University of Iowa

Using Mentor Texts to Learn From the Best and Improve Students’ Writing

Teaching using mentor text to teach

When teaching with a mentor text, point out specific examples of a writing technique or approach and ask students questions to spark further discussion of the author’s craft.

By:  

Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: January 22, 2019

Truth be told, there are very few phrases my [speaking as post co-author Sean] high school teachers used during instruction that I remember to this day. Ironically, if taken at face value, the phrase I do still remember promotes outright thievery.

My high school journalism teacher Jack Kennedy told us: “If you are going to steal, steal from the best.” Of course, he was not advocating larceny. In the context of teaching us how to write, he also was not teaching us to plagiarize. He was emphasizing that learning techniques and approaches from other writers’ work, and using what you learn in your own writing, is a good thing. He taught us to read the best writers for this purpose, and we devoured articles from Sports Illustrated, Time, and Rolling Stone and talked about them in class.

Most teachers are not going to be able to bring in the most accomplished writers, such as journalist Malcom Gladwell or novelist Courtney Summers, for mentoring sessions with their students. However, teachers can do the next best thing by using mentor texts as part of their writing instruction. These texts also can be used to help children and teens become better writers at home.

What Are Mentor Texts?

Those articles we read and discussed in Kennedy’s class were mentor texts. Mentor texts are written pieces that serve as an example of good writing for student writers. The texts are read for the purpose of studying the author’s craft, or the way the author uses words and structures the writing. The goal is to provide students a model they could emulate in crafting their own piece. Essays, passages, articles, chapters, or full books could all serve as mentor texts. So too could a letter, email, film script, or comic strip, depending on the context under which the mentor text is being used.

What Constitutes a Good Mentor Text?

A good mentor text will be something student writers can read (individually or as a group), identify techniques and approaches used by the writer, discuss and understand why those approaches were effective, and integrate what they learned from this process into their own writing. A mentor text will show, not just tell, students how to write well, and allow them to envision the kind of writer they can be as they develop their skills (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2017).

Three Qualities of a Good Mentor Text

  1. You (the educator) think it is good. If you will be reading the mentor text aloud with students or assigning them to read it, choose something you consider to exemplify good writing. Do not pick a piece or a writer just because his or her work has a reputation for being good. If you are indifferent about the piece, it will be difficult to authentically teach students to emulate the writing.
  2. It is understandable for your students. Although it is an added bonus if a mentor text is about a topic that is of interest to students, fundamentally, students must be able to comprehend the piece. This does not mean to avoid all challenging texts. You can go over difficult vocabulary with students prior to having them read the mentor text independently or in a group. That way, they will not get frustrated when they reach those challenging words (Gil, 2017).
  3. It is relevant to what you are teaching. If you are teaching a unit on writing persuasive essays, do not choose a hilarious parody article. If you are teaching students how to write a lead or introductory paragraph, make sure you include the beginning of the piece, not a beautifully composed conclusion from a long research paper. If you want students to identify and implement several writing techniques into their own writing, choose a text where the writer did multiple things well.

In addition to textbook passages and texts that are part of your specific literacy curriculum, mentor texts can be found from a variety of other sources.

Potential Sources of Mentor Texts

  • “In the wild”: You may encounter or already know of excellent mentor texts without even trying. Perhaps you subscribe to a literary magazine that had an article last month with incredible use of metaphors and similes. Or, maybe you frequently think back to reading the journalistic profile of an actor that had great use of direct quotes. When you encounter good examples of authors’ craft, print them out, email them to yourself, or bookmark them on your computer. You can never have too many mentor texts in your toolbox for a future writing lesson.
  • Students’ peers: Student writers may be more likely to connect to a mentor text written by someone close to them in age or writing experience. They also may have greater confidence in their abilities to implement in their own writing the techniques that a peer used, as opposed to emulating a more experienced professional writer. For example, if you have a unit on narrative poetry coming up, you might recall reading a narrative poem in the magazine just published by your high school’s poetry club that contained captivating character development. You may know that the local university’s arts and culture magazine always has strong student-written reviews that would work great for your lesson on how to write a movie review. Go to student publications and see what you can find.
  • Go straight for the best: Teach using mentor texts that won prestigious prizes like the Pulitzer Prize for journalism or fiction, or The Masters Review short story award. This can also be a way to find outstanding mentor texts by students’ peers, such as winners from the Paul Engle High School Essay Contest. As mentioned previously, make sure to select something you actually think is well written, not just because it won a prize.

Teaching With Mentor Texts

Once you have identified mentor texts that you want to use, your students can gain the most from them with some instruction. Research findings indicate that using mentor texts as part of comprehensive writing instruction can result in students improving as writers. A large-scale statistical review (meta-analysis) resulting in the recommendation of 11 key elements of effective adolescent writing instruction included teaching students to analyze and emulate mentor texts (referred to in the report as models; Graham & Perin, 2007).

An action research project suggested that picture books might be useful as mentor texts for struggling writers (Premont, Young, Wilcox, Dean, & Morrison, 2017). The teacher read the mentor texts aloud, followed by a class discussion. Students then considered the writing traits explored in the picture books when writing their own personal narrative. The student writers’ improved their sentence fluency, word choice, and writing conventions such as punctuation. Picture books may not be the best choice for every class or specific lesson, but they may work well as a change-of-pace alternative, as long as they have sufficient text to work with.

