September 26, 2013

Using Mentor Sentences to Improve Grammar and Mechanics


During the last professional development session that I did with the middle school teachers language arts teachers, we dove head first into a book titled, Mechanically Inclined, by Jeff Anderson.  One word: AMAZING.  For a language arts teacher who has struggled her entire career with not knowing how to incorporate grammar and mechanics into instruction, this book knocked it out of the park for me.  I have always known that grammar and mechanics instruction is essential, and that it should be taught in a way that students can apply to their own writing versus the "drill and kill" worksheet and direct instruction method.  What I have not encountered is if you're not using worksheets and direct instruction, what DOES solid grammar and mechanics instruction look like?  This book, for me, finally put tangible ideas in my head that I knew I could transfer into my 8th grade classroom.

I have chosen to start the year off with my 8th grade students by doing an Interactive Read Aloud titled, Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper.  For those of you who read my blog, you know that I am slightly obsessed with this story.  I have gotten into the practice of reading a chapter per day out loud with my students.  During this time, I model my thinking around the text, ask them to turn and talk with a partner about key issues in the story, discuss important terminology such as symbols and theme as a whole class, and am developing a common text that we can refer to as a whole class during Reading and Writing Workshop minilessons.  Interactive Read Alouds hold many purposes.  I can see some asking the question: How could you possibly take the time to read aloud to your 8th grade students?  I would argue: How can you NOT take the time to read aloud to your students?  By taking ten minutes of class per day to read a chapter out loud to my students, I am laying the groundwork for talking about text throughout the entire year and having a common text to refer to in minilessons in Reading Workshop, I am establishing a mentor text and author to be able to refer to in Writing Workshop, and I now have a drawing board for mentor sentences in Word Study.  For today, I'm going to discuss how I've incorporated our first Interactive Read Aloud into Word Study, but I had to throw in the sheer importance of Interactive Read Aloud to the entire literacy framework while I was at it :).

Each day when my students enter my classroom, there is a dry erase board posted in the hallway with the materials needed for the day's class and what they should begin doing as they enter the classroom.  Most days the board reads, "Begin Interactive Edit in Word Study notebook."  Students know that as they walk in, they should take their language arts materials for the day from their mailboxes, open their Word Study notebook, and begin copying down the day's mentor sentence into their Word Study notebook.

Each day, I select a mentor sentence from our IRA, Out of My Mind, from the chapter that we will be reading in class for that day.  Jeff Anderson also mentions using mentor sentences from the writing of students in your class, which I can't wait to try out as well.  After they copy down the sentence exactly as it appears on the Smartboard, I ask them to consider the questions: "What do you notice about this sentence?" and "What sticks with you about this sentence?"  Many students as they're copying down the sentence will also blurt out a prediction about what they think will happen in today's chapter based off of the sentence.  Guess what?  For once I don't mind the blurting.  It's also so cute when I'm reading the chapter out loud to them, and I get to the mentor sentence from the day, and several of them begin pointing at me and nodding their heads to indicate, "That was our sentence for today!"  It's awesome.  I found it very humorous that the first few times I did this with students this year they would raise their hands with confused looks on their faces and try to suggest to add in a comma, capitalize something, change the spelling of a word, etc.  They could not grasp the concept that there was NOTHING wrong with the sentence on the Smartboard.  In fact, the sentence came directly from our IRA, a published book.

Students had it so engrained in them since an early age with the dreaded "DOL" type of editing activities that we've used in the past to teach grammar and mechanics to always look for what was "wrong" with a sentence.  Many of the sentences in DOL contain so many errors that it makes the process such an unrealistic experience to students, and they become numb.  They see DOL as a drill, and many students become great at doing DOL.  However, I would argue that many students who are great at DOL and always fixing the same predictable errors in a sentence do not transfer that skill into their own writing. We have taken the time in DOL to always look for what is wrong in sentences, but we've never taken the time to step back and pick out rich mentor sentences to notice what is right.  We never explored the possibilities of, "What conventions does this author use to make this sentence work?"  In my mind, this question will encourage students to engrain the conventions of proper mechanics and grammar into their brains.  We would never ask students to learn how to spell words they do not know how to spell by staring at the words spelled incorrectly and having them write down the words incorrectly, that's just silly.  If we stare at something long enough incorrectly, there's a chance that our brain may take that as the truth whether we like it or not.

