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Narratives as Mentor Texts: Teaching students to read like writers

Authors are the best teachers. Middle and high school students have stories to tell, stories bursting at the surface. With a teacher's guidance, the novels at students' fingertips have the power to instruct and inspire. Each story provides students with a writing model that can help them to have their voices heard. Through analysis of different elements of authors' writing, students can feel empowered to take risks and get their ideas on paper.

Shift students’ thinking from reading as readers to reading as writers.

When I first asked my students to examine the lead to their novels and to share how the author engaged and oriented the reader, their first instinct was to share the content of their novels: “My author explained that Ivan was a gorilla” OR “My author wrote about basketball.”

Our students have been trained to read and recall the plot and characters. They’re not as accustomed to examining an author’s writing technique. Anticipate facilitating and modeling this shift.

Read the leads to several novels aloud to your students. Then ask, what is the author doing as a writer? Emphasize not to share what the author is writing about, but what techniques the author is using. Give examples: The author starts the novel in the middle of the action. The main character reflects on something that happened before the novel started. The author plopped the reader into the setting and painted a picture of the scene.

As your study moves forward, you’ll notice students making this shift. Praise and share strong student examples of reading like a writer. It takes practice!

Look at an author’s writing through a specific lens.

It’s too overwhelming to look at narrative writing as a whole. Instead, break down mentor texts by analyzing the elements of authors’ writing that you want students to emulate. For example, examine the first paragraph of students’ novels. Read them aloud, then brainstorm what the author is doing as a writer to engage and orient the reader. Give students time to immediately apply what they learn by brainstorming ideas for their own writing.

Do the same with dialogue, description, sensory language, pacing, transition words, event sequencing, and closings. Examine the text. List the qualities. Write and repeat for each element.

Examine LOTS of different authors and genres of writing.

What I love most about Narratives as Mentor Texts is that almost any text works. Students do not have to read the same books (we complete our Narratives as Mentor Texts study in literature circles). Students can be reading the same novel, work in literature circles, or examine their independent reading books.

I find using narratives as mentor texts actually works better when my classes are reading multiple books in multiple formats. For example, my students are currently reading traditional novels, graphic novels, and novels in verse in literature circles. The commonality is that they’re all narratives. Together, we examine how each author wrote their lead, used dialogue, developed characters, sequenced events, etc. Having a wide variety of mentors gives my kids more inspiration and ideas that they can apply in their own writing.

Authors truly make the best teachers of writing. Helping our students tap into the expertise at their fingertips helps to empower them to tell their stories.

Interested in trying Narratives as Mentor Texts in your classroom? I've done the prep work for you. Check out my full unit here.

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