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Critical Thinking

How Mentor Texts Provide Valuable Lessons Beyond Writing Instruction

The knowledge middle and high school students gain through working with mentor texts can strengthen their critical thinking skills.

November 23, 2020
Middle school aged boy reading book on couch at home
Pollyana Ventura / iStock

When students are learning how to write, mentor texts can be a valuable tool. These published pieces provide students with a road map as they’re trying to find their own voices as writers. Author Lynne Dorfman says mentor texts are designed to be “studied and imitated,” and they “help students to take risks and be different writers tomorrow than they are today.”

The value of mentor texts is so powerful that The New York Times developed a series of mentor texts for students to emulate and learn from. If you’re new to this, here are eight tips for teaching with mentor texts to further pique your interest.

In a recent post on the Moving Writers website, Rebekah O’Dell asked, “What comes after mentor texts?” A similar question that students tend to ask when they want to know the true value of what they are learning in the classroom is, “How does this help me outside of class?” Part of the response is the value of transfer of the learned concepts or information in new situations.

For example, studying the structure of an argument brings knowledge that can be transferred to writing your own argument across situations or preparing a verbal argument in real-life contexts. While learning from mentor texts transfers beyond the classroom in this way, teachers should always consider transfer of learning through the acquired thinking that is targeted and carried on with students.

Sometimes “Why does this matter?” is indirectly related to thinking more efficiently and better down the road. In this case, let’s take O’Dell’s question and explore it through the lens of the Artful Thinking Palette, created by Harvard’s Project Zero.

4 Routines for Using Mentor Texts

1. Observing and describing: 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. In class, students may study a genre like argument with three to five op-ed articles as mentors. They read and then reread them to observe elements across the mentors.

The observing and describing phase provides an opportunity for students to slow down, take notice, and absorb what the mentor text has to say. To draw students’ attention to what thinking they are actually doing in these early phases of studying their mentor texts, teachers may use the What Makes You Say That? routine.

2. Comparing and connecting: Imagine the student volleying back and forth from their writing to a mentor text as they either try out moves or revise their own writing to mirror the mentor text. In comparing the mentor with their own writing, they are linking their writing to form new ideas by seeing another way through their reading. Some mentor texts may not be compatible with what students envision in their writing, but they may feel a connection with other texts, which allows the students to grow their love for an author or style of writing.

When students engage with mentor texts, teachers make the essential connection from the content, or what they are learning (e.g., writing a short story), to the thinking that students are rehearsing. Students may compare and connect their writing with their mentors by using the I Used to Think... Now I Think routine.

3. Questioning and investigating: For questioning and investigating, an aligned thinking routine is See, Think, Wonder. This type of thinking with a mentor text pushes the student to question and investigate their mentors. Remember, not all mentor texts are created equal. Based on the needs of the writer and the range of mentors, students strengthen their habit of questioning and challenging their mentors. Perhaps the mentor text leads a student to wonder about the writer’s craft, or it pushes a writer to dig up new mentors. See, Think, Wonder invites writers to investigate their mentors, leading to additional study.

4. Exploring viewpoints: An exploration of viewpoints allows students to use mentors to explore multiple perspectives. In particular, genre, writer’s craft, and text structure are studied in mentor texts. Students study the way mentors take on and approach a topic differently. The Circle of Viewpoints allows students to see perspectives that use different genres or various moves to get to the heart of a topic.

For instance, the topic of social media may be explored through various modes of expression such as poetry, an infographic, a short story, an op-ed, reviews, podcasts, interviews, or other forms. By experiencing different viewpoints, students may consider how genres cross paths to amplify understanding and vary options for expression.

Broadly Applicable Routines

So, what comes after mentor texts? When students are aware of and rehearse their learning through the lens of deliberate thinking, learning is easily transferable. Routines associated with studying mentor texts invite students to observe and describe, compare and connect, question and investigate, and explore different viewpoints. When learning how to use mentor texts is rooted in thinking, students can easily apply the thinking to any endeavor.

If we explicitly point out the critical thinking that’s sparked by studying mentor texts, students can deliberately strengthen their thinking when engaged in any activity. Ultimately, students will learn how to think better well after the mentor text study ends.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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