Put Fiction First: The Case for Mentor Texts

With the advent of more rigorous standards and standardized testing, students are being asked to read, comprehend, and analyze more informational text than in previous years.  For a typical American student, reading, comprehending, and analyzing a non-fiction passage may come naturally. Now think about your English Language students- a typical ELL will need multiple exposures to the vocabulary, concepts, and text structure before even beginning to comprehend, much less analyze.

How can we address this need?  My tried and true method is to read a fiction mentor text prior to reading a nonfiction text on the same topic.  Using a fiction mentor text to preview the concepts and academic vocabulary gives ESL students the boost they need to jump into a non-fiction text.  Keep reading to see how I used a mentor text to start a Social Studies unit all about Presidents.

In my mixed 4th/5th grade class, we are currently working on a month-long Presidents unit.  I began the unit by using Comic Guy: Our Crazy Class Election (Roland) as a read-aloud.

Prior to reading, my English Language Learners previewed the academic vocabulary they would need to know: candidate, election, nominate, poll, and a few others.  Students were assigned one word to digest and present.  By having each responsible for just one word, students assumed ownership and were so excited to point out "their" word in the book.

During reading, we stopped often to look up pictures or discuss connections we'd made.  Understanding the story elements in terms of relatable characters and familiar situations makes it much easier for students to make connections to the same problems and solutions in non-fiction terms.  

Here's a great example of why putting fiction first works: in the book, Tank (the antagonist) is said to "strong-arm" the rest of the class into voting for him.  Now, students can easily understand that strong-arm means to have a strong arm.  But what does it really mean in context? To find out, we used google images, and then had a 1 minute arm-wrestling contest in class.  In case you're wondering, I lost.  To a 5th grader.  Using real-life examples to explain a word in context means my students will always remember what it means to strong-arm someone.  When we come upon the word in our non-fiction text, students will have no trouble making the connection from fiction to non.

Once finished with our read-aloud, we read So You Want to be President (St. George).  Having already understood the basics of an election and the responsibilities of a President made it much easier for my non-native students to understand the process of getting elected.  We used this great resource, which walked us through the book day by day.

As an independent assignment, students chose a president they were interested in, and researched more about him.  They used my Presidents reading passages, which were written right at their level and include the vocabulary they need to know.

Finally, having read a fiction mentor text and non-fiction text on the same topic, my students will be ready to write.  For this lesson I chose to have them write an expository text, knowing that our standardized tests are just around the corner.  Students will choose three causes to support from a list I provide and proceed to write an expository text about them.  Not only will they have an understanding of real-life Presidents, they'll also be able to draw from lovable and memorable characters and situations from our mentor text.

Even though we've long finished our mentor text, my students were constantly using academic vocabulary to refer to story elements from Crazy Class Election while we read So You Want to be President. It was amazing to watch them make connections back and forth from our fiction text to our non-fiction text.

If you're interested in learning more about putting fiction first, check out these great posts on using mentor texts..

Do you use mentor texts to introduce non-fiction topics?  What are some of your favorite topics/mentor text combinations? 

1 comment:

  1. I love pairing fiction and nonfiction! I did a lesson a while ago pairing fiction and nonfiction stories on allergies. (trust me it was more interesting than it sounds!) I love the idea of dividing up the vocabulary so students can become experts!

    Eclectic Educating


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