So what happens once students have copied down the mentor sentence from our IRA and written down underneath the sentence what they notice/what sticks with them about the sentence?  At this point, I usually ask students to turn and talk with a neighbor about the things they have noticed about the sentence.  This gives everyone a chance to voice their opinion and more likely to share their opinion when we join together as a whole class to discuss.  So after the turn and talk, we move into a whole-class discussion about what was noticed.  Today, I actually had two students disagree (in a respectful way) during the turn and talk about why commas were placed in today's mentor sentence, and they both were able to state their opinion as to why they thought the commas were there.  After both had stated their opinion, other members of the class were able to join in, and we came to a consensus as a group.  When I have my students engaging in conversation surrounding the purpose of commas in a sentence with passion in their voices, I can't help but let my inner dorky English teacher jump up and down with excitement (on the inside only of course).

As we're having the whole-class discussion, I take notes on the Smartboard of items that the students notice about the sentence, and students are expected to write down anything about the sentence that a classmate noticed that they do not have written down.  Below I have a few examples of screen shots from after we discussed the mentor sentence of what the Smartboard looked like.





All of a sudden, I discovered that my students were learning about coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS), comma principles, apostrophes, adjectives, capitalization rules, punctuation, types of sentences, etc.  Questions such as, "What would happen if we removed this comma?" and "What if the author would have done ____ instead?" started to come out.  As the teacher, I simply went with it and threw it back to the students to ask, "Let's try it!  What do you think?" and "How would that change the sentence?"  This wasn't coming from me giving a lecture followed by a canned worksheet on these concepts.  This was coming from my students examining and noticing from mentor sentences in our Interactive Read Aloud on a daily basis.  Students are learning from each other.  I am still teaching and naming some things that they're noticing for them to help develop that common language surrounding grammar and mechanics, but it is their noticing of the mentor sentences that is driving what we're learning.  

To take this to the next step, once we establish certain rules governing the way writing works from the mentor sentences, I create anchor charts throughout the room to display our learning, along with the mentor sentences that we used as a reminder.  As you can see by the anchor chart on dashes, students are welcome to add mentor sentences from their independent reading or writing by the anchor charts at any time.  It is also essential during minilessons to reference anchor charts so that students learn to use them as a resource throughout the literacy block.





Probably my favorite piece that I incorporated from Jeff Anderson's book, Mechanically Inclined, is the idea of an "Editor's Checklist" that I continually add to as more concepts come up during Interactive Edits.  I stress that as writers, we are constantly experimenting with grammar and conventions in our writing.  I like the word experimenting because it implies that students are trying to use the grammar and mechanics that we discuss, it also implies that students are taking chances as writers (which could mean that there will be mistakes), but I'd rather have my student take risks as writers than write boring sentences with perfect conventions.  With the Editor's Checklist, I've also done what Jeff Anderson refers to as an "Express Edit" where after students have written in their Writer's Notebooks for the day, I will select one-two items on our Editor's Checklist and ask them to examine their entry for the day by editing only for those select one to two items.  Our Editor's Checklist up to this point of the school year is pictured below.  There is space to keep adding to it as the year goes on!



Now that we have the routine down, this takes us 5-7 minutes at the beginning of class each day.  I have consistently had students do this for the past three weeks, and I can honestly say that this is the only time in my Language Arts teaching where I have had students taking on these concepts as writers. Students are not only more aware of their grammar and mechanics, but they're also trying out new things that we talk about that writers do.  For instance, I had several students use dashes to add additional information, and use compound and complex sentences over choppy, simple sentences.  In the past, it seems like I defaulted to ignoring grammar and mechanics or teaching random "sit and get" lessons that I felt obligated to throw in and guilty for teaching because I knew the way I was teaching didn't align with my beliefs about teaching.  What I didn't know was how I could change it to make it better.  Until now...

