When I first started teaching, mentor texts were something I might see mentioned in a textbook that I was never going to actually read. Now, when I attend conferences and professional development, using mentor texts and sentences seems like a prerequisite for every quality unit. In this post, I hope to answer any and all questions you might have about mentor texts. I’ll try to include plenty of examples, links, helpful resources, activities, and lesson ideas.
This mentor text post covers:
- What is a Mentor Text?
- Why Use Mentor Texts?
- Types of Mentor Texts and How to Use Them
- Lesson Ideas for Mentor Texts
- Where to Find Mentor Texts
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What is a Mentor Text?
A mentor text, sometimes referred to as an anchor text, is an exemplary piece of writing that students can study and then imitate in order to improve their own writing.
I think conversations about mentor texts can easily become overly complicated. I know I have felt overwhelmed at every Penny Kittle training I’ve been to.
But think of a mentor text as just a really good example. If you want your students to write using semicolons correctly, you might point out a semicolon in the class book you’re reading. That’s a mentor text.
If you want your creative writing students to really think and construct engaging opening lines for their short stories, you might show them some famous opening lines. That’s using mentor texts.
Mentor texts are just great examples of the writing craft.
Writing to Study and Imitate
The trick with mentor texts is to keep them short. These should be pieces of writing that students can study and imitate. They should be digestible.
For example, it’s a lot easier for students to play with text structure if they’re examining a poem or a short story. Expecting them to study the structure of a whole novel and then go and pay attention to their own story structure is too much for young writers too fast.
Mentor texts should be used for a very specific purpose. If you want students to study a few sentences and attempt the same writing move, those sentences better illustrate one specific technique. Throwing a bunch of great writing at students all at once isn’t going to inspire them–it’s going to overwhelm them.
Professional Writing as Mentor Texts
Obviously, published writing is going to probably serve well as a mentor text. Using snippets of professional writing is a great way to get started with mentor texts. Published writing has already been through an editor. If it’s made its way into your classroom, it’s probably pretty solid writing.
Don’t make it complicated. If you want your students to study how to punctuate dialogue, picking up a book from your classroom library and showing them a back-and-forth conversation is a great place to start.
Student Writing as Mentor Texts
Another great type of mentor text, however, is student-generated. If you show students an excellent introductory essay from a previous class as inspiration, you’re using a student-created mentor text.
Pulling student examples and showcasing them for students to study and imitate is powerful. Not only is it a great example, but it empowers students. It shows them that they don’t have to be a published author to create exemplary writing. If their peers can do it, so can they.
Alternatively, you can have students find and share mentor texts from professional writing. This is a great blend of both. Students get to study how professional writers shape their work, while also practicing reading as writers studying the craft.
Why Use Mentor Texts?
Alright, so you know what mentor texts are, but why use them? Why not just stick with a tried and true worksheet or presentation?
You can use mentor texts to strengthen the purpose behind almost every lesson. Students will always need good examples. Here are a few more specific ways that mentor texts can be used to strengthen your writing program.
Show Students Exemplary Writing
I’ve already touched on this, but a primary reason to use mentor texts is just to show students exemplary examples of the writing craft.
In teaching, examples are necessary. You can study every comma rule under the sun, but until you see commas being used in great writing, it’s not going to stick. A teacher can repeat show, don’t tell until they’re out of breath, but it won’t make any sense unless you see an example.
Mentor texts illustrate the lesson, idea, or technique that you want your students to understand.
Encourage Students to Take Risks in Writing
Another reason to use mentor texts is that they act as writing scaffolding for young authors.
Trying new things in writing can be scary, especially for students who don’t identify as writers, are not native English writers, or just generally struggle. They want to write “right.” They’re not necessarily looking to write artfully, creatively, or bravely. They certainly don’t want to fail in their writing ventures.
But we English teachers know the power of trying new writing techniques and being flexible in the way we put words on paper. We need to instill the delight of trying new writing into our students.
If, for example, we want students to try using parallel structure, we can cover the term. We can explain its rhetorical power. But students will probably not feel comfortable attempting it, nor will they fully appreciate its persuasive power.
If, however, we show them examples from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, and students can see the power of parallel structure for themselves, they’ll be encouraged to try it in their next piece of persuasive writing.
You could even scaffold this further. To continue with the above example, you could then have students write their own “I Have a Dream” speech. How would they use the structure “I have a dream….” to convey their own vision of the future?
As you can see, a simple mentor text can evolve from beyond a simple example into its own assignment. A quality mentor text can be studied and revisited over and over again.
Show Students Why We Might Choose Certain Techniques
Perhaps the most powerful reason to use mentor texts is that they allow us to show students why we might do something in writing.
