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Selecting Mentor Texts with Academic, Linguistic, Cultural, and Social-Emotional Responsiveness

My advice to aspiring writers is to read, read, read. The more you read, the stronger writing you’ll become. I fyou love a book, read it twice so that you can study it and figure out what the author did to pull you in, to make you want to keep reading and then, apply those techniques to your own writing.

Renee Watson 

Mentor texts invite young writers into the process, immersing them in words, inspiring them to try, demonstrating the power that is possible through words and shared ideas. But are the mentor texts you’re using in writing instruction responsive to your students’ abilities and needs? With growing access to texts and authors across multiple literacies, mentor texts can be selected with responsiveness to students and their communities.  

For instance, while writing personal narratives in the fall of 2020, Kelsey’s kindergarten class studied a mentor text: Do Like Kyla, written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by James Ransome. Johnson’s text includes repetition, dialogue, and sentence structures that students could approximate in their own writing. Additionally, the storyline was one that many children could connect to during the pandemic — siblings spending time together and going on a walk to the store.  

One student drew a portrait of Ransome in preparation for the virtual author visit.

What Is Responsive Writing Instruction? 

Responsive writing instruction activates an asset-based mindset when making modifications to instruction. It requires teachers to see children and discover answers to these questions: 

  • “How do we meet students where they are?” 
  • “With what they have?” 
  • “In ways that celebrate who they are?” 

Our book, The Responsive Writing Teacher, frames responsive writing instruction within four domains of responsiveness: 

  • Academic responsiveness ensures new skills and content match students’ abilities and goals.     
  • Linguistic responsiveness ensures language(s) used in instruction and in the classroom environment are accessible and inclusive of home language(s).   
  • Cultural responsiveness ensures a diverse and authentic representation of authorship, characters, and content within the texts and resources we use.  
  • Social-emotional responsiveness ensures a safe, supportive, and  engaging environment for taking risks and overcoming challenges in the writing process.   

Responsive instruction, within these domains, centers childrenWhat’s more, it establishes an evolving and deepening understanding of children as writers and community members and people.  

Knowing and honoring the skills, languages, cultures, perspectives, and interests children contribute to a classroom community opens possibilities for planning and teaching with abundance. Planning and teaching that is inclusive. Planning and teaching that is engaging. Planning and teaching that is equitable.  

Responsive Mentor Text Selection Across the Domains 

When selecting a mentor text with academic responsiveness in mind, ask:  

  1. Does the text model many of the genre-specific elements and craft moves that students will learn to include in their writing? 
  2. Will students be able to approximate such text features?        

When selecting a mentor texts with linguistic responsiveness in mind, ask: 

  1. Is there accessible vocabulary, and vocabulary supports (e.g., illustrations, labels, captions, glossary) that develops background knowledge? 
  2. Are there grammatical structures that are at a level at which students can note, emulate, and approximate? 
  3. Does the text feature languages that students speak? Does it immerse students in new languages/dialects? 

IN THIS PAGE FROM BIRDSONG BY JULIE FLETT, READERS CAN STUDY CRAFT MOVES THAT INCLUDE, BUT AREN’T LIMITED TO THE PLOT, MOOD, WORD CHOICE, CONVENTIONS, REPETITION, AND SENTENCE STRUCTURES.

When selecting a mentor text with cultural responsiveness in mind, this chart, inspired by a presentation from Sonja Cherry-Paul, can serve as guide for consideration: 

Representation 

Are characters doing everyday things? 

Are they portrayed as victims? 

Is there a savior? 

 

Context 

What are people doing?  

Are they doing it in present time? Not just in history? 

 

 

Authorship 

Who is the author? 

What makes the author uniquely positioned to tell the story?  

 

Content 

Does the text have an authentic voice? 

Will students want to read this book? 

 

Chart adapted from the NCTE presentation, Building Better Readers through Book Clubs, by Sonja Cherry-Paul 

When selecting a mentor text with social-emotional responsiveness in mind, this chart provides guiding questions for different genres:  

As there is no one-size-fits-all curriculum, as classroom landscapes of children’s skills, languages, identities, and interests diversify, as constraints continue to drive creativity, responsiveness–which has always been essential– is critical. For us, the four domains have become a way of thinking, analyzing, and acting, as we continue to ask: “How do we meet students where they are, with what they have, in a way that celebrates who they are?”  

Written by

Melanie Meehan has been the Elementary Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, Connecticut since 2012. Within that position, she gets to develop curriculum and assessments, coach teachers, and work with students to send them off into the world as confident writers who love to express their ideas. Melanie is a co-author of Two Writing Teachers, a blog dedicated to the teaching of writing, as well as a regular contributor to Choice and Lead Literacy. Her first book book, Every Child Can Write, was published by Corwin Press in October 2019. Her book The Responsive Writing Teacher, co-authored with Kelsey Sorum, is available now. 

Kelsey Sorum spends each day co-constructing joyful, integrated literacy experiences alongside nearly 30 kindergartners at a progressive public school in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lives. Kelsey has shared personal and professional writing on blogs for years, and she presents at local and national literacy conferences as an advocate for early childhood education. Her first published book, The Responsive Writing Teacher, co-authored with Melanie Meehan, is available now from Corwin Press.  

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