Connecting Writers’ Struggles to Mentor Text Solutions

I have recently found myself reinforcing (and re-teaching) the fundamentals of how to use a mentor text with my ninth graders. After our most recent unit, I asked students how many of them went back and looked at the mentor texts I provided on their own after we had used them in a mini-lesson. 56% of my students reported that they didn’t.  They “forgot.” Or, they “didn’t see how a mentor text would help.”

So, even if it’s March, it’s time to go back to the beginning.

As teachers, we know that a good mentor text can accomplish myriad miracles for our students. Ralph Fletcher notes that  “if you really want to write in a powerful way, you’ve got to read powerful stuff and just feel the power of it, because nobody writes out of a vacuum.” So, we tirelessly search for just the right source to inspire our students, to illustrate our mini-lesson. We walk them through the highlights — helping them zoom in on what they need to see.

But how do we teach them to do this for themselves? When they move into a different English class and aren’t given explicit mini-lessons, when their ninth grade writer’s notebooks have been lost, when they go to college and are entirely left to their own writing devices, when they go into the working world and need to produce a written product, mentor texts are the thing that will remain.

So, how can I help my students move toward independence now — the kind of independence that will not only prompt them to use the mentor texts I hand them, but will enable them, empower them to do this on their own?

I asked students to bring in a mentor text in the same genre in which they are writing. In writing groups, students shared their mentor texts, and discussed two questions:

  • what might be useful in this mentor text?

  • how is this mentor text similar to or different from mentor texts you have been given this year?

Many students brought in the first item that popped up in Google. The students discussed that many of these texts didn’t seem “professional” or “polished”. They were “bland” or “one-note” and didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of craft.  We discarded these texts.

Others, who had spent significant time searching and evaluating the texts on their own, brought in lovely mentors that we saved in a class file for anyone to borrow. One of these students said, “I thought this would be really easy homework because Mrs. O’Dell has mentor texts for us all the time. It was really hard! It took me all night!”

With this experience under their belts — having thought about mentor texts through a different lens — we brainstormed common writing struggles we encounter and how mentor texts can help us wade through them.

Together, we created this chart, which I copied for them to glue into their notebooks:

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.45.44 AM

Surely, this chart does not explore everything a mentor text can do for a writer. Still,

  • It gives students a starting place

  • It explicitly links the questions and struggles we have as writers to mentor texts as a source of solution

  • It puts the onus on the student to search for solutions — to scour mentor texts — when they find themselves stuck in their writing

How do you engage your students with mentor texts? What mentor texts get your students excited? How do you teach them to do heavy lifting of mentor text study on their own?

Join us Thursday, March 13 at 7:30pm EST for a #movingwriters chat to talk about using mentor texts & teaching students to use them on their own!


  1. Related: Have you read Mike Schmoker’s “Focus” (2011)? He emphasizes the value of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing around authentic texts. Your mentor text approach seems to fit in with his ideas. An excellent book that I think is a must-read for ELA teachers.

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