We’ve all heard the expression “show, don’t tell.” It’s especially true in teaching. If students discover truths or concepts on their own, they are much more likely to remember and apply these in the future. That is why the use of picture books as mentor texts in writing instruction has become so popular. These mentor texts can show in context the elements of craft, as well as the mechanics (grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure) of strong writing.
Sometimes teachers assume that they will need fifty or more picture books to be able to show literary examples, or use in mini-lessons. I imagine there are some educators who do rely on a large library of picture books when teaching the art of writing to their students, but it is not necessary. It is helpful however for primary (grades K, 1 & 2) teachers to have a set of 12-16 books that they will reference many times throughout the year.
A strong mentor text will not only show organization, but perhaps contain an enticing lead, or details that pop on the page and add information. The same picture book may also contain a unique focus or a combination of different sentence structures that makes the text fluent and easy to read. To engage the teacher and the students, a mentor text must be a book that the teacher will enjoy sharing again and again, as well as one that appeals to the students.
When a picture book is used as a mentor text, a teacher never reads the entire book. He or she only uses a small portion of the text to highlight one element of strong writing. Sometimes this can take place on one page, other times a teacher may read one sentence from four different pages as examples. Because of the intended use of mentor text, it is a good idea to read these selected picture books at the beginning of the year in their entirety. In this way, the students first hear and see the books as a source of enjoyment and entertainment. If the students are already familiar with the text and illustrations from previous readings, their attention will not divert from the purpose of the discussion or mini-lesson.
A mini-lesson is a 4-7 minute lesson that focuses on one element of writing. Sometimes a teacher shows three different examples of details that help develop factual information. Other times a teacher will read one page from a mentor text and have students listen with their writer ears for strong active verbs. Still another time, a teacher will show how an author developed plot in three short scenes. With a well-written picture book, the possibilities are endless for mini-lessons.
Since much of the writing emphasis in the primary grades is on focus, word choice, organization, and development of ideas, here is a short list of titles that can be used effectively as mentor text with students. However, the more comfortable a teacher becomes using mentor text, the more opportunities he or she will find with other picture books.
- All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon – word choice, rhythm, rhyme
- Diary of a Worm (Spider or Fly) by Doreen Cronin – focus, word choice, organization, voice
- The Firekeeper’s Son by Linda Sue Park – plot development, word choice, detail, voice
- Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner – word choice, detail, lead and ending
- Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman – focus, organization, word choice, detail
- Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert – focus, sequencing, word choice, organization, voice
- Weaving the Rainbow by George Ella Lyon – storyline, sequencing, word choice, detail, fluency
- When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant – focus, word choice, detail, voice
Picture books will always be one of the first connections a child makes with the outside world. They are beautiful in art and language. They engage and inspire. However, when used as mentor text, they also show student writers how they may express themselves in ways they never imagined.
Lola M. Schaefer is the author of more than 250 picture books and a dozen professional resources for educators. She visits elementary and middle schools across the country as a consultant, offering writing demonstration lessons in classrooms and staff development to teachers. To learn more about Lola, her books, and her work in schools, visit: www.lolaschaefer.com