Incorporating Mentor Texts in the ELA Classroom: Narrative Writing Focus

By Heather Garcia

Not all students are natural writers and many need to be coached into strong narrative writing. This isn’t a task to overlook as an educator, although many do, and it usually isn’t a skill that a student can master in a single school year. However, utilizing mentor texts as a scaffold in the classroom can help move students towards narrative writing mastery.
Mentor texts can change how classrooms operate. Reading and writing are too often taught as separate skills, but the true power of writing is harnessed when texts are not only analyzed but also used as models for student writing. Without reading and writing being taught in tandem through mentor texts, there is a lost opportunity for student growth and engagement.

What is a mentor text?

Mentor texts are, in short, any text that a student can use as inspiration and guidance for their own writing. They are texts that model strong aspects of writing and can come from professional sources, from you as a teacher, or even from students.

How can mentor texts benefit students?

  • Mentor texts expose students to writers and writing styles they may never encounter in their own reading. It allows them to engage with writers who are similar to them, who haven’t historically made it into the traditional canon. If you partner a mentor text with a little background on the author and the piece you are pulling from, students may find themselves reaching for a book by that author in the future.
  • Mentor texts give students a foundation to work from as they are beginning their own writing. It gives them a framework to follow when their pages are blank and they panic, unsure of where to start. They act as scaffolds for students who struggle with writing.
  • Mentor texts serve as models of strong grammatical principles, so rather than give students worksheets where they correct incorrect grammar, students are able to study proper grammatical constructs from successfully written pieces and apply those same skills and rules to their own writing.
  • Mentor texts allow students to experiment with their own writing. Students can get stuck in writing ruts, producing the same sentence constructs over and over again. By studying the writing styles of strong writers, students are exposed to sentence structures they may not have tried and are then asked to emulate that structure in their own writing, thus breaking the repetitive patterns they may have inadvertently established as novice writers.
  • Mentor texts allow students to stretch the expectations they set for themselves. When they are learning from accomplished writers and are applying strong grammatical constructs with experimental writing, they may be pleasantly surprised at the stretches they are able to make with their own writing, resulting in greater confidence in themselves as writers.

Where can I find narrative mentor texts?

When looking for narrative mentor texts, it is best to peruse novels- either young adult or classic, short stories, poems, children’s books, and memoirs. It is also important to search through your adopted textbooks for short samples of writing that can be used as models.
When searching for model texts, it is best to avoid whole novels or even whole short stories. The shorter the mentor text, the more effective it will be, especially in the beginning when students are still learning what to look for in a model text. One sentence may be all a student needs to read and analyze in order to be able to emulate that style in their own practice writing. It might be a full paragraph that is being modeled, but it is best not to get longer than a paragraph at the start. It can be challenging to model writing from a large mentor text without building up those skills.
A whole text doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be a model text. One text may be a model for its use of transitions. Another may be a model for its inclusion of narrative pace or inclusion of textual evidence, and yet another for the way the introduction and conclusion complement and enhance one another. A poem incorporating descriptive language may serve as a mentor for a prose piece incorporating descriptive elements. Mentor texts can, and should, be as varied as the students you teach.

When looking for narrative mentor texts, it is best to peruse novels- either young adult or classic, short stories, poems, children’s books, and memoirs. It is also important to search through your adopted textbooks for short samples of writing that can be used as models.

When searching for model texts, it is best to avoid whole novels or even whole short stories. The shorter the mentor text, the more effective it will be, especially in the beginning when students are still learning what to look for in a model text. One sentence may be all a student needs to read and analyze in order to be able to emulate that style in their own practice writing. It might be a full paragraph that is being modeled, but it is best not to get longer than a paragraph at the start. It can be challenging to model writing from a large mentor text without building up those skills.

A whole text doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be a model text. One text may be a model for its use of transitions. Another may be a model for its inclusion of narrative pace or inclusion of textual evidence, and yet another for the way the introduction and conclusion complement and enhance one another. A poem incorporating descriptive language may serve as a mentor for a prose piece incorporating descriptive elements. Mentor texts can, and should, be as varied as the students you teach.

What do I do with a mentor text?

Once you are chosen a mentor text, be it a sentence, a paragraph, or a portion of narrative text, you then need to direct students to look at that piece analytically. Walk students through the following questions and model the thinking for them:

1. What is the tone of this piece?
2. What examples of literary or figurative language appear in this sentence/excerpt?
3. Why would the author have chosen these specific words in order to write this portion of the text? What effect was she/he trying to achieve?
4. How can I emulate this same style of writing in my own descriptive writing?

Students begin with an analysis of the mentor text and then use that analysis as a springboard for their own writing, whether they are revising something they previously wrote or writing something totally new. It helps to provide students prompts that can jumpstart their own writing, and it is best to model this entire process for students at least once before releasing them to try it on their own. Below is a sample of the process you could use as a model for your students.

Sample Narrative Mentor Text Model

Mentor Text:

“There was the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight, and small and silly Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself.”

-from The White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett

Sample Questions Responses for The White Heron:

  1. What is the tone of this piece?
    a. The tone of this piece is direct, observant, and surprisingly supportive as if the narrator is rooting for “small and silly Sylvia” through the excerpt.
  2. What examples of literary or figurative language appear in this sentence/excerpt?
    a. The opening line has an example of personification: “The huge tree asleep”.
  3. Why would the author have chosen these specific words in order to write this portion of the text? What effect was she/he trying to achieve?
    a. By personifying nature saying, “the huge tree asleep”, it emphasizes how unphased nature is by the “small and silly” girl. It regards her with no more attention than a squirrel or a raccoon scrambling up its trunk, showing how insignificant this one human is in relation to its long life.
  4. How can I emulate this same style of writing in my own descriptive writing?
    a. I could write about an ocean that sleeps, unaware, as a swimmer swims through it trying to reach some important goal.

The Final Step: Ask Students to Model the Writing:

Prompt: Try modeling your own writing based on the mentor text. Mirror the tone using description and strategic word choice. Remember to make the point of view match the model.

Sample: The ocean slept, waves lazily shuffling the diamond reflections on its surface but not disturbing them, as Cleo paddled further out, fear pushed aside as she kept her aim on the small island, electricity fueling her small body as she pushed her hands through the water like paddles, propelling herself closer towards her goal.


Heather GarciaHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP® English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.