35 comments :

  1. I have GOT to get that book! I started mentor sentences with my fourth graders this year (thanks to Jivey!), and they are loving it. One of my "low kids" even pointed out a compound sentence and missed comma to the social studies teacher last week :-). She was astounded.
    Thanks for the further details. I'm looking for Jeff Anderson's book now.
    Vicky
    phillips_v@nrschools.org

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    1. I definitely highly recommend Out of My Mind...great book. My students are really connecting to it, and it's really helping lay the groundwork for the rest of our year together in Reading Workshop. That is awesome that you have your students helping other teachers out, haha! :) The Mechanically Inclined book is great as well. Let me know what you think of it!

      Kasey

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  2. Good stuff! Thanks for sharing! I have been trying to incorporate grammar into our reading notebooks, but this gives me an idea on how to make it better.

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    1. This is my favorite way to date of incorporating it in! Let me know how it goes! Hope your year is off to a great start!

      Kasey

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  3. This is AWESOME! THanks for sharing :-) I will start using this in my classroom.

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    1. You're welcome, Jamie! It excites me to hear that others are going to try this out in their classrooms. If that means less grammar worksheets and more of this...it makes me happy!

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  4. Thanks for sharing! Like you, I have also struggled with how to incorporate meaningful grammar lessons into my instruction. I have read lots of research that suggests that grammar in isolation doesn't work, so I have always been apprehensive to do DOL like my colleagues do. I will definitely check out this book! :)

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    1. I agree! You always hear about how grammar in isolation doesn't work, yet it seems that's what so many default back to. Highly recommend the book Mechanically Inclined! It's a great book to read, and his writing style is quite enjoyable, too!

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  5. I've been so busy - Not even having time to read blogs, let alone write them, but I'm so glad I found a few minutes to catch up with this.

    I want both books you're using - the Draper book and Mechanically Inclined. Your lessons and conversations with 8th graders make me miss having my own classroom so much! I'm kind of thinking now if I could do this with my staff as a Do Now to show them this process....?

    The conversations/debating/questioning your kids are having are amazing and totally aligned to the common core. Love it!

    Thanks for sharing with us!

    Michelle

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    1. Hey Michelle,

      I know the feeling of missing having your own classroom. It is one of the hardest parts about being a literacy coach. Although it is a lot more time this year dedicated to my classroom, I'm so glad that I transitioned back into having my own section this year.

      I am amazed at the stuff coming out of my students' mouths! They're taking on more and more than I ever saw with anything else I've tried in the past.

      You'll have to let me know what you think of the books when you order them! Both are fabulous. Keep up the hard work that you're putting in! It will all be worth it! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog! I always enjoy hearing from you!

      Kasey

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  6. Thanks for posting this! I will be finding that book. I know that the way I am teaching grammar and mechanics is not the best way. Every time I try something different the kids seem totally lost, so I go back to the old way. This way makes sense though. Also, I love Out of My Mind. I'm reading it with my 7th graders right now. I actually found your blog when I did a Google search for Out of My Mind lesson ideas.

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    1. Hi Kim,

      I'm so glad that you found my blog, and I think it's pretty cool that my blog came up when you googled that :). Keep trying out new ways to teach students grammar. Sometimes they struggle at first if something isn't as concrete because they have to do more thinking than they're used to with "drills." Keep pushing them through that!

      Kasey

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  7. Hi Kasey,

    I'm trying to start using some Grammar Workshop methods in my own 6th Grade English classroom, and I found this post incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing those SMART Board slides!

    I'm wondering, though, how much you had already taught your students about grammar before you let them try analyzing the use of punctuation in the model sentences. Had you already explained independent and dependent clauses using more traditional methods, or did you ask them out of the blue what they thought a comma was doing in the middle of a mentor sentence and work from there?

