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5 tips for using mentor sentences to improve student writing

By using mentor sentences in our middle school ELA classrooms, our students have endless opportunities to learn from the experts: the authors of the young adult books that fill our classrooom library bookshelves. As ELA teachers, we can use the writing of authors our students love to improve student writing, study grammar, learn literary elements, and help young writers fine-tune their personal writing style.

Here are five tips for using mentor sentences to improve student writing:

1. Choose a focus.

Study mentor sentences in categories and find a handful of mentor sentences that exemplify that quality of writing. For example, if you’re studying sensory language, scour the books in your classroom library for the best examples of sensory language. If you’re studying dialogue, find the best examples of explanatory phrases, dialect, characterization, and mixing narrative text with dialogue.

You might also choose to find mentor sentences that model certain rules of grammar. Are your students struggling to correctly apply comma rules? Find examples of authors applying them. Research shows that students better learn grammar in context vs grammar on a worksheet.

2. Learn from the professionals: authors.

Authors are my favorite sources of mentor sentences. Simply open a book and find a wealth of beautifully composed sentences written by the authors your students love. Here are a few examples of mentor sentences I’ve found in books by Jason Reynolds, Ernest Hemingway, and Gary Paulsen:

To use author examples in class, follow these steps:

  • Display the grammar rule or literary element your students are studying.

  • Display the mentor sentence giving credit to the author and book where it was found.

  • Task students with reading the sentence and writing their own version inspired by the mentor sentence. For example, if the mentor sentence is providing an example of commas in a series, challenge students to write a sentence where they list items in a series separated by commas.

  • Encourage students to refer back to the mentor if they get stuck. The goal is to mimic the author's style.

Jamboard or a shared Google Slide deck work really well for using mentor sentences (the mentor sentences slides pictured above can be used in Jamboard or in Google Slides). Write the mentor sentence on the Jamboard or Google Slide. Give students editing access, and work on adding additional examples as a class.

3. Let students choose (and write!) their own mentor sentences.

Students will learn so much by finding their own mentor sentences. Here’s how it works:

  • Share the focus with students. The focus is the grammar rule or literary element that the mentor sentence is intended to model for students.

  • Instruct students to use their independent reading books or a classroom library book to find an example of that rule or element in action. Finding examples requires students to analyze text and use higher level thinking skills!

  • Set a timer--ten minutes is usually adequate. If students finish early, challenge them to find additional mentor sentences.

  • When ten minutes is up, instruct students to write their sentence on a sticky note or post it on a shared doc, slide, or Jamboard online OR on a poster in the classroom.

  • Give immediate feedback: read as many student-found mentor sentences as possible and ask the class, does this work as an example of (fill in the blank) grammar rule/literary element?

After class, you can sort through any remaining examples and use them as bell ringers on subsequent days. Start class by sharing sentences and tasking students with determining if they fit the rule or not.

4. Give immediate feedback.

When using mentor sentences written by authors or mentor sentences students have found, be sure students are actively USING the mentor sentence to improve their own writing. Use mentor sentences to inspire student writing. After reading any mentor sentence, students should be writing their own examples that mimic that style, rule, or literary element. Then, give students time to share.

When students share their sentence writing, give immediate feedback. Ask the class to discuss examples that work and examples that don’t, giving students who didn’t master the task chances to discuss and revise. Keep the conversation positive by focusing on growth, learning, and fixing any mistakes. Learning from mistakes provides all learners with lessons and opportunities to grow! Focus on building a culture where mistakes are celebrated as a chance to learn.

5. Throw in some unconventional ideas.

Beyond traditional grammar rules and literary elements, have fun with mentor sentences that show students different aspects of writing. For example, show students examples of authors breaking the rules of grammar. Authors break rules for effect, and their rebellion provides young writers with fun examples of grammar as a dance--writing is not always black and white, right or wrong. Writers can play with language once they understand the rules and the dance of it.

Using mentor sentences in the ELA classroom is easy and effective. Work smarter not harder by tasking students with finding the examples, which not only saves you time, but provides students with the opportunity to sort through authentic writing samples and use higher level thinking skills to analyze text in a meaningful way.

The most powerful examples of writing exist in the books and articles that our students encounter on a daily basis. Using mentor sentences is an easy way to connect reading, writing, and grammar to help our students improve as writers and immerse them in meaningful learning experiences.

Have a favorite mentor sentence or author? Share in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you. Happy teaching!

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