There is tremendous power in mentor sentences to influence writing and help students see authentic purposes for learning grammar and mechanics. Jeff Anderson’s work on teaching writing and grammar through mentor texts shapes the way I use mentor sentences.
Each week I introduce a sentence selected from a picture book or a student. When choosing a mentor sentence, I look for sentences that demonstrate a focus skill (e.g. comma usage), author’s craft (figurative language, etc.), and/or model a particular writing structure. In the sentence above, we were learning about introductory clauses.
My learners study the sentence for different purposes throughout the week.
Day 1: We identify the strong points of the sentence. See what they noticed in Aven’s sentence:
- Introductory phrases can change the fluency of the text. The expression is different than if the sentence read, “Dog awoke in the glistening light of the morning sun.”
- Glistening is an adjective that not only describes but also helps with fluency.
- Morning tells us the time and that the glistening is likely dew.
- The introductory phrase contains two prepositional phrases that help set the scene.
- The independent clause is only two words.
- “Awoke” sounds better for this sentence than “woke up.”
Day 2: The students work together to label the parts of speech, type of sentence, and subject and predicate. We discuss how knowledge of the parts of speech, etc. helps an author write with clarity. This activity takes the most time. We typically spend 10-15 minutes per day on mentor sentence work, but on this day, we spend closer to 20-25 minutes.
Day 3: My learners look for ways to revise the original sentence by deleting/adding/changing adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and/or swapping out verbs. This is a great place to discuss simplicity, changes in meaning, etc.
Day 4: This is their favorite day! They imitate the structure of the sentence to create and share their own sentences. This also provides me with an informal way to assess their understanding of the week’s concepts.
I notice several benefits from teaching grammar, mechanics, and writing in this interconnected way.
- The students can explain how grammar and mechanics apply to writing. They no longer see them as isolated subjects.
- They have much better retention of the material.
- Their writing and confidence as writers improve as they apply what they are learning to their own writing.
Finally, there is the joy on their faces when I select a student’s sentence for the weekly mentor sentence. By choosing their sentences, I send the message that their writing is worthy and a model for others. A model sentence can come from any writer in your class. Imagine the confidence boost you can give to your reluctant writers when you select one of their sentences as a model text.
Mentor sentences take a brief amount of time to implement each day, yet their impact as a powerful and authentic learning tool is deep and lasting. I can’t imagine teaching writing and grammar any other way.