mastering mentor sentences

Mastering Mentor Sentences

Help your students with their writing by mastering mentor sentences! Can you imagine your kids having rich discussions around language? What about if your students’ progress and writing didn’t just improve a little like inevitably well each year, but it improved leaps and bounds in the toughest two areas to teach, style and conventions. If neither of the first two struck a chord, I think everyone would love to stop drilling grammar and killing the love of learning in our students, am I right?

Mentor Texts

Before we can start talking about mentor sentences, let’s do a little refresher on mentor texts. Mentor sentences are going to come from mentor texts. I love using mentor texts because you can teach a lot of your subject matter, through a good mentor text. Not just your reading, not just your writing, but even math, science and social studies, and of course grammar, which is what we will go over today. If I ever have to do any convincing about the purpose of mentor texts, it’s usually with upper-grade teachers. No offense, in the upper grades, a lot of teachers believe that because students should be reading chapter books, then that’s all they should be reading as well. And that’s just not the case.

Picture books are so perfect for many lessons and there are so many powerful deep picture books out there that are not just for little kids. So use those picture books as mentor texts for your mini-lessons. I often use one for one or two weeks. Sometimes during a week, I’ll read even two or three mentor texts if we’re doing some kind of comparison. It all just depends on the skill. But for the most part, I stick with about one text per week.

What I love about mentor texts is that they’re short and sweet. Picture books are only about 32 pages long, so we can usually get through an entire story; beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. They also keep the students engaged because all of the action happens pretty quickly in a picture book, the students are engaged. I don’t know about you, but my students loved coming to the floor, even in fourth grade. They would get so close to my feet so they could see the pictures, and they loved listening to me read. Now to truly maximize your teaching time, we want to teach many skills with one mentor text.

Picture books are also ideal for content integration. Using a non-fiction mentor text, or even historical fiction or science fiction helps you dip your toe into as many content areas as possible, while also covering those reading, writing, and language standards too. Now speaking of language, the most important reason for using picture books is for immersion. You’ll be able to read more books over the year, students will be exposed to not only new vocabulary but also more examples of the author’s craft and style than if you only read novels. Now I’m not telling you to never read chapter books by any means I have an entire list of my favorites for those too. But if you only read novels, think of all the language and craft models your students will be missing out on.

Mentor Sentences

Now let’s talk about how all of that relates to mentor sentences. Each week, students will be working with one sentence from a mentor text with a specific focus you want students to understand and transfer to their writing. There will be short mini-lessons around grammar and language skills, but most of the learning will come through observation and practice in writing time. For over 80 years it has been proven that grammar in isolation doesn’t work. So why do we keep trying to make it work?

Let’s talk about the best practices of mentor sentences. With mentor sentences, you will be teaching a well-written sentence, not a sentence full of mistakes. See the problem with programs that present random sentences to students that are full of mistakes is, the students don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like. Students are just guessing about what is wrong with the sentence. But with mentor sentences, we’re exposing students to amazing craft with correct structure and mechanics. Can you see how this would help teach writing the right way?

Now, this isn’t just about the grammar. Mentor sentences help improve craft by revealing these fantastic models of figurative language, descriptive words and phrases, and interesting sentence variation. Students truly learn from these models and you see it carry over into writing. Mentor sentences are also a fun challenge for the students. You’ll find that students are excited to do mentor sentence lessons. I bet you can’t recall a time when students got excited about doing a grammar page in the workbook. You’ll also see students coming out of their shells who might not have shared otherwise. Students are going to have authentic discussions and truly make connections between grammar and writing.

How to Fit Mentor Sentences in Our Schedule

Now, the one thing I always hear when I start talking about a new routine is great, but when will I ever have time to add this in? Remember, you aren’t adding this in because it is going to take the place of what you’ve been doing for grammar. And if you’re like I was, not being consistent and skipping it sometimes don’t worry. This will also supplement your writing time, and often become or replace your style and conventions mini-lessons, you need for writing.

Once students understand the routine and know what to expect each day, it truly will only take 10 to 15 minutes to work through the lessons each day. Now at first, just like with anything else, there will be a lot more prompting and a lot more explaining, so it will take longer when you first start. They could run the lessons by themselves with support of course, after several weeks of consistent implementation. So as I just mentioned, I encourage you to start your writing time with mentor sentences. It helps students set their frame of mind for writing and it also gives them a purpose for writing that day. Remember, no more isolation.

So to see the transfer into writing, your students need to practice the mentor sentence skills. You don’t want mentor sentence time to be just another time of day that isn’t connected to what you’re doing in writing. Or then it’s no different than teaching the old way. Let’s talk about what happens when you use this routine. Now I’ve mentioned already the big improvements will be seen in the areas of style and conventions. You’ll notice I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth bringing up again, for there to be amazing gains, there must also be the consistency of the routine.

