Writing is a complex process that encompasses everything from forming solid ideas to expressing them with creativity and coherence—as well as discovering new insights along the way. And whether your students are mastering the basics or looking to expand their writing abilities, mentor texts can be a useful, “show-don’t-tell” tool that helps them achieve their goals.
Traditionally, mentor texts are exemplary books or essays that you use to model good writing for students as they read, deconstruct, and analyze various facets of the works. These texts aren’t meant to just guide students to develop their vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammar—they also play an essential role in influencing students’ reading comprehension, critical thinking, and imagination. “When the content of learning about the structure of a narrative eventually fades in a student’s rearview mirror, what’s left is the thinking they gained,” writes Kara Douma, a supervisor of English language arts, describing the value of mentor texts.
To make sure the mentor texts in your classroom are engaging, up-to-date, and relevant to an increasingly diverse body of students across the nation, consider implementing a few of the strategies below as you curate your collection of mentor texts.
Broaden the Definition of Writing
Books, magazines, and essay collections aren’t the only places where you can find examples of good writing, as teachers have long known. Good writing exists in an abundance of formats, from songs and poems to comics. Aside from including a variety of formats, your go-to set of mentor texts should reflect a range of writing modes—such as narrative, informational, and opinion—and writing levels, from student work on up to polished texts by professional writers.
Content from genres such as comics and graphic novels is appealing to students since “the fusion of words with images supports literacy development in all learners,” writes Dan Ryder, a former teacher and education director at Mount Blue Campus in Farmington, Maine. Try looking for comics that have a strong narrative arc and let students talk about the texts in pairs or small groups. In Ryder’s high school classroom, students also learn how to create their own comics by interviewing people around them or collecting icons and objects from old magazines.
Teachers also tell us they have used song lyrics or poems to help guide student writing in their classrooms. High school English teacher Elizabeth Jorgensen, for example, uses exemplary poems written by young authors to help her students ease into writing their own. Jorgensen identifies contemporary poets through literary journals and poetry competitions, and she finds that her students relate to these poems more than those from the traditional canon because they allow students “to see themselves in poetry, to realize that they too can write successfully.”
And other educators, like high school English teacher Jori Krulder, have tapped into the ever-growing world of podcasts, letting students do research and present their findings in the form of a podcast instead of a traditional paper. Throughout this process, Krulder’s students listen to professional podcasts as mentor texts, and analyze them using questions such as, “What do the creators do at the beginning, at the end, and during transitions?” or “What is the main idea or insight that this podcast is illuminating?”
While learning the technological ropes can take some time, in the end her students “worked harder on the analysis and synthesis—and did far more thinking—than they would have done if I were the only audience,” Krulder writes.
Connecting to Student Experiences
While good writing takes a lot of practice, you want to send the message that it is within students’ reach by showing how young writers have been successful, so your students see they can learn a lot from their peers.
It’s intuitive to search for mentor texts in prestigious publications that feature established authors, but showing students texts by someone close to their age or writing experience can encourage them to “have greater confidence in their abilities to implement in their own writing the techniques that a peer used,” write Sean Thompson and Deborah K. Reed, researchers at the Iowa Reading Research Center. They suggest supplementing your lessons with works from student publications whenever possible, such as using exemplary poems produced by poetry club members—or you can use poems from student competitions, as Jorgensen does—or movie reviews from the school’s art and culture magazine.
If you haven’t already, begin building an archive of your students’ exemplary work, and let the writers know that their work will be shared—anonymously if preferred—with students in subsequent years. It’s likely that students will work on similar assignments from year to year, and it can be helpful to learn from the collective wisdom of previous peers. Having done this in her elementary classroom, writing teacher Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski explains at Two Writing Teachers that her students are able to “see a model that is closer to what they can approximate and the gap doesn’t feel as wide as it might when comparing their writing to a professional, published piece.”
Effective mentor texts inspire students to experiment with new writing techniques, structure, or plotlines, but they should also provide windows and mirrors—in Rudine Sims Bishop’s famous formulation—for students to see both themselves and their peers represented in the texts and their writers. Literacy consultant Stacey Schubitz recommends doing an audit of your mentor texts to ensure that you include books written about and by people from all walks of life, both in your community and around the world.
To help students have realistic expectations of themselves as writers, it will help if your archive of mentor texts—by both students and more experienced writers—includes revisions, so they can see that those stellar essays didn’t start out as stellar. Another way to approach this, writes David Cutler, a history and journalism teacher, is to do your own quick writes for your assignments as students watch, so they can observe your writing process and the kinds of revisions you make even as you’re working on a first draft.
Students see “how I constantly refine my work, moving often between paragraphs to tweak structure and narrative flow. Meanwhile, I field questions about my thought process, such as why I have decided to tweak a clause or reconsider my syntax,” Cutler explains. And “to deter students from feeling deflated by my productivity,” he adds, “I remind them that I’ve had much longer to think about their assignment and that I’ve been teaching these skills for a dozen years.”
Another helpful way to encourage students to use mentor texts as models is to scaffold more advanced, jargon-rich texts, which may prompt students who are often frustrated by difficult vocabulary to “[give] up as soon as they come across an unfamiliar word,” writes former teacher Christina Gil. She recommends spending a few minutes going over any words that they might find discouraging, as well as being patient as students attempt to understand and implement the techniques they learn from mentor texts.
Mentor texts that reflect the breadth and depth of student experiences not only get students enthusiastic about writing but also help build a sense of belonging at school. The more students see themselves in what they're trying to emulate, the more engaged they will be as aspiring writers.