Improve Student Writing with Literature

Have you tried using mentor sentences with your students? They improve student writing, students do most of the work, and the activities are meaningful!

Using mentor sentences from literature has improved student writing!

A goal of any ELA teacher is to improve student writing. There is no magic answer, no one answer. My repertoire extends as I teach longer past simple worksheets or basic corrections. Right now my classes and I are working on power nouns and verbs with mentor sentences. Using words from literature is our springboard for writing exercises.

When writing, I often read the same “no-no” words:

stuff, things, places
go, went, left, put
These words are easy for students to think and write, but students use them too much. I’ve written this on the board for students, and even had them create a list of weak or “no-no” words.
The most effective tool I’ve found for improving student writing is to use mentor sentences from literature. We are currently working on that.
I decided to work on different approaches with my classes. Instead of telling students what not to use, I wanted them to create meaningful notes for themselves. Here are a few ways to make connections from strong literature with mentor sentences to student writing.
Three ways to use mentor sentences to improve student writing.
1. Make power nouns and verbs posters.
I asked students to search for words that provided them with vivid images. I let them choose the short stories that we had already read. Students remembered their favorite scenes, the most memorable parts. (I emphasized with students that if they remembered certain sections, it was because of the powerful writing.)
Then, we made small posters of strong words:
This class did “top ten” lists of verbs and nouns. We hung them, and then when we wrote and later edited papers, we consulted them.
2. Find instances of “weak” words.
Students appreciate this activity. While doing the above activity, students notice that authors do indeed use weak words. Instead of ignoring that, we figured out why. Normally if an author uses nondescript words, there is a reason.
The most common reason is that a character is talking. Students can see from the mentor sentences that the dialogue reflects the character’s personality.
3. Copy sentence patterns.
I’m unsure if the students’ willingness with the project was because of a more positive approach, or if they enjoyed pulling of sentences from literature (here, The Hunger Games). We had success imitating sentence patterns from our mentor sentences!
In groups, students pulled one sentence from the novel. Then they identified the pattern: subject, verb, direct object, prepositional phrase. Then they wrote a sentence using the same pattern.
How do you improve student writing with mentor sentences from literature?
If you are looking for pre-designed mentor sentences to use with student writing, I have those for To Kill A Mockingbird.

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