.)
When we began our PLC together, I had never heard of the term mentor texts. However, I’d always heard the advice to read widely in exemplar texts and emulate good writers to improve your own writing craft. That’s the basic principle behind mentor texts, and it’s standard practice in professional writing courses. Why hadn’t I ever thought of applying this principle in my own classroom?
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What Happens When You Teach With Mentor Texts
Once you begin teaching with mentor texts and developing a routine with them, you’ll see changes in your students’ attitudes and abilities around writing. What results might you see in your class? Perhaps some of these:
- Students get excited about well-written reading passages
- They can analyze and define what makes the text exemplary
- Students become self-aware about the writing process
- Writers emulate mentor sentences and texts and become better at creating their own
- Young writers incorporate the things they’ve noted and learned from the mentor text into their own writing
- Students develop a writing portfolio they feel proud to share
You might think these things will only happen in a class with older students, but that’s not the case. Students in the primary grades know when a book is engaging and when it’s not. They just can’t define why. But after analyzing mentor texts, they can begin to note the key elements that great writing includes.
Why have the picture books A Bad Case of Stripes or Too Many Tamales been a favorite for so many years? Why is How to Eat Fried Worms still a favorite of children around the world after fifty years? That’s right, this book was first published in 1973.
By reading and analyzing mentor texts, students begin to understand the characteristics of excellent writing. They begin to build their own desire to write in a similar fashion. They begin to do just that, by imitating the writing from the sentence level and on up. As they practice and grow, they take pride in sharing their writing.
How to Choose Mentor Texts and Mentor Sentence Examples
You might think that you need a list of books to begin your exploration of mentor texts. But really, all you need is to trust in your own professional judgement as a teacher. The books you choose don’t have to be high and mighty classics. They just need to be well written. You also will want to choose texts that you can integrate across your curriculum.
For example, I used picture books by Chris Van Allsburg in my third grade classroom as mentor texts. We dove deeply into the story lines, the what if questions, the settings, the characterizations. The students loved his books and his art, and they wanted to create similar writing. It was especially fun in October, when we would read The Widow’s Broom and The Stranger together. Then we created a compilation of mystery stories for our classroom library, authored by the students.
My fourth grade students loved The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. It made a wonderful mentor text for figurative language and characterization. It’s also a rich starting point for an exploration about animal rights.
In my fifth grade classroom, we used novels to map out story arcs and character arcs. Along the way, we analyzed which details and events contributed to the arc. One favorite author at that age was Sharon Creech.
I searched for creative non-fiction books and articles that I could use as exemplars. Volcanoes by Seymour Simon and Finding the Titanic by Robert Ballard were favorites.
You can use poetry as a mentor text, as well. It’s especially helpful when you’re teaching about descriptive and figurative language. Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, or any of the notable poets are good choices.
Using Mentor Texts to Inform Your Teaching
This blog post is only an introduction to the idea of using mentor texts in your teaching. There are more blog posts on this website that dive deeper into the subject. You can learn a little more about it and then begin incorporating it into your class one small step at a time. The Writing Thief by Ruth Culham is one place to start. Another place to find research based information is at the Iowa Reading Research website.
Where to Find Mentor Texts
Do you teach high school students? The New York Times has a program designed for high school students to use NYT articles as mentor texts.
You can find mentor texts all around you. Picture books, poetry, novels, nonfiction articles, and short stories can all be used in this context. Exemplary writing is engaging writing, in whatever form it takes. In fact, Journey North News, a publication about animal and insect migrations, has an excellent educator page with resources to use the newsletter as a mentor text while students are studying life science.
Moving forward, as you read articles, stories, poetry, and books, consider if they could be used as mentor texts for your class.
Does the text have qualities that you want to exemplify and teach? Does it fit with a theme you’ll be teaching in your classroom? Try to integrate a mentor text into your cross-curricular plan to help simplify your teaching.
If the answer is yes, then you can begin designing lessons using that text. You’ll see your students begin to improve their writing in an authentic way.
In the next blog post, I’m breaking it down even further to a Mentor Sentences Routine. Click to keep reading about this topic and to find some free resources to get you started.
Start Using Mentor Texts Tomorrow Morning
Now you have the basics to get you started with choosing mentor texts for your class. You can begin teaching writing using a mentor text tomorrow morning. Choose the skill you want to teach. Let’s say imagery, for example. Look in your classroom or teacher library, choose a book that does that well. In this case, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, or poetry by Langston Hughes would be a good start. Next, read the text together and start your mini lesson using the text as an exemplar.
Do you want to dive deeper? You may want to check out a mini-course with downloadable forms, mentor text lists, and more, right here.
It’s priced so low, it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity. I keep the cost of these courses economical to help out teachers everywhere.
P.S. Don’t forget to stop by the Member’s Vault of freebie goodness while you’re here. I have some free templates to use with mentor sentences just waiting for you to download them! If you haven’t signed up, just click the button and I’ll send you the password.