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Starting the Year with Mentor Texts

by Lynne R. Dorfman

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to choose a multitude of favorite texts to share with students as read-alouds. These selections serve as mentor texts that you can return to again and again for many purposes over the course of the school year. First, begin to introduce these texts as read-alouds. The rich talk that accompanies a read-aloud creates a comfort level and interest in the text, and often, in the author as well.

These mentor texts help students take their first steps as writers in your classroom. They provide gentle nudges to try out new strategies, organizational scaffolds, or write in the persona of another – to name a few. Kelly Gallagher urges us to do more than model. In Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts he explains: “Beyond teacher modeling in the classroom, my students benefit immensely from closely examining writing from the real world. … Yes, it is important to show students how the teacher writes, but it is also of paramount importance to provide students with mentor texts so they can see how other writers compose.”

Mentor texts help develop and maintain community. They form a set of core literature that everyone knows and can discuss in many ways. These texts become familiar friends to the writers in your classroom. The familiarity with these texts also creates a sense of safety and allows your writers to try out new things and write differently tomorrow than they are writing today.  One of the books that helped me begin to understand how I could teach young writers more effectively is Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words: Writing and Writers in the Elementary Classroom. Her approach helped me move away from more formulaic approaches to the teaching of writing. Indeed, her thinking helped me fall in love with language all over again!  After all, a writer is someone who must love words!

Although picture books always provide wonderful models for students in any grade level, there are many other options. Consider using poems, song lyrics, or newspaper articles. Newkirk (2007) talks about the use of graphic novels and other forms of popular culture as mentor texts for middle and high school students. I think it is important to find mentor texts that you believe your population of students can grow to love and cherish. If you do so, your students will be more likely to enjoy writing, return to a draft to revise, and begin to see themselves as writers at a conscious level. Here are some things to consider:

  • Vary the genre to include poetry, realistic fiction, memoir, biography, expository text, essay – all that is appropriate for your grade level.
  • Read the text as a read-aloud first and let the students enjoy the text as a whole before you return to study it in any way.
  • Try out craft, punctuation, and organizational structures that will move your students forward as writers.
  • Keep your mentor texts in a special place or on a special shelf so that you can easily find them. You may need them for a focus lesson or even to refer to in a conference situation.
  • If possible, place a duplicate of each mentor text in the classroom library for students to access on their own and don’t be afraid to change your mentor texts from year to year.

Are you using mentor texts to help you teach writing? Please share a favorite and how you use it with your writers.


Lynne R. Dorfman profileLynne Dorfman is a co-director for PAWLP. Her new book, co-authored with Diane Dougherty, is Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 (September 2014)

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