Mentor Text Routine

Research has shown the most effective way to teach grammar and language is not through isolation, but through quick spurts in context and application. And that is exactly why mentor sentences work. So let’s look at what this meaningful routine looks like. I’ll give an overview first and then go into more detail about each day. On days one and two, the routine is going to be discussion-heavy, led mostly by what students notice about the mentor sentence. You’ll want to note the things that they bring up and push them into a deeper conversation about why something is interesting or important.

Day One

You will give students time to notice what’s so magnificent about the mentor sentence. Aside from there are a capital letter and a period, which many might want to tell you at first, they should be able to notice other things about the mentor sentence. You’ll get in so much spiral review each week because a good mentor sentence will always have special qualities that we want to see our students use in writing and that many authors use. Like vivid verbs, descriptive words and phrases, similes, metaphors, personification, and other figurative languages. You can even discuss the point of view every single week by pointing out the pronouns used.

You’ll write down what they notice and help lead the discussions when needed by asking questions. But remember, this isn’t lecture time. If they don’t notice everything you hoped for, that’s okay, especially at first. However, it’s okay to nudge them towards something you need them to see, like the focus skill for the week.

Day Two

The noticing will continue, this time looking more specifically at parts of speech and the function of words in the sentence. Now, this should not bring back nightmares of diagramming from when you were in school. It should not be a contest of labeling for the students. Although yes, we love our students to know all the parts of speech, what is more important is that they can use and apply their function in their own sentences not if they can diagram a sentence. My sentence displays almost never looked the same, because I used it on day one to note what the students were seeing as well as day two, for when we discussed parts of speech. You don’t have to use special labels or color codes. It’s truly about the kids’ conversation happening. 

Day Three

On day three, you’ll show students a revised version of the mentor sentence. This helps students understand ways they can revise by comparing yours to the original as well as helping get their brain on the right track to try it on their own. The meaning will stay the same, but the structure or style could change slightly depending on how you revise. That’s why it’s important to have read the mentor text. So students understand the context in order to keep the meaning the same when they revise.

This will help students to see that the writing process is never done. If we can revise this awesome mentor sentence, then there is always something they can do to revise their own writing. This also helps give a paradigm shift of, we don’t just revise writing that is bad. So when you tell them to go revise their writing, they don’t automatically think that their writing must not be good. We’re showing them that we can even revise magnificent writing.

Some ways to revise would be adding or changing adverbs, using more vivid verbs, or even changing pronouns to specific nouns. But most important, remember they should keep the meaning the same. Another idea of a way to revise would be to add or change the figurative language.

Day Four

On day four, you will show students your own versions of a sentence again, but this time changing the meaning keeping the style and structure of the original but making it your own. Students will be able to compare how you kept your model the same as the mentor sentence and that will, once again, help them understand how to do it on their own.

This will be your students’ favorite day, just you wait. This is the day where they change the meaning, but keep the same style and structure of the mentor sentence. This is their time to truly write like the author, and use that mentor sentence as a model for a super sense. You’ll want to point out how they should use the focus skill you’ve been working with all week too, as a reminder. I can guarantee you’re going to have some kids that absolutely knock your socks off with their sentence. You should definitely celebrate those students. Find a way to display their awesome sentences and definitely allow them to share with each other.

Day Five

Finally, on day five, students will show what they have learned from the mentor sentence that week through a quick formative assessment. They will practice the application of the focus skill from the week and they’ll also practice editing. Now you may remember I mentioned earlier how students would look at sentences full of mistakes and just guess. The assessment will be familiar sentences and they will be able to effectively edit the mistakes. We want to use a formative assessment because we know writing is such a process. We want to know how to help students apply these skills effectively, not just to pass a test and move on to the next skill.

Student Demonstrations of Mentor Sentences

Let’s talk about how students will record their noticings and practice their revisions and invitations. I like to use old-fashioned chart paper for the teacher display. In my classroom, I wanted students’ writing notebooks to be a resource to use when they were writing. So we didn’t draft in these. We used a legal notepad instead, because the paper is longer, so they can actually skip lines for revision purposes later and not blow through so much paper, and then they could use their writing notebook as an actual resource to flip through while writing. After all, you can’t flip through a notebook you’re writing in at the same time. From the front cover of the book, we put seed ideas and other writing mini-lessons and from the back cover of the book, we put our mentor sentences. That way they all stayed together and students could access their models of excellent sentences easily. This helps not only when they were writing, but also during mentor sentence time, because then they could look at previous mentor sentences to make comparisons that help them analyze the current sentence. See all that higher-order thinking we do with mentor sentences?

Once you have the routine rolling in your room, students will write down what they notice in their notebooks. Then you’ll come together and share and have those high-value discussions that I’ve mentioned.

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