The Power of Mentor Texts To Support The Teaching of Writing
Seeing the potential a particular text has to offer one’s teaching of writing is a critical skill to develop. When we practice the art of reading like writers, a world of possibilities opens up. Mentor texts and their particular magic begin to reveal themselves to us. We are no longer alone in our teaching of writing. We are lifted up by the writers we know and trust. How great is that?
What are Mentor Texts?
A mentor text is any piece of writing that can be used to teach a writer about some aspect of writer’s craft. A small extract may well be sufficient to qualify as a piece of mentor text. Think of those favourite books you have read many times, those books you know like a friend. Think of those books you find yourself easily quoting. The best mentor texts are those that can be used numerous times throughout the school year to demonstrate many different characteristics of a text. It is easy to teach aspects of writing using texts where an easy familiarity exists.
When we focus our teaching on a trusted author’s writing style, we allow student writers to understand how the writer has actually created the text. We provide them with privileged information. Information on the craft of writing we know will serve them well as they develop a sense of themselves as writers.
Whenever I chance upon attention grabbing wonders I feel compelled to harvest them. It’s irresistible! I know when I am reading as a teacher of writing. Words, phrases, whole sentences, paragraphs beckon. The potential of the writer’s craft to leap from the page and slap me in the face is something I embrace. Wake up, pay attention the words scream. It all matters, whether it’s a character description, the vivid depiction of a setting or the way the writer challenges me to think about an issue or event – it excites and informs. The point of the quest is to find interesting things that can be shared with other writers. It is oxygen to the teacher of writing.
‘All texts are demonstrations of some writer’s decisions about word choice, voice, or perspective. All texts are demonstrations of some genre potential… Every single text is a whole chunk of curriculum potential.’Katie Wood Ray
Deciding What to Imitate
If we want student writers to learn lessons from the texts we are sharing, they must be shown what to look for. If students are going to be writing poetry, we should begin by giving them lots of poetry to read. Mem Fox suggests going beyond immersion when she uses the term ’dunking’ to define the recommended action. Ted Kooser, the American poet suggests that before anyone considers writing a poem they should read at least one hundred.
While students are immersed in becoming familiar with particular texts, we must simultaneously teach them how to read like writers—to notice the techniques, craft moves, and considered choices writers make. Students are used to being asked what is written, but asking them to recognize how a text is written presents a significant change of focus.
Kelly Gallagher writes, ‘Mentor texts are most powerful when students frequently revisit them throughout the writing process—and when teachers help them take lessons from writing exemplars.’ Close reading and discussion regarding the actions of selected mentor authors is necessary before young writers launch into their first draft efforts.
Think - Idea, Structure, Craft
Idea: the text inspires the writer to create new ideas based on an idea outlined in the text.
Structure: the text presents on organizational structure the writer readily identifies and tries to emulate using original ideas.
Written Craft: the author’s writing style, ways with words, or sentence structure inspires the writer to try out such techniques.
• Look through some of your favourite texts.
• Classify them as- idea, craft or structure mentor texts.
• Begin creating and exploring lessons using the selected mentor texts.
Questions to Consider When Selecting a Mentor Text
1. Does the selected text provide examples of the kind of writing you want from your students?
2. Can the text be revisited multiple times for a number of purposes?
3. Do you have a variety of genres and do they address diversity?
Over the years I have surrounded myself with texts I consider priceless. They contain so much treasure. So much to share with teachers and students. I pluck a book from the shelf and smile. I am fortunate to be surrounded by my fellow writers. They support my efforts to be the best teacher of writing I can possibly be.
Finally, I am reminded of something I heard Ralph Fletcher say. Ralph suggests we refrain from squeezing all the juice out of a text. Save a little for next time…. Good advice.
'With you as a guide, and literature as the landscape, you can open young writers eyes to the full range of possibilities before them.'
Ralph Fletcher and Joanne Portalupi, Writing Workshop- The Essential Guide