How to Choose and Break Down a Mentor Text

Read to Think. Think to Learn.


I am constantly reading books. This wasn’t always the case, and largely, I think I have to attribute my reintroduction to reading all the time to my mentor text work. I am constantly on the mission to find books to recommend to students and use in the classroom with my students for our “write like an author” study. As teachers we are bombarded with an onslaught of a million decisions, pounds of papers to grade, and work that is largely impossible to master. It’s exhausting.

But, it is also exhilarating. I find new books that I want to share in middle grade and young adult literature now all the time. I remember thinking to myself sometimes that there wasn’t a lot out there for kids that pulls them into books. How wrong was I? I have a giant stack of books that stay with me now. Some of these books are inspiration for my writing, almost good luck charms. Sometimes I get selfish with a book that has impacted me in some way. I struggled with loaning my Pax by Sara Pennypacker out because her last line, “Sometimes the apple rolls very far from the tree,” was the exact medicine I needed at the at moment in time. These are books I keep around for a source of good, old-fashioned positivity and luck. Some of these books are constantly in the rotation for mentor text work. Some, are just for me. Currently, on my nightstand are the following books:

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (For me)

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Possible mentor text)

  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Good luck book/Writing inspiration)

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Collector’s Edition) (Good luck book/Writing inspiration)

  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Good luck book/Writing inspiration)

  • Reimagining Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson (Teacher book)

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (Teacher book)

  • We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor (Teacher book)

  • Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen (For me)

  • No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay (For me)

  • See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (Possible mentor text)

  • Just Mercy: A True Story of the Fight for Justice by Bryan Stevenson (Young Readers Adaptation) (Possible mentor text)

  • Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (Possible mentor text)

  • The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Possible mentor text)

It is kind of an obnoxious nightstand. However, in books, I go back to the beginning of understanding why I teach in the first place. My #whyiteach is embedded in books and in helping kids that I know don’t necessarily fit into the system. This post is about the importance of the books.

Planning First, Reading Second

I want to get to the books. I know you want to get to the books. However, the less glamorous and less relaxing part of this mentor text work comes with the preparation before. You need to have a plan first. I have found that since I have done the work of having a plan, finding mentor texts becomes easier. I outline in some of my previous posts how I plan to implement mentor text on a daily basis, and I also show my scope and sequence. I would recommend starting with my “How I Got Started with Mentor Text” post first. Before you read a book, here are the steps you must take in order to set up your purpose for mentor text work:

Step 1: Make a weekly scope and sequence for grammar skills or writing skills you want to accomplish OR Create a focus for the writing workshop you want to use the mentor texts for in class

Step 2: Make a plan on how you want to implement the mentor text in the classroom. I have replaced my warmups with mentor text work, but you could also use them in writing workshop models, mini-lessons, etc.

Step 3: Then go on a hunt to find the examples in the book. Linda Reif’s The Quickwrite Handbook has some amazing ready to go examples. One downfall is I like to have the actual book with me in order to book talk with the kids.

We as teachers of writing must be avid readers. Pam Allyn in her article “Reading is Like Breathing In; Writing is Like Breathing Out” capture the very nature of mentor text work. I also personally love that she uses Black Beauty by Anna Sewell in her article because this is one of the books that led me to reading. Sometime to remember: Every exhale is a chance to share, every inhale is a chance to know ourselves a little better. I go back to this mantra in times when I stressed and feel like I can’t do this impossible job anymore. Teaching is breathing.

The Best Part of Mentor Sentence Work is Reading

The secret to narrative mentor text work is that finding books to fit your scope and sequence is far too easy. All published fictional works of literature at the middle-grade level and young adult reading level have examples of compound sentences, pronoun usage, possessive nouns, and commas in a series (Just some skills to name a few). The hard part is deciding which passages will make kids WANT to read the books. Because if they want to read the books, they want to write like the author. Here are some passages I have pulled with the mentor text work next to them, as well as their specific purpose that week.

First Six Weeks:

Week 2: Subjects and predicates: “This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons...with his nose” (Reynolds 1) Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Week 4: One subject/2 verb: “He crumples his sandwich bag and sweeps up the crumbs from his desk with his hands” (Pearsall 154). All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall

Week 5: ING verbs and helping verbs: “In the driveway, I am shaking and baking” (Alexander 59). The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Second Six Weeks:

Week 1: “I slipped my hand into hers. A strange and unfamiliar feeling ran through me. It felt like the ocean, like sunlight, like horses. Like love” (Bradley 316). The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (past tense and irregular verbs)

Week 2: “When people look at me, I guess they see a girl with short, dark, curly hair strapped into a pink wheelchair” (Draper 3). Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (Inserting Adjectives)

Week 3: “A fresh gust of wind took the house and shook it, and suddenly the rain began to lash against the windows” (19) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Snapshots)

Week 4: “We should have known better. Mama always told Papa everything, and Papa never forgot anything” (Taylor 158). Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Compound Sentences-AND)

Week 5: “Pax was hungry and cold, but what had woken him was the sense that he needed cover” (24).
“No humans are here, but they are approaching” (37).
“The steps were tall, but Peter hoisted himself up with ease” (227) Pax by Sara Pennypacker (Compound Sentences-BUT)

Week 6: “Roarrrr!” said the sister bear” (34).
“Grrrrrr!” said the brother bear” (34).
“Screech! Screech!” said the robin” (39).
“When Roz first listened to the chickadees, their songs had sounded like ‘TWEE-tweedle! TWEE-tweedle!” (47). The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (Onomatopoeias)

Third Six Weeks (So Far):

Week 1: “Iqbal was awake. We could hear his chain rattle in the darkness” (15).
“You have to know how to read to ever be free, insisted Maria, and she made him repeat everything again” (76). Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo (Pronouns)

Week 2: “Jerome Rogers, 12, shot at abandoned Green Street lot. Officer says, “He had a gun” (5). Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Punctuating Dialogue)

Week 3: “As I looked at the TV, a tiny voice in my heart whispered to me: Why don’t you go there and fight for women’s rights? Fight to make Pakistan a better place?” (55). I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (Possessive Nouns)

What do you notice? All of these sentences/passages could stand on their own. They pull kids into the books. Anytime I pull mentor texts, I use my criteria for choosing diverse texts. Find an entire post on that here. Here is the top ten list:

  1. Author

  2. Published/Copyright Date

  3. Lexile

  4. Grade-Level Appropriateness

  5. Category

  6. Genre

  7. Stereotypes/Tokenism/Invisibility

  8. Character

  9. Cross-Curricular Opportunity

  10. Writing Style/Appeal to Readers

I also look at how it fits in with what I am getting ready to teach. If I can introduce a whole group novel with mentor text work, I will always choose that first. When I am choosing narrative pieces, I try to find these key specific writing examples. My goal is to move into nonfiction pieces in the spring of 2019 in order to provide mentor text work for more genres of writing.

Bottom line to this work? The mentor text part is easy. The grammar part is even easy as long as it isn’t taught in isolation. Kids need to see that their teachers are readers. They make time for it. They need it. No matter the content area.

Writing Mindset Reflection: How can I work reading into my schedule? How do I make time for mentor text work? How the books we are currently using become tools for inspiration?