mentor texts for writing problem

The Problem With Mentor Texts

Oct 29, 2023

 

Mentor texts are pieces of writing you can hold up as good in-practice examples for students.

They enable you to ‘show’ your students, rather than ‘tell’ them what a specific craft move looks like and/or how it works. (Click here to read a blog post giving an example of how to use mentor texts to implement ‘show, don’t tell’).

Mentor texts are a form of worked examples. They help unpack the end goal for your students by providing a scaffold that they can return to over and over again. 

As one of the Victorian Department of Education’s 10 High Impact Teaching Strategies, worked examples hold a potential effect size of 0.57. This means that, when used effectively, mentor texts can help students achieve more than a year’s growth across an academic year. Naturally, this fact makes them a worthwhile tool to introduce in every writing classroom.

Here’s the problem though: 

Not all mentor text use achieves this lofty 0.57 effect size. 

Why? 

Because mentor texts don’t teach writing by themselves. 

 

 

Mentor texts aren’t enough by themselves

Holding up an example of strong writing in front of your students won’t necessarily lead them to become amazing writers. 

Imagine holding up a solved Rubik’s cube and asking your students to complete their own one based on this finished product. Now that they’ve seen a mentor model, they should be good to go…shouldn’t they?

No, of course not. 

Your students need you to slow down and show them the specific moves they can use to finish their own puzzle. What are the replicable actions? What should they be thinking about? Looking out for? What can they learn to apply in their own work?

Likewise, when you use a mentor text with students you need to unpack the HOW of the writing, rather than just showing them the finished product. Point out one of the author’s specific craft moves, model how you’d trial it in your own writing and then support students to apply it in theirs.  

 

So here's the second problem with mentor texts: Mentor text use is only ever as strong as a teacher’s content knowledge for crafting effective writing. 

 

 

Teacher content knowledge in writing

When a teacher understands all the cogs (craft moves) that work together to create effective writing, they’ll be better able to identify these moves in mentor texts and model them to their students.

Conversely, when a teacher lacks knowledge about the wide range of craft moves writers use, they’ll be limited in their ability to exploit the full potential of a well written mentor text. They’ll be able to hold the mentor text up as an example of good writing, but they won’t necessarily be able to explain to their students WHY it’s effective:

  • What specifically has the writer done to craft this effective text? 
  • What are all the ‘tricks’ they’ve used?
  • What are the moves students can borrow from this writer to apply in their own writing?

 

You can’t see what you don’t know to look for.

 

If you don’t know what effective transitions look like in strong writing, for example, you won’t notice them in mentor texts.

If you don’t know what appropriate tone looks or feels like (or know that it’s an important ingredient in good writing) you won’t be able to point out examples of it in mentor texts. 

Get the picture?

 

 

How do you build teacher content knowledge for writing? 

The best framework I’ve come across for building teacher knowledge about writing is the 6+1 traits.

This framework was created by a group of teachers who wanted to know all the ingredients required to cook up a quality piece of writing. They knew there was more to good writing than just structure and spelling, and set out to investigate what else was required. 

After reading 100s of pieces of student writing across a range of genres, they developed a list of 6 overarching ‘traits’ that were present in quality writing: 

  • Clear, coherent ideas
  • Effective organisation 
  • Appropriate use of voice
  • Precise and nuanced word choice
  • Sentence fluency
  • Strong use of conventions

Each of these traits is as important as the next one and no one trait is more important than any others. (This obviously flies in the face of writing instruction that teaches students that correct structure is the ‘be all and end all’ to good writing!)

Helpfully, each of the 6 traits outlined above can be broken down into a short list of smaller ‘look fors’ or ‘key qualities’ for teachers and students. 

It’s these key qualities that teachers should be looking for and pointing out when using mentor texts with students. 

When teachers build their knowledge around each of these key qualities -to a point that they can locate them in mentor texts and student writing- they’ll be much better placed to provide effective feedback to students and to diagnose their next steps.

There’s no two ways about it: deep teacher content knowledge is an absolute essential for effective writing instruction. (FYI: You can read more about the three critical types of knowledge teachers need to teach writing on one of my other blog posts). 

 

 

What does this mean for teachers and leaders?

Having access to high quality mentor texts (such as those on my free mentor text list) is only half of the equation. 

Teachers need to continually build their content knowledge on the range of author’s craft moves that can be found within these texts, and leaders need to plan how they’ll support this to happen.

Buy the books, but invest in building teacher knowledge so you’ll achieve that lofty 0.57 effect size for your students.

  

Want to learn more about the 6+1 writing traits?

 

Check out my Writing Traits Masterclass course for teachers. In this course I take you on a deep dive onto each of the 6 key traits that make up effective writing. I teach you what they are, what they look like in mentor texts and how to teach them to students. 

 

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