July 7, 2016

Six Reasons to Use Mentor Sentences to Build Student Writers

My first year of teaching I was handed grammar worksheets of concepts I was supposed to "cover" with my students.  As I paged through the worksheets I felt panic swell up in my chest because I didn't know what half of the words meant.  Was I not qualified for my position?  Was I going to fail my students by not being able to pass on grammar knowledge that I so obviously didn't possess?  My teaching journey for how to teach grammar has evolved a lot since that first day.  My first two years I found the answer keys, and I played along, and I taught all of the concepts I was supposed to teach.  However, it felt incredibly disconnected from what I was doing in the reading and writing aspect of teaching, where I was comfortable.  Slowly this evolved to forgetting grammar even existed and sweeping it under the rug.  I figured that I was a decent writer and didn't know any of this stuff, so why should my students have to know it?

Then, as I was training to be a literacy coach at Lesley University four years into my teaching career, an Interactive Edit was modeled to me and my fellow literacy coaches in training.  Our professor put a beautiful sentence up on the board from a book we had all read called The Tiger Rising, and she asked us the ever-powerful question of, "What do you notice?"  At first, I thought it was a trick, and I was looking for the error that she must have sneakily inserted.  I think this was a natural reaction from my elementary school days of repetitive DOL year, after year, after year.  But then, I realized her question was genuine, and I let myself actually enjoy the sentence, think about it, analyze it, and imagine what Kate DiCamillo was thinking as she wrote it.  Once we started listing what we noticed, we couldn't stop: we noticed word choice, the type of sentence it was, what type of punctuation and capitalization it contained, we commented on which words were which parts of speech, on words with prefixes, suffixes, and Greek & Latin roots, we talked about words that had homophones, and what the sentence would have been like if a specific element had been changed.  All of a sudden, I had learned more about grammar in fifteen minutes of analyzing one sentence than I had my entire life.  Not to mention, the experience had been enjoyable to me as a learner.  That was the day I knew Interactive Edit would be part of how I taught grammar.  A missing piece to a Balanced Literacy framework I already loved.

Next, I started reading Jeff Anderson's book Mechanically Inclined where chapter two, "Moving from Correct-Alls to Mentor Texts" continued to evolve how I saw grammar instruction.  In the chapter opening it states, "Yet as far back as 1936, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) found that the formal teaching of grammar and mechanics had little effect on students' writing and, in fact, had deleterious effects when it displaced writing time.  Other teachers who know these methods don't work have fallen into haphazardly mentioning mechanics or, fearful of teaching grammar and mechanics out of context, teaching them only during the editing phase of the writing process" (15).  As I read that passage, I thought, "That's me!"  He also makes the point of, "With what we know about the brain absorbing information visually, is it a sane educational strategy to have kids stare at something so wrong for the first ten minutes of class every day?  Etching wrongness into my students' visual stores was not what I wanted" (16).  How profound is this thought?  Why are we using DOL to show kids how to do it wrong?  A sentence with ten errors is so far away from "real writing."  Instead, let's use mentor sentences from books students are reading and authors they respect to etch beautiful writing into their brains.  Anderson credits Vicki Spandel for the phrase, "sentence stalking" and talks in the chapter about how he became a sentence stalker, constantly reading for the purpose of finding worthy mentor sentences to use.  Although sentence stalking is the same as what I originally learned to be "interactive edit," I knew my students would love the term "sentence stalking."  This is where it all began, and I've never turned back from this form of teaching grammar since.

If you're wondering how to implement sentence stalking into your classroom, it's really quite simple:

Step One: Go through your class interactive read alouds or class novels all students in your class are exposed to and select sentences that will give your students a lot to talk about.  The sentences could focus in on something you're noticing students are struggling with in their writing, such as using correct homophones, for example.  That's a subtle way of reinforcing the proper use of homophones while also getting students to notice and analyze other pieces of the sentence as well.

Step Two:  Model to students how to "sentence stalk."  Begin with think alouds and give students a couple examples of what you notice about the sentence, and then have them turn to a partner and jot down three more things they notice together.  This is a great way to get the process started.

Step Three:  Once you're confident that students have become more proficient at sentence stalking, use it as a bell ringer activity and have the sentence up on the board as they're walking into class.  Students should know that it's the routine to grab their notebooks, jot the sentence down, and write down as many things as they notice about the sentence.

