The Reading-Writing Connection: Lift the Level of Your Writing

By Lexi Donahue and Keri Demers

If we told you to sit down right now and compose a wedding toast, a college essay, a resume or a blog post (basically anything you don’t normally write) what’s the first thing you’d do? (Other than ask yourself, “Who are these bossy ladies?”)

Most likely, you’d probably search for examples of that type of writing. From there you would evaluate the different writing samples and decide what works for you and what doesn’t. You may like the opening lines of one wedding toast but the conclusion from a different one. By looking at examples, you’ll get a sense of the approximate length this kind of writing usually is, the tone (formal, humorous, sentimental, etc.) and what the non-negotiable essentials are, just to name a few. Familiarizing yourself with the genre will help you emulate it. Whether you’re a Kindergartner, a college student, a writing teacher, or an author, studying mentor texts is a must-do in order to write well.

What are mentor texts? Lynne Dorfmanco—author, with Rose Cappelli, of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts—defines the term as follows:

Mentor texts are pieces of literature that you—both teacher and student—can return to and reread for many different purposes. They are texts to be studied and imitated…Mentor texts help students to take risks and be different writers tomorrow than they are today. It helps them to try out new strategies and formats. They should be basically books that students can relate to and can even read independently or with some support. And of course, a mentor text doesn’t have to be in the form of a book—a mentor text might be a poem, a newspaper article, song lyrics, comic strips, manuals, essays, almost anything.

In the book Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts, author Stacey Shubitz writes about an experience she had when she was a new classroom teacher in 2006. She asked her fifth graders:

“Have you learned anything about writing from the books someone has read to you or you have read yourself? What have you learned? What is the best book you know that shows kids something about good writing?”

Shubitz was shocked when every single student reported the same answer: They had learned nothing about being a better writer from reading books. Shubitz says, “Once I calmed down, I became determined to help these students read like writers.” (2016, 1)

Ten years after that experience in her classroom, Shubitz published Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. To write this book, Shubitz spent two years mining picture books for craft moves. She describes the reasons she specifically chose to use picture books, and the lengthy process she used to study these books, but ultimately, in order for her to “adopt” a picture book as a mentor text—and include it in her book—it needed to have at least six power craft moves (2016, 12)

Ultimately, Shubitz narrowed it down to ten fiction and ten nonfiction picture books and then created lesson sets for each of them. Although Shubitz’s book is intended as a resource for writing teachers, writers of picture books have plenty to gain from the lessons in this book as well. Translation: study how to write a picture book that’s so incredible that Stacey Shubitz wants to include it in her next book about great picture books.

As Elementary teachers, we have both created our own collections of children’s books to use as mentor texts with our students. In our classes, we model the work of noticing and naming a craft move an author used, we “think out loud” about the author’s purpose—and get kids thinking and talking about why the author decided to use this move, on this page or during this part of the story—and then help students envision how they might try this same move in their own writing. The end goal is for students to instinctively “read like writers” and find their own books to emulate.

After reading Matilda by Roald Dahl, one student loved that Ms. Honey’s name matched her character traits! This student tried out a name that connected to a recurring theme in her own writing:

Out at recess all the kids were playing in groups or assembled a small game of soccer. She quickly put her bag down and walked slowly over to a group of girls playing tag. “Hi, can I play too?” she asked a girl running by. But she just ran away faster than before.  The same thing happened with everyone else she asked. With that bad feeling she walked over to the bags. When she got to her class, her teacher: Mrs. Dash was waiting for her at the door.

 

 

Another student loved the way the kids in The Dunderheads planned to get even with their mean teacher. She tried out the set-up technique in her own story:

When she got into the treehouse she gasped. “Uhhh… Diana, you might want to look at this.” Diana quickly scaled the trunk of the tree and got into the treehouse. She stared at the floor of it. “WHO RUINED THIS PLACE!?” she roared. There were scribbles in red crayon all around the place, with things written over it like When are you gonna tear this place down? And what dummy built this place? The two sisters looked at each other and silently agreed; whoever did this would pay.

 

 

A third student noticed that Jen Bryant used Louis Braille’s actions to demonstrate his perseverance in her book Six Dots. This student saw the same perseverance in Amelia Earhart and worked to highlight a time when a young Amelia wouldn’t give up:

She saw a giant roller coaster at the fair. When they got home, she tried to build one. Wooden tracks rolled down from the top of the shed and down to the yard. Amelia bravely went first on the roller coaster. She went down…. then crashed! But she didn’t stop trying. 

 

By now, you’re probably dying to get your hands on some children’s books to start your own mining. You’re in luck! You don’t have to do this work alone. Check out ReFoReMo (Reading For Research Month), which launches just days from now and lasts the whole month of March!

Whether you’re a writer, a teacher, a student, or maybe even all of the above, remember:

Nobody but a reader ever became a writer. —Richard Peck

Do you read mentor texts? How do you study them? What do you look for? Share your ideas in the comments.

More to Explore:

The New York Times started a Mentor Text series at the start of this school year. Check it out here.

Learn more about ReFoReMo here.

Resource books about teaching writing from Stenhouse Publishers.

7 comments

  1. Kudos to you and other teachers for teaching students how to think like writers as they read. I would also like to check out the Craft Moves book!

    Like

  2. I do read mentor texts and I look for page turns and how humor was set up and my most difficult to duplicate is the ending with a twist. Some books nail it on all counts and others fall flat and they both teach me something. Great post and thanks for making me think again about reading and writing.

    Like

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