How to Teach Narrative Writing Using Quality Mentor Texts

Most elementary writing teachers have spent their fair share of time teaching narrative writing, helping students to take the memories and stories in their heads and turn them into personal narratives on paper.  One of the most daunting tasks of being a writing teacher is convincing students that they can actually improve their first draft through the revising process.  Using quality mentor texts is the key to opening students' eyes to the power of revision!

Teaching Narrative Writing with Mentor Texts

I have found that reading as a writer and using mentor texts helps students understand the techniques that will have a huge impact on their writing.  One way to use mentor texts with your students is by sharing your own pieces of writing with the class.  This can be very powerful, especially when you compose right in front of them.  I would always cheat a bit and write it in advance, but my students were none the wiser. 

Sometimes, I prefer to use a mentor text from a professional author.  Writing is hard work, and I don't always have time to create a piece of writing of my own.  Besides, professional authors are professionals at writing!  They are using masterful techniques that draw us into their stories as readers.  When we read those same texts with the mind of a fellow writer, we can begin to learn how to use those techniques in our own writing!

Each year in fifth grade, we do a unit on personal narrative writing.  A personal narrative is telling the story of something that happened in your life, and for the most part, students are familiar with this type of writing.  Nonetheless, we review what a personal narrative is, generate lists of story ideas, spend time having discussions with each other about some of our ideas, and then hunker down and just start writing.  We may spend a whole week of writing workshop where we build up our stamina for writing with time at the end for authors to share a piece they have written.

While this is happening in writing workshop, I have my students spend some of their reading workshop time simply reading books by Patricia Polacco.  I round up as many books as I can from my personal collection, the school library, and the community library.  I choose Patricia Polacco because she is known for her craft of telling the rich stories of her life.  Most students have been exposed to Patricia Polacco's books by the time they enter fifth grade, and many are already hooked by her style of writing and engaging illustrations.

After my students have spent time drafting a few personal narratives and they have had time to read and enjoy several of Patricia Polacco's books, I teach my students how to "read like a writer" and begin incorporating the powerful techniques of professional authors into their own writing.  I choose a story that I know has many of the strategies that I would like to see my students use in their own writing.  First, I read the story aloud to the class just for the enjoyment of the text.  After we read it, we discuss what we liked about the story, and I explain to the students that many of the techniques the author used are things we can try in our own writing.

The Patricia Polacco book that I like to use is Mrs. Mack.  It is a lengthy read, but it is so rich and full of great examples that will make an impact on your students as writers.  For the next couple of weeks, I structure my writing workshop with mini lessons using Mrs. Mack as our mentor text.   

First, I introduce a particular technique to the students that we will be focusing on such as including figurative language.  Then, we go into the text of Mrs. Mack and look at examples of how she used figurative language to enrich her story.  Students are then given the task of going back through one of their rough drafts and finding places where they can incorporate some figurative language.   

While the students are working, I wander around the room talking to students about their writing.  I'm always on the lookout for one or more students who have successfully used the technique we are working on that day, and I ask if they would be willing to share an excerpt of their story at the end of class.  First, I have them read the section as it was written originally, and then I have them read the new and improved version.  Then we discuss as a class how the technique improved their story.

Using just Mrs. Mack, I am able to introduce my students to writing an interesting lead, using transitional phrases, paragraphing, developing your story with your thinking, using precise details, including figurative language, developing the turning point, using varied sentences, and writing a satisfying ending.  So, if you are looking for a way to amp up your students' personal narratives, take a look at your favorite picture books to see if they might work as mentor texts for your writing workshop.  Short on time?  Check out my Writing Powerful Personal Narratives - Patricia Polacco Mini Unit that includes lesson plans and a student packet that guides your class through each writing technique.  

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