Using Mentor Texts and Frames to Teach Writing

Use high interest mentor texts and frames that motivate students to engage in the writing process
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About This Strategy

Writing is a critical skill for academic achievement. However, it relies so greatly upon language knowledge that it often leaves English learners and students with reading difficulties struggling. In this strategy, teachers will focus on choosing the right texts to use as language models for writing. This strategy is particularly effective with English learners as the intent is to provide accessible, high-interest texts that will motivate students to create their own versions of that text. It is also effective because it provides a jumping off point for struggling writers and/or language learners. Students are not required to write from a blank page, but instead, are provided with an example and an actual frame from which to work. Depending on the language level of the student, the frame can be quite extensive or minimal, and can even be pulled away entirely once the student has the confidence to write without the frame.

Implementation Steps

  1. Identify the purpose of this writing workshop. What will be the targeted focus of the learning? Are students to study a particular writing technique or language? Are they to practice a specific skill? Determine whether the entire class will be working on the same objectives or if these objectives need to be differentiated based on specific student needs. Divide the class accordingly.

  2. Choose a high-interest, accessible, mentor text (or texts) to present during direct instruction. This could be any piece of text (article, story, song, book, ad copy, etc.)

    • Getting to know your students and their interests is critical to this step as it will aid you in high-interest text selection. Consider using surveys and other activities to gather information from your students. See the Getting to Know You Survey (which invites students to share their favorites) and the Getting to Know You Slide Show (which presents the teacher's corresponding favorites) linked below for examples of this.

    • A mentor text doesn’t have to be lengthy nor does the entirety of a text have to be presented if a shorter text or smaller portion of a longer one will suffice.

    • This step may require some differentiation, with multiple mentor texts chosen based on specific student needs.The following implementation steps might then be accomplished with one text and the entire class or with these multiple texts in smaller, needs-based groups.

  3. Read / listen to the text with students.

  4. Lead the students in a discussion of the text. For some ideas around the types of routines one might follow while studying  mentor text, see the article "How Mentor Texts Provide Valuable Lessons Beyond Writing Instruction" by Kara Douma, linked in the resources section below. Refer students to the interactive word wall and targeted academic vocabulary and discussion stems to ensure the conversations are of a high, academic quality. For Possible topics to discuss with students:

    • Author's purpose

    • Author's choices and how these impact the development of the text

    • Author's writing style, techniques and strategies

    • The use of photos, graphs, illustrations and other text features

    • Word choice and language structure

    • Theme, figurative language and symbolism

    • High-interest elements (What do the students enjoy about this text and why?)

  5. Lead a discussion of different ways this text might have been written. Discuss how changing even one element might have resulted in an entirely different experience for a character, for history, for the experiment, etc. Script on an anchor chart student ideas about what might have happened if the author (or historical figure, scientist, etc.) had made different choices. For example:

    • Alternate themes or objectives

    • Different settings, characters, chemical compounds, etc.

    • Different decisions, next steps and/or endings 

  6. Shared Writing Experience. Lead the students in creating a new version of the text.

    • Refer students to the anchor chart of ideas from step 5. 

    • Solicit student suggestions for which idea(s) to write about. 

    • Consider using a graphic organizer to organize students' ideas. It is highly recommended to create an organizer specific to the activity and to the needs of your students. For an example of this, see Shifter Writing Graphic Organizer, linked below. Consider sharing a model graphic organizer, detailing how the author of the mentor text might have completed the organizer before writing. For an example of this, see Trouble with Antlers Graphic Organizer, also linked in the resources section below.

    • With students guiding the way, write a new version of the text as a class. For an example of what these shared writing projects might look like, check out Elementary Interactive Shared Writing Example and Middle School Interactive Shared Writing Example, both linked in the resource section below.

  7. Editing / Publishing / Independent Writing experience. Depending on the needs of the students, this next step is highly differentiated. A teacher might choose to follow one of the following options, all of them or any combination thereof, depending on their students' needs. For an example of what this step might look like, see the Differentiated Next Steps section within the 1st Grade Shared & Differentiated Writing Example linked below.

    • Editing: The teacher might lead the students through a shared editing experience, where the class works together to edit their shared writing. This has the benefit of allowing the teacher to model the editing process. For an example of what this activity might look like, see High School Interactive Shared Writing & Editing Example, linked below.

