Conversations and Teaching Points with Mentor Texts

Slice of Life2I am participating in #SOL19. Thanks to the twowritignteachers blog team for hosting this wonderful event!

When Diane Dougherty and I wrote Grammar Matters, a Stenhouse publication, we hoped teachers would find time to have writerly conversations with their students throughout the year to serve as reflection on daily practice and to get a sense of what Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6students notice and can talk about when it comes to grammar and conventions. These conversations also evolve into discussions about other qualities of writing, particularly matters of style including word choice, sentence fluency, and voice. Here are some passages to get you started.

Place  a sentence or paragraph on the document imager and ask students what they notice. What conversations could your students have? It is important to find out what they can talk about and what they avoid talking about. These conversations are great pieces of formative assessment and can guide your instruction, too. Here are some samples:

from Yolen, Jane. Elsie’s Bird. 2010. NY: Philomel Books.  Grades 4 -6.

Best of all, Elsie took a birdcage with her new canary,

Timmy Tune,  yellow as the sun over Boston Harbor.

They sang to one another, bird and girl, along the gathering miles.

Will students notice the proper nouns, the simile, wel-placed adjectives, a compound noun, the prepositional phrases, the appositive phrases, the alliteration in the canary’s name?

from Murphy, Frank. George Washington and the General’s Dog. 2002. NY: New York. Random House Publishers, p.27   Grade 2 – 4

  In the fall of 1777, George’s troops went to  Pennsylvania.      

They were fighting the  English  troops.  Guns fired!    RAT-A-TAT-TAT!  

Cannons roared.   BOOM! BANG!     Smoke filled the air.

Here is a great passage to notice onomatopoeia, verb tense, proper nouns, effective noun-verb sentences, the use of the exclamation mark, an introductory phrase, antecedent and pronoun, print variation, N-V-N sentence pattern (with direct object), power of the verbs, scarcity of adjectives.

Here is an example from Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee. HMH Books for Young Reader, 2006.  Grades K-3

S-l-o-w-l-y this train is pulled up by a chain.

Clickity, clackity, Clickity, clackity.

Up. Up. Up.

And then…

This is a great passage to study the effect of print variation and the use of onomatopoeia to create and build anticipation.  These are all craft moves that even our youngest students can talk about and imitate in their own writing.


from Nelson, Robin. 2013. From Sheep to Sweater. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, Inc. p.6    (Grades 1 – 3)

In the spring, the sheep’s coats are clipped. This is

called shearing.  A person shears each sheep’s wool off in one

big piece called a fleece.  The sheep will grow another coat

over the summer to keep it warm in the winter.

Make a list of the things you think your students will notice and talk about: prepositional phrases, the use of the apostrophe to show singular and plural possessive, the unusual plural form for a noun, the use of boldface print, the verb tenses, antecedent and pronoun use, introductory phrase, adjective use, specificity of nouns and verbs.

Grammar conversations can serve as reflection. What might your student-writers discuss in conversations about grammar?

  • Surprises or departures from what they expect or from the rules as far as they know them
  • Examples of writing that are perfect models of a rule
  • The grammar of the genre
  • How one writer seems to shape grammar to his purposes or plays a lot with conventional grammar
  • How one writer follows the rules consistently and others do not
  • How grammar helps to create a common understanding for us all
  • How some rules seem silly until you get used to hearing them used correctly
  • Favorite rules or pet peeves and why
  • How authors make use of the exclamation point
  • Why some authors choose to use parentheses and others feel they should never be used
  • How ea r-training makes mistakes or deliberate departures stand out and seem harsh to the ear
  • What seems difficult or hard to understand and why
  • Errors or omissions in real-world print and media of all kinds
  • What we need to study more because we are still struggling
  • How some grammar is changing – what is acceptable in talk, and what is becoming acceptable in writing

YOUR TURN: Some Questions for Your Class