Quick Tip Tuesday: How to select nonfiction mentor texts

July 27th, 2010

We have a great great tip today from Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of the recent Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Lynne and Rose not only share how they select nonfiction mentor texts for their classrooms, but this Quick Tip is also full of excellent mentor texts recommendations.

As you look through the books that occupy your classroom library shelves or the favorites you stash on a special shelf behind your desk as your indispensable read-aloud selections, how many of them would count as nonfiction texts? In the nonfiction count, how many are narrative nonfiction texts, such as biographies and autobiographies, or selections that read more like narratives, such as Bat Loves the Night or One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies? How often are your students writing nonfiction during your writing workshop time? How do you choose a nonfiction mentor text for the young writers in your class?

Kristo and Bamford (2004) define nonfiction as the literature of facts. They describe the main purposes of nonfiction writing: to deliver information, explain, argue, and/or demonstrate. In this book, we are defining nonfiction texts in a much larger sense than as informational trade books and picture books. We are also including other kinds of expository texts, such as cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, brochures, and travel guides, as well as Internet selections.

Portalupi and Fletcher (2001) discuss the importance of familiarizing our students with high-quality nonfiction literature and the subgenres that have developed within the informational picture book selections. Kristo and Bamford (2004) discuss several types of nonfiction books that writers consider depending on purposes, intended audiences, and possible use by those audiences. Authors can present a topic narrowly but in great depth or they can broadly cover a topic. It is important to learn about the different kinds of nonfiction books that are available to our students in order to make sensible  selections for mentor texts.

Many of the nonfiction books we are recommending are life-cycle books, such as One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies and Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost, or survey books, such as All About Frogs by Jim Arnosky. We also have used many how-to books, such as A Kid’s Guide to Washington, D.C. by Diane Clark. Identification books (field guides), such as Jane Kirkland’s Take a Walk Books, and photographic essays, such as Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman, are other types of promising nonfiction books to use as mentor texts. We are also impressed with the wonderful selection of picture book biographies, such as Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography by James Cross Giblin, Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream by Robert Burleigh, and Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson by Amy Ehrlich.

In order to create an energizing sense of freedom within writing workshop and opportunities to write nonfiction across the content areas, we can make use of a variety of types of nonfiction books depending on our purposes for writing. When we allow our students to make decisions about how they will deliver and present information, we provide them with a sense of ownership, so vitally important to the notion of commitment to the process and product of writing nonfiction.

We have found that fiction books can also serve as mentors when writing informational and persuasive texts. Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose and The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow are two examples. Informational picture storybooks, such as All in Just One Cookie by Susan E. Goodman, Everglades by Jean Craighead George, and Penny: The Forgotten Coin by Denise Brennan-Nelson show students yet another way to present information in a friendly and interesting format.

Sometimes we need a fiction book to serve as a catalyst to write about a topic or to imitate the form, voice, or syntax of an author. Consider the fiction books Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, or Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White to find ideas, formats, and even strategies for writing persuasively. Around the World: Who’s Been Here? by Lindsay Barrett George is written in the form of letters from a teacher to her class. Sometimes a fiction story presents facts through a unique voice, as in Pamela Duncan Edward’s Barefoot: Escape on the Underground Railroad, told in the voices of the woodland
and marsh animals.

Sometimes we select mentor texts to provide a clearer picture of our multicultural society and the distinctive voices that can be heard in these books. Consider Voices of the Alamo by Sherry Garland, Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, Teammates by Peter Golenbock, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Howard, and Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki. It is important to find mentor texts that help us recognize and imitate qualities of good writing while at the same time fairly repre-senting the diversity that exists in our country. These texts can build bridges to new understandings about ourselves and others. They provide us with models of high-quality literature to help us learn how to write about diversity issues with dignity, style, and grace.

Duke and Bennett-Armistead (2003) advise teachers to expose their students to a variety of texts, because research suggests a reciprocal relationship between the kinds of texts children become familiar with and the kinds of texts they choose to write and are able to write well. They write, “Children who are not exposed to much informational text are not likely to develop informational writing skills as quickly as children who are” (129). Shelley Harwayne (2008) states that kids need mentor texts that are distinctive. At Celebrate Literacy 2008, a conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project in West Chester, Harwayne suggested that we should help our students borrow techniques that are distinctive—that our young writers need mentor texts that are distinctive. She talked about the importance of reading-writing connections and reminded us that Peterson (2007) described reading and writing as good neighbors with a big hole in the hedge that separated their properties to allow them to pass freely back and forth. Kristo and Bamford (2004) would concur; they elaborate on this same idea: “Teachers work hard from the beginning of the school year to “marinate” their students in good nonfiction. They read aloud highquality nonfiction so that students develop an ear for how good expository writing sounds. Their lessons about reading and writing nonfiction scaffold their learners so they feel accomplished with what they can do all along the way.” (166)

We agree completely! Writers begin to understand that from the moment they begin to think about writing a text (finding a specific topic and engaging in prewriting) until long after the writing of the first draft (talking about it with others, revising it, and reflecting on how the writing has changed and grown in sophistication), they are beginning a journey. This journey will take them to and connect them with subsequent mentor texts and new writings—and, consequently, will lead them to new journeys. We know that students become better writers of nonfiction because they try out new things and take responsible risks (try out or imitate the writing techniques in mentor texts that they are capable of doing with a little practice and guidance). It is only through risk taking and experimentation that our writers will continue to grow and become better writers tomorrow than they are today.

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