Step Four:  Continue to make the process interactive by having students share out what they notice in small groups or partners and then sharing out as a whole class.  Take time (one-two minutes) to quickly teach a new concept to students if something comes up in a sentence that students haven't noticed before.

Step Five:  Make anchor charts of common grammar concepts that come up.  A few of my favorites for the purpose of sentence stalking are below.  Another great option is to purchase the Student Writing Companion in my TpT store so students can have a quick reference to a variety of grammar concepts.

So now that I know what I know, I'm so excited to see what else I can learn and try with my students as I continue to tweak this teaching strategy.  Below are six reasons why I think using mentor sentences to sentence stalk is the way to go.

1.  Through mentor sentences, you can intrigue students and subconsciously get them interested in books.  A single sentence can cause students to wonder and predict what it means in the context of a story.

2.  Sentences in real writing and real books are messy.  They don’t always fit a perfect mold like sentences on a grammar worksheet or workbook.  Students can memorize a predictable pattern on a grammar worksheet, but by using mentor sentences, students are going to internalize, transfer, and apply these grammar concepts in their own writing.

3.  Mentor sentences expose students to quality writing and inspire them to try out techniques used by their favorite authors in their writing.

4.  Instead of standing up in front of the class and lecturing about grammar rules and telling students, “It’s just the way it is” in reference to memorizing grammar rules, you can stand up in front of the class and say, “Let’s look at what R.J. Palacio, Kate DiCamillo, or Lois Lowry does in this sentence.”

5.  Looking at mentor sentences from several books/authors proves to students that grammar rules are applied in a similar fashion in order for writers to communicate effectively with readers.

6.  When we appreciate the way authors craft sentences together and take the time to study how and why they write, we, as writers, will intentionally and automatically think more like the authors we study.

If you think teaching grammar through mentor sentences is a road you'd like to go down on your grammar teaching journey, definitely check out the six week unit I have listed below to teach six different grammar rules.  It includes directions on exactly how to teach each lesson, student handouts, and even answer keys.


  1. What a wonderful 'aha'! We shouldn't show them ten incorrect sentences. We should show and work with beautiful sentences. It makes perfect sense. Thank you!

    1. It just does, doesn't it!? I think about my own spelling as a teacher and how it has gotten worse as I've read my students' writing with multiple spelling errors. We are visual, and even if something is wrong, that wrongness gets etched into our brains! :)

  2. I'm 200% on board with this strategy. I started using it at the end of the year with my 8th grade students with learning disabilities. It was exactly as you stated. WE learned more with one sentence than all the worksheets (which I despise). I'm doing the writing workshop, but I'm torn about the reading workshop. I only have 55 minutes to teach both areas. I saw your schedules. I know I can teach reading strategies and elements in mini lessons. It's my understanding that this is separate from the read alouds? My students take twice as long or more to learn. I don't know how to use another mentor text on top of the read aloud to teach them without them getting confused. Then having them read their own book too. It's just too much for them. Am I understanding it wrong? How can I make this work for my students? One more question. How do you set up units for SLO when teaching like this? Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Hi Angela,

      It's so awesome that you're seeing great results with using mentor sentences with your students. As far as the read aloud goes in Reading Workshop, I think of the read aloud as the glue that holds every piece of the literacy framework together. The mentor sentences that I use when we're sentence stalking are coming directly from our class read aloud from that very day. I like to use a sentence that students will hear when we're reading that day. The read aloud also ties directly into reading minilessons as I use the read aloud text to model the minilesson statement for the modeling portion of the minilessons. For example, if we're doing a minilesson about making predictions with textual evidence, I would model this reading strategy to students by making a prediction with textual evidence based on something that happened in our read aloud. Where the independent reading book comes in is at the end of the minilesson, I ask students to now apply that minilesson concept to their independent reading book during the application time. Having that read aloud text is essential though because it's the shared text between all students. Students' independent reading books could also be their literature study books or guided reading books if you're using these instructional contexts. I hope this helps clarify, and that your school year is off to a great start!


  3. I'm excited to find someone who does mentor sentences with middle school. I've been teaching 3rd/4th for years, and used mentor sentences extremely successfully with them, but now I've just transitioned to middle school literacy. I miss my mentor sentences! I'm going to throw a few "sentence sleuth" activities in from time to time this year and see how it goes. I'm excited to be following you on TpT and on your blog!

    1. That is great to hear! There is definitely a lot that middle school students can learn from using mentor sentences when it used correctly to lift what they understand about writing conventions. Thanks so much for your comment, and I'm glad that you found my blog and are following it!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...