Making Sense of Teaching With Mentor Texts

It all starts with selecting and sharing powerful texts and simply letting kids enjoy them. Spread the joy of reading great words and what possibilities they spark in the mind of the reader. Reading a text for enjoyment before you move to examining craft increases the likelihood of the text impacting on a student’s writing. When the student knows the text,  it releases their cognitive energy more specifically to that aspect of the text under examination.

Think of mentor texts as a term that essentially means –models, exemplars or examples. ‘Mentor texts’ is not something we do within a writing program for its own sake. It is not an entity in itself. It is an integral part of learning how to become a better writer. It requires the ability to read like a writer in order to be able to see the potential in a text to provide a model worth following or adopting.

We are looking for writing we want our students to emulate. Our lens must be purpose and craft. So we need to select texts where we can imagine students imitating the style of a particular author. If you imagine your students saying, ‘I can do that!’ then you have discovered a text worthy of adoption.

Choose a text to match a specific purpose. It may be an investigation about punctuation, vocabulary, or dialogue. Make it something your writer’s need to elevate their writing. Your assessment of student writing will guide you in the right direction when looking for suitable texts.

Before any workshop read the selected text for familiarity using a writer’s eye. Reading a text in this way takes practice. It is a skill acquired over time, not overnight. Zoom in on something that will assist students to write more effectively.

When presenting an exemplar you are rereading a portion of the text for a specific purpose, rather than the entire text. Your teaching is mindfully focused on that particular aspect of the text. This is the teaching lens you adopt. It is helpful if you can name the craft move you are noting.
If you are a writer yourself, reading like a writer is easier to master. You can’t escape it. It is something you feel compelled to do in order to improve your own writing craft.

When presenting the lesson, read the extract for the beauty of the language used. Show your admiration for the craft of the writer. Follow this by considering specific writing moves you might try. Consciously use think aloud to share what you have noticed the author do. Student writers need regular exposure to this kind of thinking.

Ask students to consider why the author made this particular move.

Using texts in this way involves a particular process. Students do not learn these important crafting moves by osmosis, or some kind of magic. They learn them through regular exposure and close examination provided by a writing teacher. This is the responsibility of the most proficient writer in the room. In time, student writers will hopefully begin to see the potential in texts they are reading to influence the quality of their writing. Such an objective should guide our teaching.

Teaching writing can feel isolating. It is comforting to know you have so many other writers to support your efforts. Use the literature created by others to inspire your students to lift their writing performance. Gather around you texts written by authors you know and trust. When you acquire your own collection of trusted texts you frequently discover a single text may offer multiple instances for teaching aspects of writing. -Such a gift to your teaching.
*The WHERE,WHERE, WHAT lead sued by Margaret Wild in her book, Tanglewood.

In addition to this, take the opportunity to use student written texts as exemplars. It shows them that sometimes they are writing in similar ways to published authors. It expands the learning circle and provides powerful motivation. Students are more likely to view themselves as writers if we draw attention to such aspects of their writing.

Consider creating charts that document craft moves authors (student and published authors) have used. This type of documentation provides additional motivation to persist as a writer. And writing development relies heavily on persistence. I learnt that from a mentor…


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