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How to Teach Writing with Mentor Texts

I’m obsessed with teaching with mentor texts. When I’m teaching students to craft their writing or use a writing convention in a minilesson, small-group lesson, or a writing conference, I always select a text from my stack of mentor texts, show students the text, and describe what the author is doing in the text to craft their writing.

Why? What about this teaching move makes it essential to have in your teaching repertoire?

When you teach with mentor texts, you align instruction with an important principle of learning: people usually learn best by watching and studying people who are expert at the things they want to learn to do. Whether you’re learning how to kick a soccer ball or learn a dance move, you’ll probably observe someone who is good at this skill before you try it yourself. You might watch a soccer game and marvel at the technique of an excellent player, or you could take a dancing lesson and watch your instructor model the dance you want to learn.

Each time you teach with a mentor text, you put students in the company of a more experienced writer – the author of the text – and invite them to look at and study what this writer has done in the text and then try it themselves. You invite students to read like writers. That is, you teach them to notice craft moves the author makes in the text, with the intent of trying these moves themselves.

There are several steps to teaching with mentor texts:

  1.  Start by gathering a stack of mentor texts for each writing unit of study that’s in your curriculum. For a genre study, you’ll need examples of the genre you’re planning on studying. For a craft study (for example, a study of elaboration or punctuation), you’ll need texts that contain good examples of the kind of craft you’ll be studying. You’ll be able to find examples of most genres in your classroom or school library, or in children’s magazines like Highlights or Ask; for some genres, like literary essay, you’ll probably need to write your own mentor texts.
  2. Before a unit of study, read through your stack and identify possible teaching points. As you read through the texts, some crafting techniques will jump out at you (some of the more visible ones, such as text features or the ways words are written in bold letters or are italicized).  Then try reading texts with each quality of writing in mind – focus, structure, detail, voice and conventions – to help you find craft techniques that give writing these qualities. As you find possible teaching points, annotate the texts with post-its so that you can find them when you need good examples for a lesson.
  3. When you start each unit, devote several days to immersion, when you’ll introduce your class to the unit’s mentor texts. You can do whole-class immersion, when you read a text aloud to your class, and then discuss it as readers and writers. And you can do small-group immersion, when groups of 2-4 students read a text. During small-group immersion, you’ll have the opportunity to confer with groups, and give them tips on how they can do immersion better.
  4. Finally, whenever you teach a minilesson, small-group lesson, or writing conference that focuses on a craft technique (text structures, leads, transitions, kinds of details, voice techniques, endings, etc.), show and discuss mentor texts that contain these techniques.

    When you do this, follow these steps:
  • Before teaching a lesson, select from your stack a mentor text that contains the craft technique or convention you want to teach. Of course, this is more challenging in a writing conference, when you have to make this choice in the middle of the conference—but when you know your texts well, you should be able to make this decision quickly.
  • At the start of the lesson, name the craft technique or convention you’re teaching.
  • Make the text visible to your students. Students’ visual memory of a craft technique or convention helps them when they try it themselves in their own writing. In a minilesson or small-group lesson, show students the text on your interactive whiteboard, or the page of a picture book—or give the students copies of the text.  In a writing conference, place the text in between you and the student as you discuss it.
  • Read aloud the part of the text that contains the technique or convention. Students’ aural memory of the technique or convention also helps them when they write.
  • Describe how the author used the craft technique or convention clearly and precisely. This is the most challenging part of teaching with a mentor text, as it requires you to draw upon your own ability to read a text “like a writer.”

Over time, you’ll become more and more confident in teaching with mentor texts, and these steps will become second nature to you. And, as you see how your students respond to this teaching, I bet you’ll become just as obsessed with using mentor texts as I am!

Continue Your Learning at the 2023 Summer Literacy Institute, Phonics and More: Science-Aligned Literacy Teaching and Learning

To learn more about combining the art & science of teaching reading, hear from Carl Anderson, Peter Afflerbach, Pam Koutrakos, Tim Rasinski, and the CRRLC literacy trainers, at our Summer Literacy Institute, “Phonics and More: Science-Aligned Literacy Teaching and Learning,” on July 17-20, 2023.

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