    • Publishing: The teacher might prepare individual copies of the student's shared writing and lead them through the publication and illustration process. 

    • Independent Writing: The teacher might send students to an independent writing project. Again, this process would be highly differentiated based on student needs.

      • Provide students with individual graphic organizers that match the organizer used in step 6. Students should use the posted graphic organizers completed during the shared writing experience as models for their own organizers.

      • Once students have organized their thoughts on the graphic organizer, they may begin the independent writing activity. Some students may still require a sentence starter to begin the writing or even a complete frame to experience success with it. For an example of what this frame might look like with a song as the mentor text, see the Dear Mr. President Writing Cloze Activity linked below. For an example of what this frame might look like when based on a chapter in a longer work, see the Prickly Trouble Writing Cloze Activity, also linked below.

      • Some students may be able to write independently without any support while others may need to work with a partner or in a small group for another shared writing experience. Each student should contribute ideas and ultimately have their own copy of the shared story to hand in. 

      • During the independent writing phase, the teacher should be focused on Individually meeting with students (or small groups) to discuss their writing and to provide differentiated support as needed.

      • Once students have completed their writing, encourage them to re-read and edit what they’ve created. This is an opportunity to make use of peer editing strategies as well. For an example of one of these strategies, see the Peer Feedback Strategy by Valerie Librizzi, linked in the Resources section below.

  8. Provide an opportunity for students to share their end product with their peers.

EL Modification

Depending on the language levels in your classroom, there are a number of different ways you can modify this strategy.

Implementation steps:

  1. When choosing your mentor text during implementation step 2, keep in mind the language levels of your students. 

    • Newsela, linked below and in the tech tools section, is a great resource for informational texts available at different reading levels.

    • News in Levels, linked below and in the tech tools section, is a great resource for informational texts available at three different language levels.

    • The Arrival by Shaun Tan is an example of a story told all in pictures for newcomers and students with no literacy skills.

  2. Before jumping into a chosen text, explicitly teach target vocabulary and build background as needed.

  3. For ELLs to fully participate in class discussions during implementation step 4, anchor charts, sentence frames and interactive word walls are critical. Refer to these resources regularly and remind students to use them whenever they're struggling for language. For an example of an anchor chart with sentence frames, see the Talking About Text Anchor Chart, linked below.

  4. During implementation step 7 (independent writing), there are several modifications that can be implemented for students with no English skills and no literacy in their home language. For example,

    • Pull a small group for an additional shared writing experience instead. 

    • Rather than having students create a new text, allow them to seek images and/or to illustrate the shared story the class created in implementation step 6. In this way, students can develop their understanding of the writing the class produced together by coming up with connected images. For an example of this, see Pre-K Interactive Shared Writing Example, linked below.

    • Allow students to tell their stories via images and / or illustrations. As they acquire more English, scaffold their illustrations / images to include labels and/or speech bubbles, then eventually captions to describe their pictures. Students can use templates like the following:

      • Comic Strip Template, linked below, to tell their story in pictures only. 

      • Comic Strip Template with Captions, also linked below, to tell their story in pictures with one-sentence captions.

  5. For students with no or limited English skills who are literate in their home language, encourage them to write their story in their native language, except for any words they already know in English. (Ex: a student knows the word "cat" so this word is in English, but the rest of the writing is in the native language)

    • Continue to scaffold the student's writing up to include more and more English words. 

    • Once a story is finished, encourage the student to choose one or two words from the story to learn in English. They can then add those translations to their story, as well as add them to their vocabulary notebook, so they will hopefully use those words in English moving forward. 

    • For more information on the importance of allowing ELLs the opportunity to write in their native language, see the book Writing Between Languages, listed in the Resources section below.

Special Education Modification

There are a number of ways to modify a writing workshop to meet the needs of specific students.

Implementation steps:

  1. For students who struggle with dexterity skills to physically write during independent writing time, consider the following:

    • Use dictation software so the student's words can be transcribed by the computer. For example, directions for the following two options are linked below and in the tech tools block.

      • The Voice Typing feature in Google Docs

      • Speech-to-text features in Chromebooks

    • Use a device's voice memo or audio recording feature so the student can tell their story orally, rather than write it. 

    • Partner the student up with someone who can transcribe their writing for them.

