What are Mentor Texts? The Most Amazing Teaching Tool!
I love a simple, easily accessible teaching tool, don’t you? Even better if it’s one that can be used in many different ways. More bonus points if it’s something I can also use across time. Double bonus points if it’s something I already own! Enter mentor texts. Mentor texts are hands-down one of my favorite teaching tools because they give me so much leverage. What, though, is a mentor text?
Think about the word “mentor” for a moment. A mentor is a guide, a support, and a trusted example to follow. This is exactly what a mentor text does. It’s a tool for showing kids the way, as a guide to support their writing.
Let me show you an example of how a mentor text works.
Let’s say in reading the goal is to work on determining character traits. Maybe I choose a book with very strong characters that I know my kids will fall in love with (because I did, too), like The Invisible Boy. So first I read it aloud, just for the sheer enjoyment of the story. But I also know I’ll be able to plan a couple of interactive read alouds with it too, because there is just so much to notice and talk about in this book. Not only can I really dig into character traits, but I can also dig into character change, inferential thinking, theme, and author’s (and illustrator’s) craft. These are just a few ideas that I can work toward with my students as readers.
But there are also a plethora of ideas this book can teach about being a writer.
Here are some writing ideas, gathered from one quick read of the book:
- The author begins by addressing the reader. This is a great way to hook the reader into the story, to get them to want to keep reading, right from the start.
- The main character is introduced by contrasting him to the other characters. The writer doesn’t have to say “Brian is quiet.” She does it by contrasting him with the more gregarious kids in the class. Kids we have all met, btw.
- Transitional phrases are used to show that time has passed.
- There’s a good mix of short sentences for emphasis along with longer, more descriptive sentences. This also creates great, natural-sounding flow.
- Dialogue is used to push the story forward–through it, we feel left out Brian feels.
- Ellipses are used to show a continuation (kids LOVE ellipses!)
- Other conventions, like commas, are used to help the reader pause at the right places for emphasis.
- Different ways of adding dialogue are used–to show one character speaking as well as two speaking.
- Text is manipulated to show the reader how to emphasize parts. Italics and dashes between letters are used for this.
- The illustrations play an important role in this story. As Brian becomes more confident, his color goes from gray to full-spectrum, and the cartoon drawings that the characters use, as well as the speech bubbles, tell the story more than the text does in certain parts.
- The illustrator also creates a mood with the use of subdued watercolors.
That’s not all….this book could also be used for teaching how to develop a character, arc of a story, showing how minor characters have an impact on main character, and demonstrating how a lesson is learned.
I know what you’re thinking: That’s way too much! There’s no way I can teach all of those things at once.
You choose a few things very strategically, based on what you know your students need, your standards, and what you’re about to (or are in the middle of) teaching in writing. After that initial read aloud, you’ll pull it out again to focus on some of the deeper work as readers, where you’ll hit just a couple of big ideas. Then you bring out again, later, when you’re working on different big ideas. You might later pull out just a few pages or sentences, and dig in even deeper.
Your students will come to know this book very well. Like back-of-their-hand-well. This is KEY. Why?
Because when it’s time to use this book as a mentor text–that writing guide–your kids won’t be wondering what happened in the story. They’ll have heard and talked about it several times, which means they can focus on other things. Writerly things.
So, when you need to teach your kids how to embed dialogue into a complex sentence, or show how to use short and long sentences to help the reader know what pace to read, or how to introduce a character by contrasting them with another character, you have just the tool.
You can pull out The Invisible Boy and say, “Guys. I noticed something so cool that Trudy Ludwig does in her writing. She has a great way of ______. Let’s look at how she does that.” Ideally, you then model this in your own piece of writing, which in itself is a phenomenal mentor text. And then you say, “Who thinks they might ____ like Trudy does? Give me a thumbs-up if you’re ready for that.” (You actually want to get to a point where you’re on a first-name basis with these authors, you know them so well. They become like Beyonce in your classroom).
Another time, you’ll show them something else. Another time, something else. In a later unit, you’ll pull it out again for more. See? So much leverage!
And so much authenticity. Using mentor texts is one of the best ways to teach kids grammar and conventions, too. It’s always best to teach these things authentically in context instead of in isolation.
Not only can you use mentor texts to help you teach whole-group lessons, but they are very handy to have in your conferring toolkit, too! When you come to know a handful of books super well, you know just who to turn to when you want to show something to a student. Having tools like this–and knowing exactly where they are when you need them–is an important part of ensuring that your writing conferences are a home run.
How to find a mentor text
Don’t overthink it. You could Google and Pinterest search forever–there’s no end to amazing books out there. Getting recommendations from others is a very fantastic resource. Pernille Ripp is a phenomenal educator who curates loads of incredible books, as does 5th grade teacher, speaker, and author Colby Sharp. I cannot recommend these two enough, so be sure to give them a follow. The Nerdy Book Club is another go-to resource I’ve turned to for years for high-quality, teacher-tested recommendations.
But wait. Before you go on an Amazon buying spree…
First, look in your own classroom, school, or public library. Then, sit down with a stack, grab a cup of coffee, and read them–read them like a reader AND a writer. Pick the few that you really like, and that you know your kids will like, too. These books are about to become some of your best friends.
Take note of the reading work you do yourself as you read it, and watch for opportunities for more teaching. Jot these down on a colored sticky note, and stick it on the inside front cover of the book (or the back of the book–wherever they won’t fall off). Then read it again, this time slowing down a bit, reading it as a writer. What writing moves can be learned from this text? Think big, like word choice, character development, theme, and how the author captures your attention. And think small. What convention or grammatical structures can you demonstrate with this book? Jot these all down on a different color sticky note and add them to the inside front cover.
I guarantee you’ll find a long list of potential teaching points from just a couple of reads of this one book. No need to go out and buy more for this purpose–use what you have. Then, over time, as you pick up more great read alouds, you’ll add more to your toolkit of mentor texts. You don’t need a lot. Typically, just about 5 books will carry you very, very far. Start small, and work with what you already have right at your fingertips.
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