We can tell students over and over to use sentence variety. We can diagram a hundred sentences to analyze various sentence structures. Students can complete hundreds of worksheets, task cards, and quizzes.
You could have students highlight their own writing for sentence variety. Our students can even learn to use sentence variety regularly.
But if they don’t understand why or how sentence variety strengthens writing, then we’ve failed them.
When we show a mentor text that uses short, punchy sentences to convey the speed of an action scene, however, they get it. If they see long, romantic sentences meant to slow down the moment when two soul mates meet, they get it.
Mentor texts let us show not only the “how-to” of a writing technique but also the why–the effect it has on the reader.
Have Students Determine Their Own Rules of Writing
Another way to encourage bravery and critical thinking using mentor texts is to give them to students and have the students themselves determine the quality, technique, or writing move that is exemplary.
This is a common way to teach grammar. It’s actually the basis for the lessons in the classic Mechanically Inclined.
Check it out if you want some grab-and-go mentor texts and lessons, although I think they are aimed more at late elementary and middle than high school.
For example, if you want students to learn to use a comma after introductory elements in a sentence, you could group students and give them mentor texts that illustrate this grammatical move.
Then, ask the groups to create comma rules based on the mentor sentences.
Students will have to see the commonalities in each mentor example first, but then they’ll also have to describe it and put it into words.
You could go on to create an anchor chart for the class based on what the students notice, or have each group create one and share out.
You could do a similar lesson to examine non-grammatical aspects of writing. If, for example, you wanted students to study characterization, you could give them a few examples of great character-building passages. Then, students can study and define for themselves what they think is great about each example.
Types of Mentor Texts and How to Use Them
You can teach or model pretty much any skill or technique using mentor texts. But some types of writing are better at illustrating certain lesson types than others. While this is far from a comprehensive list, hopefully, it will get you started and maybe inspire some new ideas.
My first real foray into intentionally using mentor texts was with poetry. In my creative writing class, I did several lessons where we looked at a whole poem as a mentor text.
This is great especially if you want students to study poetic structure because you have a start, middle, and end to examine.
For example, in my Ode Writing Lesson, students read an ode first. Then, they annotate the techniques and tone used in the piece (perhaps even having a classroom discussion on the example). Only after analyzing this example poem do students begin to brainstorm for their own poem.
Whole poems can also be a great way to examine figurative language techniques. If you’d like some ready-for-you lessons that use poetry as mentor texts, I have these lessons for you:
- “Nicholas Was…” Writing Activity: Students read Neil Gaiman’s 100-word story before writing their own
- Writing Haiku Poems for High School: Students analyze a mentor poem which consists of combining several haikus before attempting their own haikus.
- Limerick Writing Lesson: Students read several example limericks before attempting to write their own.
- Letter Writing & Envelope Addressing Lesson: Students examine examples of formal letters (and addressed envelopes) before writing their own appreciation letter
Using mentor sentences is probably the easiest way to start incorporating mentor texts in your classroom. A sentence is short and digestible. If you’d like, you can use a few to illustrate the same technique for your students.
Mentor sentences, as mentioned above, can be taken from professional or student writing. If you’re desperate for just the right example, you could write a mentor sentence or two yourself to show off a specific writing technique.
Mentor sentences work especially well for lessons around grammatical rules, sentence structure, showing (not telling details and emotions), or crafting dialogue.
Lesson Ideas for Incorporating Mentor Texts in Class
I’ll walk through some simple steps for using mentor texts in your class, but if you want to deep dive into the “how”, I highly recommend Amanda Write Now.
Amanda Werner is the queen of workshop-style teaching, and she regularly incorporates mentor texts into her minilessons. She has a great breakdown of how to use mentor texts in this article but has other helpful blog posts AND podcast episodes.
The workshop model of teaching meshes with mentor texts very effectively.
In a workshop model, the teacher begins class with a quick mini-lesson. This is where the mentor text would be introduced.
For example, if you want students to introduce dialogue into the stories their working on, you would explain dialogue quickly, then show and discuss some mentor text examples.
After the mini-lesson, students are given the majority of the class time to attempt to emulate the mentor texts in their own writing.
For the above example, this would be when students then work on their own stories, adding, tweaking, and attempting dialogue as they write their scenes.
The mini-lesson concept is not limited to the workshop model, however. Mini-lessons can be effective and useful regardless of how you run your classroom.
A mini-lesson can be anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, although I think shorter is typically better. Any longer and you risk inundating students with too much information or losing their attention.
You can incorporate mentor texts in pretty much any mini-lesson you might want to teach.
