We’ve just moved houses and, after living in a rental house with a complete mishmash of furniture (like uni students who haven’t really even grown up), my husband and I have decided to try our hand at living like proper grown-ups by getting ourselves some matching furniture.
Unfortunately, neither of us have any interior design skills so it’s going to be a long and potentially arduous process for us (despite how many episodes of The Block we’ve watched).
Our first step has been to seek out examples of styling designs we like. We’ve realised that there are some that float our boat and others that certainly don’t suit our style (I’m looking at you Hollywood Glam).
We’ve scoured the internet for room styling photos that we can use to help us craft just the right look in our house. Of course, we could read up on the theory of good interior design, but we really need to see it to have that ‘aha’ moment. ‘Oh right! That’s what good design looks like…now I get it.’
In other words, we need someone to “show” us, rather than “tell” us.
We need a worked example.
It’s exactly the same for writing instruction.
We can TELL our students to craft an interesting beginning, add detail or use dialogue to move the story along, but when we SHOW our students what this looks like in effective writing that’s when the AHA moment will happen.
This is where mentor texts come in.
Mentor: A wise and trusted counsellor. A person who is considered to have sufficient experience or expertise to be able to assist others less experienced. (Macquarie Dictionary)
What are mentor texts?
Mentor texts for writing are pieces of text we can hold up as examples of good writing. A mentor text could be a single sentence or an entire book. It could be something written by you, a student, a published author or someone else entirely.
Mentor texts allow you to show your students what quality writing looks like rather than telling them.
Used well, they become a magician’s trick book; when you pull them apart with students and discuss the author’s craft moves, you can remove the smoke and mirrors and demystify the sorcery that goes into effective writing. With a clear view behind the scenes your students can then recreate this same magic in their own writing.
Mentor texts for reading
Mentor texts in reading are often called touchstone texts or model texts. (I call them mentor texts just to keep it easy). They’re books/pieces of text you can use to model the use of specific reading strategies such as decoding, predicting, inferring, or even discussing character traits.
Mentor texts for writing
Mentor texts in writing help students learn more effectively about author’s craft. I could say to you, ‘good writers use repetition in their writing’ or I could show you an example of repetition in a mentor text and then ask you about the impact of that repetition.
Take this piece from Maree Coote’s outstanding book, Azaria (shortlisted in the CBCA book awards 2021):
‘You see, it was on that very night, while the family cooked a meal of beans, that a goanna took a moth for it’s supper… …an eagle took a joey for its dinner… …and a dingo took a baby.’
Showing you this text can allow you to not only see what repetition in writing actually looks like (especially when used alongside the ‘rule of 3’) but, perhaps more importantly, feel its power as a reader. Doesn’t it sound good on the ear!?
By labelling the craft (in this case, repetition and rule of three) and discussing its impact, you’re removing all the smoke and mirrors for your aspiring writers and empowering them to add this craft move to their writer’s toolbelt.
Who can use mentor texts?
Without even realisng it, you probably seek out the use fo mentor texts in your life all the time.
Think about it: every time you’ve had to write a job application, a new type of student report or even a grant application you’ve probably reached out to your friends, family and work colleagues to seek examples first.
Every time you’ve sought out an example of good writing to help you with your own you’ve been using mentor texts.
With job applications, I always collected a bunch of other people’s examples, read through them, looked for the bits I could borrow or learn from and then used these to help me craft my own example. As with any good mentor text, I used these before writing to collect ideas and then constantly referred back to them while I was writing to help improve the quality of my piece.
When I started writing blog posts I did the same- sought out other examples, learned about the structure and what works and then held them close as I had a go myself.
Mentor texts aren’t just used in school writing lessons- lifelong writers use them every day.
Why use mentor texts?
Mentor texts are free coaches, sitting on our shelves waiting to provide assistance to us as aspiring writers. They’re anytime, anywhere (you have books) mentors.
This is a bugbear of mine. Some writing programs being implemented in schools today have reduced writing to a list of rules that don’t tell the full truth about real writing. (If you’ve done my writing traits course you’ll know my feelings about the all-too-common ‘woof, woof, woof’, ‘bang!’ or ‘whoosh’ start.)
Rather than me telling students there are the ‘X amount of ways you can start a story,’ let’s get some real books off the shelves and explore how published authors have started their stories. What can we learn from them? Which leads were more effective in your eyes? Why do you think that? Great! Now let’s create our own list of lead strategies based on our discoveries.
“The ability to find good writing and identify what makes it effective will carry students through their education and into the world of work.”(Marchetti and O’Dell, 2015).
Teaching students to pay attention to writer’s craft when reading builds their capacity to ‘read like a writer’. It encourages them to stop and notice when they read a great sentence or paragraph and wonder, ‘how did the author do that?’ Followed by, ‘how could I do that?’ This is a self-sustaining skill that will benefit their writing for the rest of their lives.
Where can you find mentor texts?
I recommend starting with previous winners from reputable Australian awards including:
- The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s (CBCA) Book of the Year awards.
- Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards
- The Reading Children’s Book Prize
In addition to these, I would (of course) recommend my own mentor text list. I’ve made it my work to create a list of useful mentor texts for Australian teachers to assist with teaching reading and writing. This list features mainly Australian texts that span all the primary years and include a range of genres. You can download a copy of the mentor text list here.
How have mentor texts helped you to teach writing? Share your experiences in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.
Want to learn how to identify the elements of effective writing in mentor texts?
My Writing Traits Masterclass is now open for the final intake of 2021.
This fully online, self-paced course will teach you how to identify the key elements of effective writing in both mentor texts and students writing.
I’ll show you how to use different mentor texts to teach students how to improve their writing and show you how you can return to the same text to teach multiple strategies.
All of this will help you to understand how to lift the quality of your students’ writing and provide more targeted, relevant and specific feedback to your students.
This course starts on July 19th and you can learn more about it here.
“I was recommended this course by another teacher and now I know why. I have walked away from this course with a greater understanding and feel that others would benefit from the knowledge, mentor texts and conversations that can be had about writing.” – Jessica (Yr 2 teacher)
Related blog posts:
- 3 Common Misconceptions About The 6+1 Traits Of Writing
- A Crucial First Step In Improving Writing Instruction
- Should You Teach Genre Or The 6 + 1 Traits?
- Coote, M., 2020. Azaria. Melbourne: Melbournestyle.
- Marchetti, A. and O’Dell, R., 2015. Writing with mentors. Portsmouth: Heinemann.