THE Key Ingredient to a Successful Reading or Writing Lesson
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Teaching young authors is my favorite part of the day. Though I do have a block of time set aside for reading workshop and writing workshop, we often use the term "workshop" interchangeably since they are both so closely connected in our classroom.
In reading workshop, my learners are often inspired by a technique they notice in a story that compels them to revise their current piece of writing as soon as they finish a book. I have been so impressed by the power of strong mentor text, that I have become an avid hunter for just-right read-alouds to enhance my lessons.
The better the examples of good literature I can expose the children to, the better they will be as engaged readers and quality writers. As I began to collect rich read-alouds to use as mentor texts for my workshops, I found that I needed to become more intentional in my approach to delivering a lesson and more organized so that I wasn't spinning my wheels each year.
The Power of a Strong Mentor Text, or Teacher Read-Aloud
One story that quickly becomes a class favorite is Kitchen Dance by Maurie J. Manning. I love this story because the children instantly relate to how their everyday moments can become rich and enjoyable stories.
In this book, two children wake and see their parents cleaning the kitchen and dancing. They soon join in the fun before having to return to bed. Manning paints such a vivid picture for her readers including similes showing how mom spins like a yo-yo into dad's arms. I especially appreciate the variety of detail included in this book. Children observe dialog, physical description, character action, setting, and more!
After reading Kitchen Dance aloud to my students during reading workshop, we were able to reference the rich writing during our writing workshop time. Children helped me to create a chart of noticings based on what they appreciated and observed. Afterwards, they helped me to revise my small moment story. I have been sharing how taking a strong feeling can be a great seed to spark a powerful personal narrative. The story we worked to revise was when I went in to check on my pet hamster Teddy only to find that his food was untouched and he was not moving. This sad moment provided the strong feeling I needed to gain inspiration for my small moment story.
The revision suggestions the children offered were fantastic. It was clear to see how sharing such a quality mentor text could impact their own writing. So, I started doing more explicit noticing during more of my read-alouds and selecting more powerful mentor texts to use for reading aloud to the children.
Noticing the Craft in Quality Mentor Texts
After our small moment unit of study, we dig deeper into noticing the craft of authors we read. One author we read often is Jonathan London. Of course, he's well-known for his Froggy books, but he's also the author of some of my favorite picture books, like Hurricane. His work is filled with rich detail and craft. The students enjoy reading his work and discussing familiar favorites from when they were in first grade. It's a perfect fit to launch our genre study.
Something I started last year with my students was to use a "Craft Placemat." When I use a mentor text for a read-aloud, I have the students pull out a craft placemat. This lets them know to pay attention to the various writing techniques the author incorporated into his or her work. As I read, children jot down their noticings onto the placemat. I start by modeling this several times over a week with various books. Then, we do a few books together over the next week. Finally, the students work independently to identify the craft elements. They get so good at it that by the time they go off to write their own stories, they know exactly what to include for their own reading audience. When I ask them to make sure they include detail in their work, they now have concrete meaning and understanding for the various types of details they can incorporate.
Our Craft Placemat for Froggy's Halloween
- click here to download this template -
Applying What We Have Learned From Mentor Texts
Based on the strong mentor texts we read, we are able to have such powerful discussions about the books and about the craft of writing. In our classroom, we take advantage of each read-aloud by charting out important information.
Since the work in our reading and writing workshops is integrated, we are able to fully immerse ourselves in whatever genre we are studying and then move on to a new genre. The students really grasp it rather quickly because of the deep exposure. Additionally, they begin to readily apply their learnings.
Looking at Student Examples
The students start by rehearsing their pieces orally after they've selected their strong feeling from their Heart Map. After they've gone through several revisions, they check to ensure they have at least three details on each page. In second grade, students start with composing five-page booklets. They're encouraged to use a variety of details such as: character action, physical description, sound words, similes, thought shots, setting, dialog, and more.
Launching a New Unit: Gathering the Perfect Mentor Texts
The following are a few of my personal favorites for studying personal narratives.
- Looking Down by Steve Jenkins
- Roller Coaster by Maria Frazee
- Moonlight on the River by Deborah Kovacs
- Kitchen Dance by Maurie J. Manning
Organizing Children's Books and Teacher Read-Alouds
I wanted my classroom library to reflect a space where the children would want to spend a lot of time in and be comfortable. I also wanted a space that allowed me to have enough books out without being overwhelming.
I rotate my seasonal books as the holidays and times of year change. These seasonal displays always pique the children's interest. When I change out the themes, I also rotate the books I have on the chapter book shelves and the books I keep in book tubs.
I love my new tall chapter book display case (hint: it's a DVD case that perfectly holds chapter books!). I'm able to put a few series out at a time and rotate the choices often. This way, come January, the children do not complain that they have read all of the books and don't know what to select for reading time. They are always excited to find out what the new features will be. These books fly off of the shelves when they're introduced. It's like the movies . . . there is always a new feature. I start offering teasers and book trailers before the big rotation happens. Then, once the books are out, I preview several of them to build background knowledge and ignite an interest in a new genre or series for certain groups of readers. It works like a charm!
I keep my teacher read-alouds in a separate place. I have them categorized by: reading, writing, math, and social studies. You can see the four sections on each shelf in the photo on the left. When I find a book that really lends itself to enhancing a lesson, I add it to my collection. I typically purchase a hard cover for myself and a paper copy to add to the children's classroom library.
I'm starting to find that I have too many favorite stories. That's a great problem to have. So I am now working to separate my read-alouds by units of study. This is a work in progress, and I'm not quite sure how to organize it yet since several of my favorite books cross over into many units of study.
For More on the Power of Mentor Texts
- Alycia Zimmerman's article: Whole Class Reading Instruction: Mentor Texts and Storia
- Beth Newingham's article: Reading Workshop: Mentor Texts
- Ralph Fletcher: Mentor Author, Mentor Texts
- My Kleinspiration post: Enhance Writing by Building Vocabulary (with student example)
I also invite you to follow me on Pinterest. I have boards for Literacy Mentor Texts, Math Mentor Texts, and Social Studies Mentor Texts. Be sure to also follow my collaborative board for Scholastic's Top Teaching Bloggers!