No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated.

“You can’t,” I replied.

“Ok,” she paused, “but that’s really hard for me.”

Her response has really resonated with me over the past few months for a few different reasons. First, because I so appreciate her vulnerability as a teacher and a learner to admit when something is hard. “Grit” is a buzzword that’s been used in reference to students quite a bit lately, but what about the teachers? Sometimes it feels like the expectation is perfection, and that a struggle indicates a weakness. No. No. No. Struggle is often the first sign of growth, learning, and risk-taking. And perseverance is an extraordinary strength.

The other reason her response resonated with me is because “hard” is so important. It reminds me of something Kelly Gallagher says in his book Reading Reasons: “reading is hard, and hard is necessary.” In this case, it’s the need to shift our instructional approach that is hard. When we went to high school, our experience likely didn’t look anything like this. Heck, most of the classes we took in our teacher prep programs didn’t look much like this (if you have a secondary degree, at least). So it’s no wonder it’s hard. We’re stepping way outside our comfort zones. But in this case, it is so very necessary.

When we invite students to notice craft moves in a mentor text, it gives us the opportunity to teach students how to think when they don’t automatically know the answer. In my original conversation with my colleague, she said she found the descriptive approach difficult because she couldn’t anticipate all of the possible answers. She, like so many English teachers I know (myself included!), would probably find it a lot more comfortable to prepare a chapter of a class novel ahead of time, meticulously noting every teaching point and symbol within the paragraphs. How many times have you heard one of your teacher friends say something like, “I’ve taught The Great Gatsby so many times I know the page number for every time Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes appear.” I know I’ve been guilty of it. There’s some comfort in that because it’s familiar and safe to us, but ultimately, we have to ask if it’s really helping our kids.

Teachers aren’t mythical creatures. Demystify the process by teaching students how to think while encountering “hard” questions. Image via:

I’ve known more than a few students who have expressed frustration that when they read, they feel like they understand it, but then when they get to class, the teacher tries to tell them a whole bunch of stuff that they just didn’t see when they read it themselves. This can make English teachers seem like some kind of mythical reading creatures – born with the power to understand what others can’t. I’d argue that does a serious disservice to our kids because that kind of understanding is as mythical as a unicorn. It would help a whole lot more if, instead of teaching kids what to think when they read and write, we taught them how to think.

For example, if I’m using a mentor text to teach students how to write an introduction, I might have them look at a particularly good article from a news magazine. I’d ask them a big question like:

  • “What do you notice about how this writer started his article?”
  • “What can the beginning of this article tell us about how to write an introduction?”

I’d know that I want them to notice that the author gave some context or background and that she stated a claim. If they didn’t start naturally noticing those big ideas, I might steer the conversation there with some further open-ended questions like:

  • “What do you think is the purpose of this detail?”
  • “Why do you think she says this?”

It’s likely that the conversation won’t be confined to just these ideas that I’ve planned for – and it shouldn’t. Sometimes students notice things that I haven’t even thought of. What if a student says something like, “This introduction is three paragraphs long, but I always thought it was just supposed to be one. Why did they do that?” It’s likely that didn’t even cross my radar when I was preparing my lesson, but it’s an important observation, and how I react to it is equally important.

Rather than swooping in as the mythical teacher who knows all, it’s more helpful if I walk students through the process of thinking through a question. I might say something like, “Hm. You know, I never even noticed that before. I don’t know. And when I don’t know why an author did something, I reread it with that question in mind.” Then, as I re-read, I also think aloud my thought process, saying things like, “Okay, so that paragraph seems to be saying… And this paragraph might be moving into a new idea, but I’m wondering…” Making these vulnerabilities public in our classrooms is important because it pulls reading comprehension down out of the mythical realm and teaches students how to reach it. Instead of me being the one in the room who holds all the answers, we look to the text to find them, and so I’m able to share the cognitive workload with my students. Sure, it’s easier on my part to make sure everything goes exactly as planned, but if I limit the conversation to prescriptive right and wrong answers that I’ve carefully planned ahead of time, I’m missing a real opportunity to teach students the practice and habits of reading.

This brings me back to my original question of why I became a teacher. Sure, the conversations we have about Gatsby’s green light are still fun for my nerdy soul, but they’re not why I return to these students every day. I teach because I want my students to be thoughtful, critical readers and writers who can tackle something tough and work through it. Besides, those nerdy symbolism conversations can still happen with a descriptive approach; in fact, because they’re anchored by big “why” questions, they’re even more important. But more on that later.

What about using mentor texts has been hard for you? Have you had any experiences where you recognized the hard work of mentor texts as being necessary? I’d love to hear about your journey to adopt a mentor text approach as a secondary teacher. Comment below or on Twitter @megankortlandt.


  1. I’ve found that keeping my mentor text repertoire fresh and using new texts every year keeps me away from “mythical teacher” status. For example, last year my students had an acute case of Hamilaria, so we studied Lin-Manuel Miranda’s persuasive essay on Puerto Rico that was published in the NYT. This year students are fascinated by the travel ban issue, so I’m culling relevant mentors and am on the lookout for voices from the regions and countries affected.

    1. I LOVE this. Thanks! Keeping it relevant is so important, and as a huge Hamilfan myself, I especially like the Miranda recommendation.

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