National Writing Project

Book Review: Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children's Literature K–6

By: Lisa Light
Date: December 19, 2008

Summary: Mentor Texts, written by two writing project teacher-consultants, offers explicit ideas, clear models, and inspiration for teaching writing to students in kindergarten through middle school.


Despite numerous attempts to make edible homemade biscuits, I could never get the process quite right.  My so called "biscuits" would either turn out hard and heavy or flat and doughy.  What was I doing wrong?  I followed the recipe carefully; I studied the diagrams on how to roll out the dough; I practiced over and over.  To my frustration, the results were downright sad.  (It's an embarrassment in the South if one cannot make good biscuits, or "cat heads" as they are sometimes called.)

Finally, in desperation I called my mom and asked, "What is the secret?  How do you do it?"  I needed her to show me how she did it, how she measured the ingredients and carefully manipulated and rolled the dough.  Then I needed opportunities (many opportunities!) to practice with her guidance.  Today my homemade biscuits are still not as good as Mom's, but they are no longer an embarrassment .

At times, everyone needs a mentor.  Mentors who are experienced and expert in our areas of need can show us the "how-to's" while providing necessary support to inform our thinking and improve our skills.

For those of us who are dedicated to improving our students' writing, Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children's Literature K–6 is an exemplary writing mentor.  The authors, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, both veteran teachers and writing project teacher-consultants, offer us a clear, convincing, and consistent path for developing and preserving the art of teaching writing without the use of prepackaged and scripted writing programs.

Modeling the Process

According to Dorfman and Cappelli, "mentor texts are pieces of literature that we can return to again and again as we help our young writers learn how to do what they may not yet be able to do on their own."  Just as we learn how to walk and talk by observing and imitating others, we can help our students write well by using mentor texts.

Just as we learn how to walk and talk by observing and imitating others, we can help our students write well by using mentor texts.

The authors cite numerous literature titles, primarily children's picture books and short novels, which can be used to teach particular skills and strategies.  They provide snapshots of real classroom dialogue between teacher and students using a mentor text, and they give us explicit lesson plans, called "Your Turn Lessons," at the end of each chapter—lessons focusing on skills and strategies presented in the chapter.

However, the most important ingredient in these lessons is the component of teacher modeling.  "Central to our beliefs about how to help students become successful writers is our understanding that a teacher of writing must be a teacher who writes."

This is National Writing Project philosophy and belief to the core!  If you are a teacher who is struggling to view yourself as a writer, Mentor Texts will walk you through lessons guiding you during the modeling process of teaching writing, providing examples of the teachers' writing that evolved during and after the modeling process.

One of my favorite writing activities suggested by the authors is an outdoor writers' café. This involves taking the students outside with their writing notebooks and pencils and having them write about things they see, smell, hear, taste, and feel. I love reading the teacher's discourse with the children before, during, and after this activity.  Examples of students' writings and the teacher's modeled writing provide a clear picture of how to implement this writing lesson.

Other ideas and lessons to enhance student writing include how to slow down time in writing and focus on one moment, crafting lead sentences and satisfying endings, writing in the persona of another, making use of writer's voice, developing a sense of sentence, and embedding grammar study in writing work.  The book's last chapter contains a substantial bibliography of mentor texts that is organized according to the writing strategies addressed in each chapter.

Mentor Texts can be used to help teach and reinforce state and district curriculum standards.  The ideas presented can easily be adapted to fit different grade levels through middle school.  It also serves as a trustworthy resource for selecting children's literature to accompany and enhance your writing program.  As a middle school language arts teacher, writing project teacher-consultant, and National Board Certified teacher, I will keep Mentor Texts on my desk within easy reach when I plan writing lessons.

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