I’ve taught high school English for 12 years now, and every year I’ve had the same problem. I have a bunch of reading standards that I need to teach, so I pick a novel that I think students will enjoy best, and then we spend several weeks working through the novel. Every year, the same issues pop up. One, it takes forever. The majority of the class time is spent with students reading, and there is little time to do anything else. Two, I end up not doing much instruction on reading skills because, again, they’re reading. Three, students lose interest pretty quickly most of the time. (I remember the first year I tried to teach In the Time of the Butterflies all the way through and SIX WEEKS into it, even my students who were enjoying it were ready to mutiny.)
So this past year, I tried something different. I switched over to short mentor texts for reading instruction. Instead of trying to cover various standards over the course of a novel, I focus on finding short passages that focus on one or two specific standards. It changed my world, and I doubt I will go back to whole-class full-novel instruction again. Here are five reasons I’ve found it to be better:
1. Quality over Quantity
Mentor text allow me better quality lessons rather than trying to cover an entire novel. I’ve worked on selecting short scenes or articles, no more than a few pages long for students to read. By doing this, my students don’t take nearly as long in reading than they normally would. I can give them a three-page text, and they can get it read in 5-10 minutes. I’ll give them one or two things to look for: underline everywhere a character is described and developed or take note of how each instance of dialogue is progressing the story.
By slowing down and focusing the instruction, I’m able to get a better grasp of students’ understanding. This doesn’t have to be individual either. They can work in pairs and groups to discover what’s going on in the text while I walk around and have conversations with them.
2. Better Focus
With mentor texts, students seem better focused on the reading instruction. I can bank on teenagers’ attention span to be roughly 10-15 minutes at a time. Most of us understand this, but from my observations, this carries over from day to day in a way. If we’re reading an entire novel, and my students read for 15 minutes and don’t get interested, that lack of interest carries over into the next day. I may only get 10 minutes the next day, and so on until they’ve just given up completely. It happens a lot, even with my best students.
By breaking this up and using a lot of different texts, I’m inserting variety into what we read. If a student doesn’t particularly enjoy a passage on Monday, they know that they’ll be reading something different on Tuesday. This keeps them on their toes and helps increase the engagement.
3. Active Reading
Mentor texts allow me to utilize more active reading strategies with students. Because I’m giving them copies of a text in some way, I can have them annotate, mark, highlight, whatever. I give them something active to do and look for while they’re reading to keep it more engaging. It’s better than just reading for 20 minutes straight. Combine that with something like a Think-Pair-Share or contributing to a Padlet or Pear Deck discussion, and I’ve got them thinking and working together without trying to talk to the whole class all at once (which has hardly ever worked for me).
4. Critical Thinking and Discovery
I’ve tried to tailor my lessons so that my students are figuring out the standards and skills rather than me just talking to them. For example, instead of just giving them a list of seven things that dialogue can do in a story, I get them to read the dialogue and tell me what the dialogue is doing. I have them figure out what dialogue can do first. Then, I clear up any confusion or anything they may have missed. Putting the learning on them a more active role in their learning, It helps them develop and sharpen those critical thinking skills we want them to have, and they are more invested in their learning.
5. Good Readers, Good Writers
Another side effect to this method is the effect it has on student writing skills. Students are only going to become good writers if they read good writing. I usually try to get them to look at interesting structure or stylistic techniques that stand out to them. I might tell them to underline or highlight two places that they find interesting techniques. I’ll have them look at what’s actually happening in the writing and then mimic it themselves. It may be a structural thing or a vocabulary thing, or just an interesting use of repetition or stylistic fragments. Whatever it is, I try to get them to see what’s happening there and then imitate in their own writing. I saw some really good results this past year with that.
But what about novels?
I know what the natural follow-up to this is. If we don’t have them reading novels, then when are they going to read books? Students should not graduate high school without having read through a novel.
I agree. But remember, I said that I use mentor texts to teach the reading skill and standards. I use novels for a completely different purpose.
I took a page from 180 Days (I took several pages, actually) and have 10 minutes of independent reading at the beginning of each class period. It’s mostly student choice, with a combination of independent choice, book club groups, and 2 class novels for the year. The main purpose of this is simple: reading habits.
I use the independent reading time to try and get students into good reading habits. That’s the primary concern, and it’s worked well so far. I had several students this year who were really proud of the fact that they had actually read through a whole novel for the first time in their schooling career. Or students who were proud that they had finally found a genre of literature that they enjoyed. It’s helped them become a more lifelong readers.
It doesn’t just stop there though. I do have them work on reading skills during the independent times as well, just more informally. While they’re reading, I’ll go around the room and conference with them about their books. I’ll ask them how they’re enjoying it and what’s going on, but I also ask them about literary stuff, too. If they’re beginning the novel, I’ll ask about characters and setting and what they’re expecting to happen. If they’re at the end of the book, I may ask them about themes and symbols, character development and so on. It’s more informal and conversational, but I’m still getting them to think about what they’re reading.If they run into problems, we work on problem-solving skills in reading. In book clubs, they discuss the book with each other, which always helps them gain a better understanding of the book.
Overall, this whole approach has worked out extremely well for me. My students have been much more engaged with what they’re reading, and they’ve gained a lot more in their reading abilities. I don’t know that I could go back to what I used to do.
Interesting in getting started with mentor texts? Check out the Moving Writers site. They have a Google Drive you can join that houses a lot of mentor texts.
Already using mentor texts? What are some of your go-to texts for class? Share the wealth!