For example, I try to do grammar lessons in small chunks. I could show students a few slides in a slideshow about colon uses, followed by examining some mentor texts that use colons effectively.
Until they actually see those colons in action, it’s going to be hard to understand how to use them.
A final way to use mentor texts is through an author study.
An author study is exactly what it sounds like–students are given or choose an author, and then they study that writer’s craft.
In my Author Study Project, students choose a short story writer or poet. They do a little bit of background information on the person, but then they get to work reading.
As they read, they watch for patterns in tone, imagery, and writing style. (I provide a graphic organizer worksheet for students to use as they make a note of these author moves.)
Then, they create their own original writing while imitating the moves that their studied author might make.
It’s a much deeper examination of a writer’s style than typically occurs in class, but it’s the perfect project for a creative writing course.
It requires much more independence and critical thinking on the student’s part, too. She’ll have to make a lot of choices and draw a lot of conclusions on her own, and that’s before she even begins her own writing.
You can use this activity in your class, or create your own variation of an author study.
Where to Find Mentor Texts
Alright, so you’re ready to incorporate mentor texts into your classroom, but now comes probably the biggest hurdle: where do you find them?
Every time I enter into a conversation about mentor texts or the workshop question with my colleagues, this is the question that comes up.
Where do you get mentor texts for the specific lesson or technique you need? I wish I could point you to some ultimate compendium of mentor texts for every possible purpose, but to my knowledge, there is no such thing. I can give you some tips though.
Know What You Need
Before you go throwing mentor texts up on your board, you need to know what you need.
What do you want to teach your students? What concepts or skills are they struggling with? Are there common errors in student writing that you’re seeing over and over again? Is there a technique you’d like to see your students grapple and play with?
By answering these questions, you’ll be better prepared to find and implement mentor texts.
Don’t go hunting for mentor examples blindly. Have a list of skills, techniques, or structures you want to teach. Then, make a list or a spreadsheet to keep track of where your mentor texts come from.
DO NOT just type “mentor texts” into Google. This is a great way to lose focus and waste time.
Keep Track of Mentor Texts As You Read
As a writer and teacher yourself, no doubt you’re doing some reading of your own. I hope you’re at least reading with your students during independent reading.
As you read, keep track of any beautiful writing you encounter.
If you know what kind of lessons or techniques you want to showcase, you can pay special attention to these as you go. If you don’t, however, just keep track of beautiful writing–a need for those examples will appear.
I tried keeping a detailed document of mentor texts and their possible uses, but I just couldn’t keep track of it. Now, I just put a sticky note or tab next to it. At least I have a hope of finding it if I can remember.
For student examples, you can make copies of assignments and keep a folder from which you can pull.
Lists of Mentor Texts Online
There is no mega-compendium of mentor texts categorized by skill that I can find. But there are some helpful blog posts and lists out there on the interwebs.
If you hit Google to find some mentor texts, be specific in your search. Use your grade level and the skill you want to highlight to narrow down your search.
You’ll still probably have to piecemeal blogs together, but specificity will certainly help with your hunt.
Ask Students for Examples
You could also make students do the work for you. If, for example, you’re covering semicolons in class, have the students seek out examples in their own reading.
You could also have them keep track in writer’s notebooks of beautiful language they encounter during their independent reading. This would be great to discuss during reading conferences or as proof of their reading outside of class.
Students are resources themselves. Don’t forget to put them to work.
The New York Times Collection
The New York Times also has some mentor text resources for you. The NYT knows the power of mentor texts and has begun compiling them for educators’ use.
You can read more about mentor texts and the paper’s collection here.
You can also navigate to their mentor text hub, but there’s a lot there. Again, knowing what you need and being specific is going to be best for finding what you need.
In conclusion, mentor texts are a great way to strengthen your writing instruction. At their core, mentor texts are just really great examples of writing. Our students can never get enough of these.
Seeing great examples of writing can guide our young writers. It provides scaffolding in writing that encourages riskier, braver writing. Being able to see greatness can allow us to aspire to it.
You can use examples from professional writing or from the students themselves. Depending on what you want your students to learn, you may opt to use mentor sentences, a poem, or a passage–but remember to keep your mentor texts and your mini-lessons short.
These examples should be studied before students are asked to imitate the techniques or structure used in the mentor writing.
Mentor texts can be taken from everywhere–your own reading, online blogs, newspaper collections, or even gathered by students.
If you’d like to take a tiny step into using a mentor text, but aren’t sure how to put a lesson together, I have a few in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.
My free “I Am” Poem requires you to do some writing about yourself to use as a mentor text for your students.
I also highly recommend my Author Study Project if you’re wanting students to study mentor texts deeply and over a longer period of time.