Putting Writers’ Fingerprints on Mentor Texts
Regardless of a writer’s age or grade, staring at a blank piece of paper or blank document on a computer screen can feel overwhelming. The easiest way to start? Encourage students to write their name on the paper or type it on the screen—and voila! The page is no longer blank. We’ve used this strategy with writers from third grade to graduate school and it is a wonderful place to begin. Now let’s consider the next step—transforming ideas into words.
Some students demonstrate strength with two of the four components of writing fluency: automaticity and speed. In terms of speed, they are able to write quickly enough to complete the writing task. For automaticity, they are able to spell most words automatically, which allows them to convert their ideas into words while holding onto the ideas in their minds. The other two components, ideas, and ease, can prove to be more challenging. Students may have trouble thinking of something to write—generating ideas—and write laboriously rather than with ease. Rather than having students doubt their ability to develop a positive writer identity or continue to struggle with generating ideas, let them copy. That’s right! Why reinvent the wheel when we have wheels, great texts, that can be used as launching pads to help students produce their own great texts? All they need are opportunities to mimic excellent writing.
Let’s think back to a time when one of your students said some iteration of “I don’t know what to write.” We may have guffawed or responded that of course they have something to write—everyone has something to write! This is certainly true but may not be the most helpful approach.
Instead, we can give them examples of mentor texts and encourage them to select one sentence or one paragraph (depending on their age, grade, writing confidence, and ability) and copy it onto a page. Have them notice the words, the style, the voice, the type of emotion the author elicits, the length of the sentences, the way an author plays with words, and the tone. Then have the students pick one sentence and substitute a few of their own words. How did the tone and voice change? Why did they select certain words to change? What might be the impact on the reader? Then have the student work on the next sentence. Proceed through the same exercise. The immediate impact is: (1) their page is no longer blank, (2) they are seeing strong writing and making meaningful connections; and (3) they are inserting their own identity into the writing.
This process is no different from how Pablo Picasso learned to paint—by copying other great artists—or how one learns to cook or play a sport. Can you imagine sending a child into the kitchen and telling them to cook a meal without having them first copy everything an adult does to create a meal? Or telling a child to shoot a basketball into a hoop without first having them watch someone else make a basket and learn about form? Writing can be the same. Even when children are seen as relatively strong writers (able to write with speed and automaticity), there may be times when they really do not know what to write. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. It’s also a great way to help kids write!
Find multicultural mentor texts for every grade level at the CLE’s Pinterest page.
For more on writing and reading fluency:
Tompkins, G. (2018). Literacy for the 21st Century: A Balanced Approach (7th Ed.) New York: Pearson.