Writing Instruction that Fosters Future Authors- a Philosophy for Teaching Writing at the Secondary Level
Teaching writing can be an overwhelming challenge. It can rarely be taught sequentially like a math class, which begs the question- where do I even begin? Grammar, sentence structure, idea development, voice, organization? Do any of these skills build upon the next? What happens when a student has skills in one area and not another? Which of these are the most important for students to learn?
It is these questions and more that had me overwhelmed, stressed, and panicked in my first year of teaching. The next year, I began to try and develop an order to the madness. This, now rather embarrassing year, I attempted to spend the first two months of school solely on sentence structure and grammar. My theory was that students would easily be able to develop their narrative/expository/argumentative texts correctly with this instruction under their belts, so to speak, and I could stop ‘red penning’ their papers to death. Instead, my students thought I was torturing them and in many ways I was. I was killing any interest and enjoyment they had with the written word. My students began to hate writing, and me for that matter. I quickly realized that teaching one element in complete singularity does not create student engagement or buy in. By November, I understood that writing instruction must be authentic and it must be taught holistically. Over the next few years I would begin to develop my third, and likely most important, tool in teaching writing successfully—the mentor text.
Authentic and Holistic Writing
I have learned through trial and a great deal of my own error that students must write for authentic purposes. As they draft their written work, they must do so for the same purposes established authors do: to entertain, persuade, inform, or analyze. As they begin to craft these pieces, we can support them with the elements of writing needed for success in that given purpose. Consider your narrative writing unit—within this given purpose you can craft mini-lessons on plot structure, character development, idea development, and voice. As students draft their literary analysis you can focus on formal academic language, appropriate sentence structure, organization, etc. Lessons in writing must be applied to these genuine purposes so students can see the larger picture; they can see how all of these elements work together to create a completed written masterpiece of their own creation.
The Mentor Text
It is often said that extensive readers will become good writers. The idea is that students will naturally replicate the style, craft, and structure from these expert published authors. While I don’t argue that a correlation does exist, it is certainly not a guarantee of quality writing and skill. Grammar, sentence structure, organization, and style don’t often come naturally to our students. This theory can only be correct if these readers regularly pay close attention to the author’s craft as they read. While this is fairly uncommon, it was while considering this theory that I developed my love affair with using mentor texts to teach writing.
Consider the ever popular D.O.L (Daily Oral Language) instruction, a method I once used religiously: I would ask my students to stare at flawed sentences for the first five minutes of every class. They would spend a good deal of time searching these incorrect sentences for its many errors, yet I would spend only seconds correcting them. My students spent far more quality class time staring at flawed writing than quality writing.
The use of mentor texts flips this methodology allowing our students the privilege of viewing, staring, searching, and exploring well written, grammatically correct, authentic writing examples pulled right out of the pages of popular or classic literature. This method can really be applied to any type of writing instruction.
Mentor Texts can be used to teach and practice:
- Sentence Structure
- Context Clues
- Ethos, Pathos, Logos
- Logical Fallacies
- Parallel Structure
- Paragraph Structure
- Argument writing
- Literary Analysis
- Literary Commentary
- Text Evidence
- Figurative Language
- Poetic Elements
- And so much more!
I have used quality examples from fiction and nonfiction to teach all of the above; this has been so very effective in supporting my students in their writing development. For example, as I begin to teach complex sentences with introductory phrases, I will display the following example pulled from literature: “After reading twelve pages, she looked to the end to see how many more pages there were to go: more than two hundred.” - E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). I ask students to examine this sentence—they will spend the first few minutes of the lesson writing down their observations on this sentence. They can then discuss with peers that are near, and back out to me for a whole class discussion on this quality example of writing. After the lesson, I can continue to pull examples from text as bell ringer practice to reinforce these skills all year!
I have created several classroom posters that I reference as I teach students various sentence structures. This is a free resource for your classroom, and each poster contains a mentor sentence to support student understanding. Feel free to click on the image for this free download!
Teaching writing will never be an exact science—perhaps that is why we call it Language ARTS. Just as students work to hone their craft, we must work to hone our instructional craft. Creating authentic purposes for writing will help your students create meaningful written work as they begin to understand the tools a writer needs to be successful within these varying purposes. They will begin to feel confident in the process of creating writing by simply understanding their purpose for doing so. Mentor texts will provide students with the opportunity to analyze an author’s craft, and offers a great base to your lessons as you work to help students achieve the same level of writing they see from these established authors. As they model the quality works of established authors, they will begin to feel like authors themselves. They will leave your class with a new respect, understanding, and appreciation for the craft of writing with all the skills needed to be successful practitioners of the written word.
Liz is a collaborator on teachwriting.org and the founder of Teach BeTween the Lines. She has been teaching for over ten years; she has loved growing young minds through literature and the art of crafting the written word. She is currently working on her doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota, and holds an M.A. in Education from St. Mary’s University, Minnesota. She loves to write short stories in her free time, especially in those cold Minnesota winters. She is supported by a wonderful family made better by the addition of her two beautiful children.