by Carl Anderson
There are two pieces of advice I like to give about teaching students to write well:
Teach with mentor texts!
Teach with mentor texts!
And I should add one more thing to this list:
Teach with mentor texts!
I’m obsessed with teaching with mentor texts. When I’m teaching students to craft their writing or use a writing convention in a mini-lesson, small group lesson, or a writing conference, I always select a text from my stack of mentor texts, show students the text, and describe what the author is doing in the text to craft their writing.
I think that you, too, should be obsessed with teaching with mentor texts.
Why? What about this teaching move makes it essential to have in your teaching repertoire?
When you teach with mentor texts, you align instruction with an important principle of learning: people usually learn best by watching and studying people who are expert at the things they want to learn to do
. Whether you’re learning how to shoot a basketball or make a three-point turn, you’ll probably observe someone who is good at these skills before you try it yourself. You might go out on a basketball court and marvel at the technique of an excellent shooter, or you take a driving lesson and watch your instructor expertly make the turn.
Each time you teach with a mentor text, you put students in the company of a more
experienced writer – the author of the text – and invite them to look at and study what this writer has done in the text and then try it themselves. You invite students to read like writers. That is, you teach them to notice craft moves the author makes in the text
, with the intent of trying these moves themselves.
How do you do this?
Teaching Mini-Lessons and Small-Group Lessons with Mentor Texts
Follow these six steps:
- Before teaching a mini-lesson or small-group lesson, select from your “stack” of texts a mentor text that contains the craft technique or convention you want to teach.
- At the start of the lesson, name the craft technique or convention you’re teaching.
- Make the text visible to your students. Show students the text on your Smartboard, or the page of a picture book. Students’ visual memory of a craft technique or convention helps them when they try it themselves in their own writing.
- Read aloud the part of the text that contains the technique or convention. Students’ aural memory of the technique or convention also helps them when they write.
- Describe how the author used the craft technique or convention clearly and precisely. This is the most challenging part of teaching with a mentor text, as it requires you to draw upon your own ability to read like a writer. For example, let’s say you’re teaching students how to write a lead for a feature article by showing them this lead (from an article I wrote). Study it closely, and ask yourself, “How would you describe what Carl did as a writer?”
Imagine this: You’re in Kenya, taking a nighttime drive on the African savannah.
Your driver turns a corner on the dirt road, and right in front of you the searchlight
reveals a pride of lions. Before you jump under your seat to hide, relax. You’re in a special safari van, and you’re perfectly safe, even though you’re so close to such dangerous animals.
When you go on safari in Kenya, you’re going to see a wide variety of fascinating animals in their natural habitat. Here are a few you’re bound to see.
Here’s how I would describe what I did as a writer in this lead:
There are a lot of interesting ways to write a lead for a feature
article, and I tried one of them – writing a narrative scene that introduces the
topic – in mine. I begin with the phrase, “Imagine this,” to cue readers to get
ready to use their imagination. As I describe the scene, I address
ed the reader
using the pronoun “you” because I want them to imagine that they’re the main
character in this scenario! Then I write a series of actions that the characters –
the driver, the lions, and the reader – make. And in the second paragraph, I let
readers know the angle – the focus — that I then develop in the rest of the
If it was difficult for you to read this lead like a writer and describe what I did, don’t worry. I’ve found that with practice, this is a skill you develop over time. And you can accelerate your learning about how to describe texts by discussing them with your colleagues before introducing them to your students.
- Finally, invite students during that period’s independent writing time to try it themselves in their own writing.
Conferring with Mentor Texts
During writing conferences with students, there are some special challenges to teaching with mentor texts. Mainly, since you don’t know what the focus of a conference
s will be before you sit down to confer with a student, you have to think on your feet and decide which mentor text to teach on the fly, right in the middle of the conference Don’t be alarmed. You can do it!
Follow these seven steps, (many of which parallel the steps for teaching with mentor texts during mini-lessons and small-group lessons) to navigate these “in the moment” conferring decisions with mentor texts:
1. Carry your “stack” of mentor texts with you from conference to conference. Having several texts with you that you know well – each of which contains many craft techniques and conventions you can teach – is the best way to be prepared for whatever comes up in conferences.
2. Begin conferences by asking students what they’re doing as writers (by asking
3. Ask yourself, “Which of the mentor texts in my stack has a good example of this technique or convention that I can show this student?”
4. Make the text visible by placing it between you and the student so they can see it easily.
5. Read the part of the text aloud that contains the technique or convention, so they can hear how it sounds.
6. Use your skill with reading like a writer to describe the craft technique or convention.
7. After you teach with the text, briefly coach the student as they try what you taught. Ask them to try out the technique or convention with you. Usually, you can do this by having them talk out how they’ll use the technique or convention. As they do this, listen carefully and coach them as needed—in part, by referring back to the mentor text.
Over time, you’ll become more and more confident in teaching with mentor texts, and these steps will become second nature to you. And, as you see how your students respond to this teaching, I bet you’ll become just as obsessed with using mentor texts as I am!
Carl Anderson is an author and literacy consultant who works in schools and districts aroundthe world. His most recent book is A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts K-5.