Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.
I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting.
When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.
There are an infinite number of ways to teach students the power of the right word at the right time. Here’s one way I use mentor sentences to teach diction. When I first started teaching, most of my instruction with novels centered on traditional literary elements, like theme, symbolism, internal v. external conflict. Once I started teaching with a mentor text approach in mind, I make sure that I also explicitly point out all the writerly choices an author makes, starting with diction. And the great news is that the novels we teach are rich with mentor sentences.
For example, when we read Lord of the Flies, we pause to do a close reading of the scene in Chapter 8 where Jack and his hunters kill a sow and her piglets. After carrying out this brutal and violent hunt during an “afternoon that wore on,” Golding describes Jack’s reaction:
“He giggled and flecked them while the boys laughed at his reeking palms.”
I read that sentence aloud and ask students to tell me what words stand out to them. When they point out giggled, we talk about why—what do we think about when we think about the word giggled? Students realize the disconnect between their typical associations with the word—babies laughing, innocence, happiness—with the way Golding is using the word in this context to describe a disturbing scene. As one of my former students once said, “Jack seems like so much more of an unhinged maniac because of that word.”
To move from just noticing the craft, I then ask students to try using a powerful (and unexpected) word choice in their own writing. We might go back into their notebooks to find a sentence, or I might ask them to rewrite a sentence from the novel itself. “Find a sentence and change the verb (or any other word) in order to make the sentence more powerful.”
To illustrate, I write the following sentence on the board: “Mrs. Ebarvia threw the eraser.” I ask them to change the verb, and we note the differences word choice can make. For example:
- “Mrs. Ebarvia tossed the eraser.”
- “Mrs. Ebarvia launched the eraser.”
Throughout the year, you can also ask students to compile their own list of mentor sentences that feature powerful diction in their notebooks (or really, any beautiful sentence). Ask students to choose one word and create additional lists of related words: words that have similar general meanings but are distinguished by their tone. For example, for the word giggled, students might include words like: laughed, chortled, smirked. Each connotes something different. If students have a hard time coming up with words, I send them to wordnik.com (my favorite online dictionary) and ask them to look at the suggested synonyms. Now what started as a lesson on a one mentor sentence from one book has turned into an ongoing lesson in specificity, connotation v. denotation, and vocabulary acquisition.
Sometime during each school year, I tell students that much of writing comes down to putting the best words in the best order. Sounds simple enough, but as we know, also incredibly difficult—especially when you’re not sure what you want to say. Analyzing the syntax of other writers can give students a structure and sandbox to express their ideas.
One of my favorite activities with mentor sentences was inspired by the Sentence Composing series by Don Killgallon. If you are ever in need of a quick mentor sentence to show students, Sentence Composing is filled with examples from literature and essays by professional writers. Killgallon walks through four strategies to help students learn from mentor sentences: unscrambling, sentence imitating, sentencing combining, and sentence expanding. The combination of mentor sentences and strategies makes this one of my go-tos professional books for teaching grammar (Henry Noden’s Image Grammar is one of my others. For younger students, check out Lynne Dorfman and Rose Capelli’s Mentor Texts books).
Here’s an activity I’ve adapted from Killgallon to teach syntax:
1. Choose several mentor sentences from texts students have not yet read. I like to choose sentences from upcoming essays as a way to “preview” those texts. Choose sentences that are complex, with multiple parts.
2. Print each sentence out on slips of paper. I usually copy and paste the same sentence multiple times on a single sheet and make sure I have enough slips for students to work in pairs. Then cut the sentences up by part (see figure below). Be sure to remove any punctuation such as capital letters and periods so that students don’t know where the beginning or end of the sentence is.
3. Repeat for every mentor sentence. I usually use three or four sentences scrambled at a time and use a class period for this activity. However, this could also be done one mentor sentence at a time, perhaps over several days to start class. Just be sure to keep sentence parts paper clipped together so they don’t get all mixed up!.
4. Distribute the first scrambled sentence and ask students to work together to put the parts back in order. Depending on the sentence, there may be several possibilities in addition to the original sentence.
5. Have students do a quick walk around to see how other students put their sentences back together.
6. Reveal the original sentence (I have all my mentor sentences ready in a power point to project). Then lead students in a discussion about what they noticed about the way the words are arranged and how alternate arrangements may make a difference.
7. Next, ask students to choose the arrangement they like best. Then show them a photograph (I usually choose from the New York Times photos of the day or a similar source). Ask students to write a new original sentence about this photograph but using the structure of the mentor sentence.
Here’s a photograph I use (more from this beautiful collection of An Rong Xu’s photographs documenting New York City’s Chinatown can be found here).
Using Maya Angelou’s mentor sentence as inspiration for structure, a new sentence describing this photo might look like this:
8. At this point, I repeat with more mentor sentences, but you could ask students to pull out a draft of a piece they are currently working on. Then ask students to find a sentence in their own writing that could be improved by using the mentor sentence for inspiration. Of course, there are many ways to vary and modify this activity, but I’ve found that the combination of unscrambling sentence parts combined with photographs as inspiration to be engaging.
That said, the final step, which asks students to move into their own authentic writing, is critical. As Penny Kittle once said, “Students learn best in the context of their own writing.” No matter how many exercises we do in our notebooks, if we don’t give students the opportunity and time to practice these moves in their own writing, then transfer won’t happen.
Finally, I use mentor sentences to teach punctuation. One easy way I have found to get students to start paying attention to the way punctuation functions as style in their own writing is to notice how writers use punctuation. Just like the exercise on diction above, I do the same thing with a piece of punctuation. I might ask students to notice the use of colon in Mildred Taylor’s Roll My Thunder, Hear Me Cry:
By dawn, the house smelled of Sunday: chicken frying, bacon sizzling, and smoke sausages baking.
I love using this single line when my students are writing personal essays and they need to mine their memories for moments worth writing about. Before I show students Taylor’s mentor sentence, I ask students to think and write the following questions first:
- Did you have an weekly traditions growing up?
- What’s happening in your house on Sunday mornings? (or any other morning?)
- What does your house smell or sound like? What would someone see or hear?
After they’ve written a bit, I then reveal the mentor sentence and ask students to comment on it. In our discussion, I point out the colon and how it’s being used to reveal a list—or as Noah Lukeman says in A Dash of Style, how the colon is a “magician,” as if to say “ta-da!” (Lukeman’s Dash of Style is my go-to book for teaching punctuation!).
I then ask students to go back to their original notebook writing and revise using the structure and punctuation in Taylor’s mentor text.
These are just a few quick ways I’ve used mentor sentences to teach sentence-level craft moves that involve diction, syntax, and punctuation. I hope you find these helpful, and if you have any ideas, please share! 🙂