The authors of a descriptive study wrote that mentor texts also might have application for teaching overall structure and necessary contents for subject-specific writing (Pytash, Edmondson, & Tait, 2014). A teacher would read aloud a white paper in a high school economics class and highlight the techniques and vocabulary used by the author. Students then worked in groups to analyze the text further before writing their own economics papers. An analysis of their writing and comments made in interviews seemed to suggest that reading the mentor text provided students’ knowledge of how to structure their own papers, how to effectively use transitional words, the need to include evidence for their claims, and the need to recognize bias in their own writing and the writing of others.

A study with younger students ages 7-11 found that their quality of writing improved from pretest to posttest when teachers taught with mentor texts (Corden, 2007). Over the course of a school year, teachers used mentor texts as models of particular narrative forms and writing styles during daily instruction. They read aloud the texts to the class, focusing on structural or stylistic features. This was followed by a shared writing of sentences or paragraphs using techniques identified in the mentor texts. Then, students further investigated the mentor texts in small groups. Students followed all this by transferring ideas and devices learned into their author notebooks during weekly independent work. The resulting students’ writing showed significant progress in structure and style. Although students were not compared to a group of peers who were not receiving the mentor text instruction, the authors noted that the average improvement of students in the project exceeded the expected rate of normal writing progress over the course of a school year. The techniques discussed in the mentor texts were evident in the students’ writing.

Overview of Steps for Teaching Writing Using Mentor Texts

  1. Directly teach students what they should recognize in a piece of mentor text. For example, if students are unfamiliar with figurative language, it will be difficult for them to recognize it or label its properties in a text. No matter how good the piece of writing might be, knowing what makes it so compelling is not necessarily intuitive for student writers. Authentic writing used as mentor text likely does not come with a set of directions pointing out what the author has done or what the particular technique is called. You will need to introduce that element of author’s craft first by defining it and giving easily understood or simple examples before asking students to apply that knowledge in studying a mentor text.
  2. Have students read the mentor text. Depending on the age of the students and their familiarity with reading to identify a particular type of author’s craft, you may want to read the mentor text aloud to them. Reading in small groups or reading individually are also options. As students become familiar with recognizing one or more elements of writing, you can transition from reading aloud to having students read the mentor text individually.
  3. Engage in a discussion about the text by asking questions. Though opinions on the mentor text’s topic should not be the focus of the discussion, it is important to establish that students understand what the text is about (Gil, 2017). Next, move to the crux of the discussion by asking students about the technique or approach used by the writer. Initially, you will need to model for students how you identify in the text the element of language or structure that you are teaching them. Think aloud to describe for students what makes the author’s craft stand out to you. As students become familiar with analyzing a mentor text, ask them to identify where and how the technique(s) they are learning were used in the text and why the writer was effective at using the technique. The discussion is a time to slow down and focus on individual words, sentences, and paragraphs and how these convey meaning to the reader (Dorfman & Cappelli, 2017). Talk about writing decisions that the writer made, section-by-section, and why certain words and phrases were used to make points (Pytash & Morgan, 2014).
  4. Time for students to write using what they learned from the mentor text. If possible, have students begin writing existing or new pieces right away, with a focus on emulating the techniques and approaches of the mentor text writer. This too will need to be modeled for students first. Think aloud as you demonstrate for students how you adapt an example from the mentor text to incorporate that craft into your own writing. With guidance and practice, students should be able to take what they learned, using their own writer’s voice, and tell the story they want to tell. As they write, help students revisit and reflect on their conclusions about what the writer did well in the mentor text.
  5. Assess the students’ writing and provide feedback. What level of success did students have in using the writing techniques and approaches of the mentor text writer in their own writing? Provide specific praise and constructive feedback. Ask for revisions where opportunities for improved use of the techniques and approaches exist. Peers can also provide feedback in a writer’s workshop or small-group setting, depending on the students’ ability level and prior experience providing peer feedback.

Using the “Improve Your Writing Using Mentor Texts” organizer (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers and Families below), students can read and respond to a mentor text as a class, in small groups, or as individuals.

By finding and using excellent mentor texts as part of writing instruction in the classroom or at home, you can help students progress from “stealing” from the best to learning to “read as writers.” This involves reading with a sharp eye for writing techniques and approaches that they can use to become multi-skilled writers like those successful scribes they wish to emulate.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers and Families

PDF iconImprove Your Writing Using Mentor Texts

This organizer can be used in a group or individual setting to guide thinking and discussion about a mentor text, and how students can identify techniques and approaches used by the writer to improve their own writing.

References

Corden, R. (2007). Developing reading-writing connections: The impact of explicit instruction of literary devices on the quality of children’s narrative writing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 21, 269-289. doi:10.1080/02568540709594594

Dorfman, L. R., & Cappelli, R. (2017). Mentor texts: Teaching writing through children’s literature, K-6 (2nd ed.). Stenhouse Publishers.

Gil, C. (2017, June 1). 8 Tips for Teaching With Mentor Texts. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-tips-teaching-mentor-texts-christina-gil

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. Retrieved from Carnegie Corporation of New York website: https://www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/3c/f5/3cf58727-34f4-4140-a014-723a00ac56f7/ccny_report_2007_writing.pdf

Premont, D. W., Young, T. A., Wilcox, B., Dean, D., & Morrison, T. G. (2017). Picture books as mentor texts for 10th grade struggling writers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 4, 290-310. doi:10.1080/19388071.2017.1338803

Pytash, K. E., Edmondson, E., & Tait, A. (2014). Using mentor texts for writing instruction in high school economics class. Social Studies Research and Practice, 9(1), 95-106. Retrieved from http://www.socstrpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/MS-6543-Paytesh.pdf

Pytash, K. E., & Morgan, D. N. (2014). Using mentor texts to teach writing in science and social studies. The Reading Teacher, 68, 93-102. doi:10.1002/trtr.1276


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