Using Mentor Texts to Develop Vocabulary, Reading, Writing, and Language

by Valentina Gonzalez

A mentor text is a model piece of literature used to demonstrate effective writing. Much like Swiss Army knives, mentor texts can accomplish many things, such as developing students’ vocabulary to help them become strong writers, strengthening their reading, and advancing their language proficiency. 

Many teachers select books to read aloud to students and then refer back to those books throughout the year, pointing out the writers’ craft and techniques and encouraging students to imitate the writing processes they observe in the mentor texts. Picture books, poems, chapters, excerpts, songs, essays, and comic strips are among examples of possible mentor texts. Even students’ written work can be mentor texts. 

Picture for a moment an advisor or coach, a mentor. Mentors serve to guide the less experienced. Similarly, mentor texts guide young writers as they analyze, observe, and learn from other writers’ more experienced moves, making the writing process visible and concrete. The steps outlined below demonstrate one way to use mentor texts to develop vocabulary, reading, writing, and language. Certainly, this technique is malleable. Take it, and make it work for your students. 

The Benefits of Mentor Text 

The benefits of mentor texts are vast. 

  • Inspire writers
  • Model language structures
  • Promote creativity
  • Scaffold writing
  • Introduce new vocabulary
  • Captivate readers

Steps for Using a Mentor Text

  1. Select a mentor text based on content and language objectives. 
  2. Read the mentor text out loud to students, then encourage students to read it chorally. 
  3. Have students discuss the piece of literature with partners or in small groups to deepen their comprehension.
  4. To increase the value of the mentor text and support English learners’ comprehension, stop to discuss and annotate key vocabulary, language structures, and figurative language. Draw pictures, add in synonyms, and think aloud. 
  5. Model in front of students how to use the piece of literature to create your own writing using a paragraph frame (see examples below). Let students see the work of a writer (you) in action. Letting them into your thoughts by thinking aloud might feel odd to you at first, but it’s very important because it helps make the writing process visible to students who struggle with putting ideas on paper. This process is called a Write-Aloud.
  6. Read the new writing out loud as a class. 
  7. Now have students work in groups to write a collaborative version using a paragraph frame. Another option here is to co-write a version together as Shared Writing. Follow the lead of your students, and do what is best for them.
  8. Finally, provide students with time to write their version and scaffold by giving them a paragraph frame. 

This method promotes language development through all four language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. In addition, the steps followed the Gradual Release of Responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983), I do, We do, You do. First, students watched the teacher explicitly show the expectations of the lesson. Then students participated in guided practice, and they collaborated to do the work. This step is key and takes a reasonable amount of time. Here, students learn from one another, interacting and listening to their peers. Finally, students apply what they learned from the teacher and their peers into their writing as they write their own version. 

Third Grade Example: Repurposing a Read-Aloud as a Mentor Text

Early in the year, a third-grade teacher used the book Eyes that Kiss in the Corners, by Joanna Ho, as a read-aloud to build community and promote individuality in her classroom. She wanted her students to see themselves and others in the books that were shared and discussed. Now she is once again bringing this book back into instruction, but this time for a new purpose. 

She has examined her state standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Third Grade ELA) and her purpose for sharing the book this time is to showcase the writer’s craft, imagery, and the use of similes. She wants her readers to examine them as well as use them in their own writing. This is the state standard she is addressing:

3.10  Author’s purpose and craft: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and thinking using multiple texts. The student uses critical inquiry to analyze the authors’ choices and how they influence and communicate meaning within a variety of texts. The student analyzes and applies author’s craft purposefully in order to develop his or her own products and performances. The student is expected to:

(D) describe how the author’s use of imagery, literal and figurative language such as simile, and sound devices such as onomatopoeia achieves specific purposes;

These are the content and language objectives that the lesson will target: 

  • Content: We will analyze a piece of writing to understand the author’s use of imagery and similes. 
  • Language: We will write a description using similes to create images in readers’ minds. 

Let’s peek in to her lesson with students.

One teacher I worked with provided different mentor texts to English learners at beginner levels of English proficiency. She worked diligently to understand each student’s current level of proficiency and gave them student-made examples that were attainable. When she gathered students in small groups, she followed a similar structure to the one above. 

Supporting & Accommodating Independent Writing for English Learners

Teaching writing differs from assigning writing. English learners will benefit from explicit instruction, modeling, collaboration, frames or sentence stems, and exemplar or mentor texts. These structures and supports lessen the cognitive load for English learners as they negotiate what to write, how to write it, how to organize the pieces, and how to spell. 

I’ve found it’s essential to give English learners two things when it’s time for them to write on their own using this method: a paragraph frame and access to the original mentor text. A paragraph frame is simply the mentor text with keywords deleted so students can insert their own. The paragraph frame supports English language structures, and the mentor text stands as an exemplar or target. 

Reading & Writing with English Learners by Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller copyright @ 2020 Seidlitz Education

Christina Gil, a former classroom teacher, says that “using great writing as a model doesn’t come naturally to students—it’s a skill that needs to be taught” (2017). For many students, writing can seem like a mysterious and sometimes scary process. Using mentor texts can create concrete, visible examples that students can use as jumping boards into their own writing.   

Gonzalez, V., & Miller, M. (2020). Reading & writing with English learners: A framework for K-5. Irving, TX: Seidlitz Education.

Ho, J. (2021). Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. HarperCollins.

Pearson, P.D., & Gallagher M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Education Psychology, 8, 317-344. 

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