Word on the Street: Bigger Is Not Better…..when it comes to Mentor Texts for Literacy Skill Instruction

Authors: Lenicia Gordon, Susan Diaz, and Janet Hester

Most contemporary researchers in literacy agree on at least this one fact:  Short, complex texts are the most effective and most critical foundation of the modern lesson cycle in high impact reading and writing instruction.  This is not to say that there is not a place for our favorite novels and short stories but when honing in on specific reading skills like understanding an author’s craft or purpose, making inferences, summarizing or making connections between texts, short rich texts (purposefully chosen for illustrative properties of the chosen skill to be taught) are the keystone.  This same paradigm is true for writing instruction as well.

The use of mentor texts and mini-lessons for skills, strategies, and revision is the common thread of advice from literacy experts we have been reading and engaging with this past year.  The other clear message is the importance of truly engaging all four processes: reading, speaking, listening, and writing embedded in each lesson cycle.

Steve Graham and Dolores Perin boil it down to three simple actions – Read, Emulate, Analyze when referring to anchoring learning about writing through the immersion in quality mentor texts – in their report “Writing Next for The Alliance for Excellent Education”.  To download the entire free PDF guide, “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School”, visit http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingNext.pdf. Kelly Gallagher reiterates the importance of this three step process and adds that teachers need to “model, model, model!”  He also believes students need to be immersed in opportunities to read and analyze great fiction and write fiction.  The pendulum swing away from fiction and towards only nonfiction is a mistake in his mind that needs to be returned to balance.

Here are his five practical guiding questions which he suggests educators ask themselves before designing a reading lesson:

1)      What support do my students need before they begin reading a text?

2)      What strategies will assist them to read the text with purpose and clarity?

3)      How can I encourage a second-draft reading to facilitate deeper meaning?

4)      Which collaborative activities will help deepen their comprehension?

5)      How can I help students see the relevance this text plays in their world?

(Gallagher, Kelly. Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2004)

Jeff Anderson likens the process to the scientific method (Observe, Question, Hypothesize, Test, and Conclude). Anderson’s Analysis Process involves five steps: Noticing, Interacting, Naming, Experimenting, and Reflecting. In the Noticing phase, students read the mentor text independently and use annotating techniques to mark anything in the text they like or find interesting that the writer is doing. The next phase is called Interacting.  The teacher guides the students’ noticings to the focused skill of the writing lesson: for example, the thesis or imagery, etc. The Naming phase is when the teacher will bring in academic vocabulary and make broad generalizations about the genre of the writing: for example, cause/effect structure or “it’s called foreshadowing when an author does that”. Experimenting is a time for kids to play with language, patterns, and structures in their own writing that is connected to the instructional objective or skill.  Finally, the class Reflects. Students need a moment to consider if adding the element improves or detracts from the meaning of their essay and explain why they think so.  They can do their reflections through a quickwrite such as an exit ticket or a think/pair/share. (Anderson, Jeff. Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2011)

Fountas and Pinnell outline the reading process through the study of genre with the foundation still being mentor text study, as such, a) Interactive read-aloud, b) Readers’ workshop, which includes book talks, a mini-lesson, conferences, independent reading, guided reading, literature discussion (book clubs), writing about reading, and group share, c) Writers’ workshop, which includes writers’ talks, a mini-lesson, conferences, independent writing, guided writing, and group share.

For an overview of their Six Step process to teaching an inquiry-based genre study check out this one-page reference sheet: Genre Study: Steps in the Inquiry Process: http://readingrecovery.org/images/pdfs/Conferences/NC13/Handouts/Sheets_Genre_Study-Steps_in_the_Inquiry_Process.pdf

(Fountas, Irene C., and Gay Su Pinnell. Genre Study: Teaching with Fiction and Nonfiction Books: Grades K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012.)

Stephanie Harvey contributes to this short mentor text movement by adding her twist, STOP, THINK, and REACT (Remember) when referring to the instructional process. “We teach kids to think so they can acquire and actively use knowledge.” Her primary “take home points” are: a) We need to be providing kids at ALL reading levels with COMPLEX texts and that this means complicated ideas, not necessarily lexile level. b) Annotating text is critical to close reading and close VIEWING of nonfiction features deepens understanding of expository texts. c) Students need to, “Stop, Think, and React (REMEMBER)…..STR!” and be provided ample opportunities to practice this with quality complex mentor texts. d) Students should skip the things they don’t understand in the FIRST read and make sense of what they DO know. Then in the SECOND read, they should focus on the things they don’t know and then try and understand. (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX – Harvey, Stephanie, and Anne Goudvis. Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2007)

Harvey “Smokey” Daniels points out the critical importance of pairing students to read, discuss and analyze texts and providing them compelling higher order questions to guide their discussions. Smokey reiterates the value of what students learn from each other through guided discourse.  They provide each other background and context, as well as the opportunity to engage in the entire literacy process of reading, writing, speaking, and listening so that they truly internalize content, strategies, and metacognition.  He shared some specific reading strategies such as finding the “Golden Nugget Sentence” in a selection among many others. “Smokey” Daniels will be presenting during our Distinguished Speakers Series here at Region 13 on Friday, December 6th! (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX  – Daniels, Harvey, and Marilyn Bizar. Teaching the Best Practice Way: Methods That Matter, K-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2005.)

Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger suggest many strategies for using POETRY to support READING skills and CONTENT learning across the curriculum.  Sara and Michael are leaders in the writing to learn movement in literacy instruction. They support ideas like using Haikus as a way to SUMMMARIZE content information. Due to the fact that Haiku requires such precise and carefully chosen words, it would be an excellent way to summarize, for example, a lesson about Abraham Lincoln, the food web, attributes of a geometric solid, etc.  They posit that poetry can support learning across the curriculum using poetic structures of Found Poems, Questioning Poems, Summary Poems, Refrain Poems, and List Poems. (Notes from 2013 IRA Conference, San Antonio, TX – Holbrook, Sara, and Michael Salinger. Outspoken!: How to Improve Writing and Speaking Skills through Poetry Performance. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006.)

*Some of these distinguished speakers will be presenting at Region 13 in the near future. Visit our website to register! http://www4.esc13.net/literacy


Jeff Anderson-November 8th

Harvey “Smokey” Daniels- December 6th

Kelly Gallagher-January 10th


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