  2. For students who are non-verbal, consider allowing them to tell their stories via art. Students can take pictures, draw or paint illustrations (on paper or digitally), gather images online, work with play-do or other mediums to express their thoughts.

Distance Learning Modification

Implementation Steps:

  1. The use of interactive word walls and anchor charts to encourage student participation in discussions can be a challenge in a distance learning environment. So for implementation steps 4 and 5, consider creating online interactive word walls and anchor charts. For example,

    • Physical anchor charts and word walls can simply be photographed if pressed for time and uploaded to whatever platform the teacher uses (Google Drive, Google Classroom, Canvas, etc.) and shared with students from there.

    • Word walls and anchor charts can also be created with a variety of tech tools, including Google Slides, Padlet and Prezi, to name a few. For an example, see Science Interactive Words Walls on Prezi, linked below. This is a word wall students can interact with and help to build as a unit progresses, identifying academic words, topics and sub-topics to add to the Prezi.

  2. For the shared writing experience in implementation step 6, consider using some online resources for sharing writing experiences. For example, 

    • Google Docs and slides can be used for a collaborative writing experience

    • Jamboard is a collaborative image-based experience, where students would be able to add stickers, post-it notes with text and speech bubbles. This would be an excellent tool to use with students needing modifications.

Related Lessons

  • This strategy is particularly effective for ELA and writing classrooms as these classrooms tend to offer writing workshops on a regular basis. For an example of these lesson plans, see Text Features Elementary Lesson Plan: You Wouldn't Want to Be... and Characterization Secondary Lesson Plan: Prickly Trouble linked below.

  • It can also be used in any content classroom where students are expected to write about text. For example:

    • This strategy can be used in a social studies classroom, where students analyze historical events and ponder how history might have changed if different choices were made at certain points in time. The teacher can still lead students in a brainstorming session around different decisions that could have been made at certain points in time and what the consequences of those decisions might have been. The teachers can then lead them through a shared writing exercise around this very topic and/or students can work independently or in partners or groups to write alternate histories. 

    • It can also be used in a science classroom, where students analyze the consequences of certain scientific discoveries or decisions and how they might have impacted the course of history. For example, if the polio vaccine had not worked, how might that have changed the world? How might different actions by various governments increase or decrease the effects of global warming? These are questions students could consider in a science class and write about in a shared, partner, group or independent writing exercise.

Tech Tools

  • Newsela:

    • provides high-quality, relevant, nonfiction texts in a wide array of content, including science, money, law, health, arts, sports, and opinion. Each article is accompanied by a four-item quiz that probes the following areas: what the text says; central ideas; people, events, and ideas; word meaning and choice; text structure; point of view or purpose; multimedia; or arguments and claims. NewsELA specifically supports this strategy as it is an excellent resource for differentiated articles. Available in five different reading levels and with a read aloud feature embedded, these articles are highly accessible to students who struggle with reading and/or language. There is even a Spanish section of the website where articles in Spanish (with the same number of reading levels and the embedded read aloud feature) can be found. 

  • News in Levels: 

    • provides world news for students of English. Its texts come in three different language levels, provide the occasional definition of some targeted words and include a read aloud feature as attached videos.

  • Google slides:

    • an online presentation builder (part of google apps) that allows users to create and share presentation slides. This is of particular use in this strategy when putting together interactive word walls and notebooks. 

  • Padlet:

    • a digital corkboard type tool that students can use to gather information or reflections. Teachers can easily access each students’ Padlet with a shared link. Padlet is an excellent resource for this strategy as it provides the opportunity for students to collaborate on the creation of interactive word walls.

  • Prezi:

    •  a highly interactive method for presenting information. It has multiple layers, so a presentation can continually be updated as new information is acquired and as a course progresses. Students can click through the presentations on their own or the teacher can present them live. Teachers can also record their presentation with a voice-over feature so that students can watch it in video format later. This is an excellent method for creating online interactive word walls and notebooks.

  • Google Docs:

    • an online word processor (part of Google Apps) that allows you to store, create and edit documents collaboratively in a web browser. 

  • Jamboard:

    • a Google Suite app designed to help groups create and visualize ideas.  The interface is a hybrid design of both a virtual whiteboard and a slide presenter.  Participants can write, type, add images, or add sticky notes to each slide. It is particularly effective for this strategy as it allows students to collaborate on a shared writing experience, particularly if they are low-language level students who will be using images to mostly tell their story.