Mentor Text Background
What Are Mentor Texts?
A mentor text is any piece of writing that can be used to teach a writer about some aspect of writer’s craft.
Mentor texts can take the form of any genre: picture book, excerpt from a chapter book, a magazine or newspaper article, an editorial, a cookbook, etc. Relatively short pieces of text work best.
Some professional literature distinguishes between “touchstone texts” and “mentor texts”, defining touchstone texts as those used by a teacher to model a particular craft for a community of learners and mentor texts as those used by individual writers who are apprenticing themselves to an author’s work or body of work. For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I will use the term “mentor text” to refer to any piece of writing (published or written by a teacher or student) that is used to demonstrate writer’s craft to groups of students during mini-lessons or to individual students during writing conferences.
The best mentor texts are those that can be used numerous times throughout the school year to demonstrate many different craft moves.
Most mentor text mini-lessons fall into one of three categories:
Idea: the text inspires the writer to create an original idea based on one from the text.
Structure: the text presents on organizational structure that the writer tries to emulate using original ideas.
Written Craft: the author’s writing style, ways with words, or sentence structure inspires the writer to try out these techniques.
As we build our mentor text lists and libraries, we should consciously look for texts from all three categories.
When using mentor texts, it is important to remember that we are teaching a particular strategy or craft move—we are not teaching the book.
Why Use Mentor Texts?
Mentor texts help students envision possibilities for their own writing.
They provide a model of what good writing looks like.
Use of mentor texts is consistent with Vygotsky’s Zones of Development and with the Optimal Learning Model (gradual release of responsibility).
They help students grow as writers by giving them something to emulate.
Exposure to mentor texts encourages students to take risks in their writing, to try something new.
Mentor texts inspire and ignite writers.
Mentor texts help us “show” not just “tell” our students what good writing looks like.
This is how real writers work—they look to other writers for ideas and ways to craft and structure their writing. Why not teach children to do what the professionals do?
Selecting Mentor Texts
With so many books filling the shelves of bookstores and libraries, how do we begin to select the right mentor texts for our mini-lessons? The truth is, there isn’t just one right text that will do the trick. As Katie Wood Ray explains in Wondrous Words, writing style is individual but it is not unique. In other words, a close look at the writing of many different authors reveals that authors use the same techniques or crafts. As we begin to “read like a writer” we notice that there are more similarities than differences. While there is not one right mentor text for each craft we hope to teach, some texts are obviously more effective than others. Below is some criteria that can aid in selecting mentor texts (Nia, 1999 and Wood, 1999):
Picture books and other short pieces are ideal for mentor texts.
You have read the text and you love it.
You and your students have talked about the text as readers first.
You find many things to teach in the text:
Ways with words; powerful language
Interesting ideas or writing concepts
You can imagine talking about the text for a very long time.
Your entire class can have access to the text.
Your students can read the text independently or with some support.
The text is a little more sophisticated than the writing of your best students.
The text is written by a writer you trust.
The text is a good example of a particular kind of writing (genre).
The text is of a genre you are studying.
It has background information included.
It reminds you of other texts.
Ultimately we want to be able to select our own mentor texts, but when we’re just getting started, it is helpful to have some lists to rely on. See mentor text websites and professional books for resources that list quality mentor texts.