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    1. Teaching 8th grade, students do come to me with varying amounts of background knowledge from student to student. I do not use traditional methods to teach grammar as far as introducing a specific concept in isolation and then having students do a worksheet or something equivalent to a worksheet around that concept. What I will do, however, is pick mentor sentences that revolve around the same concept for an entire week. For example, if I wanted students to pick up the dependent clause, independent clause comma rule, I would pick sentences that all shared that common element each day to build that knowledge and recognition for my students throughout the week. Other ways to extend concepts past the interactive edits are by having students notice the author's use of this concept in their reading during Reading Workshop or to have them try out a concept you're focusing on for the week in their own writing during Writing Workshop. I've found the more I can connect grammar teachings to authentic reading and writing experiences, the more they stick. Also, naming concepts we've "discovered" through interactive edits and putting them on anchor charts for students to refer back to throughout the year has also proved to be extremely helpful.

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  8. I am finally catching up on my blog reading. This is a great perspective on the intent of the Common Core. I have just purchased Anderson's book on Amazon. Mentor texts are an excellent teaching method, and you've inspired me to dig deeper and dive in. Thank you.

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    1. It's so nice to catch up on things like reading during the summer! I'm enjoying the time to catch up with blog comments :). You will love the book. I'm so happy to hear this post has encouraged you to dig deeper into these concepts. Enjoy!

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  9. So excited to find your blog. I never heard of mentor sentences until today (through Pinterest) but it was based for ELE so I googled it for middle school and got you. I teach language arts for 6th, 7th, and 8th (2 classes of each). Another teacher does literature. I have writing, grammar, vocabulary. It's a challenge divided this way. Some things I am creative and cutting-edge on. Others, I find myself reverting back to grammar worksheets because sadly my kids are coming to me not truly knowing their parts of speech. Neither do they know sentence types or figurative language.

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    1. I'm so glad you found my blog too, Julianne! Mentor sentences are so fun to do with students, and it's amazing what they retain when teaching it this way!

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  10. I read this book to my students as well. It's fantastic! I wondered if you might share the sentences you chose from the chapters?

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    1. It is definitely an awesome book! I don't have a list of the sentences I used, I just incorporated them into my daily Smartboards.

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  11. Another great post Kasey. You've given me the push to finally try mentor sentences though I need to work out where to begin.
    How long do you envision it taking to get through the book? I can see the chapters are extremely variable in length...

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    1. Hi Abena! Getting through an interactive read aloud reading on average 10-15 minutes per day usually takes me anywhere from one to two months depending on the length of the IRA chosen. Good luck with mentor sentences! :)

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  12. Hello,
    I'm new to this. Does IC and DC stand for Independent Clause and Dependent Clause?

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  13. I purchased Mechanically Inclined and THIS is what I will be working towards throughout the school-year this year. I am planning on doing it once a week for now. Is there a method to your madness about the TYPES of mentor sentences you pick?

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    1. Yes! I use mentor sentences from the interactive read aloud I am currently reading with students. Our read aloud time comes directly after our word study. I pick a sentence that will come up in our reading for that day. Students love to hear the sentence that we just analyzed and "sentence stalked." I am devouring Mechanically Inclined this year. It's just one of those books that you can pull out again and again and take a new tip from each time. I love it. Thanks so much for your comment, and I hope this is going well for you and your students!

      Kasey

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  14. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog. You have so many useful and resourceful practices. Today I created a "Wall of Happiness" with my 7th graders and I put your blog on there as another thing that makes me happy. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. This is so, so sweet! It means the world be me that my blog is useful to you. Thanks for including me on your wall of happiness!

      Kasey

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  15. Hi Kasey! Your blog and items on TPT have helped me SO much! This will be my second year teaching middle school language arts and reading, and using mentor texts and sentences are one of the main strategies that I will be implementing. I've already acquired Mechanically Inclined and Out Of My Mind (as an IRA with my 7th graders) and I'm beyond excited to get started! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experiences and for being such an inspiration to teachers!

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    1. You definitely started in two of my favorite places, Cindy! Mechanically Inclined completely transformed the way I saw teaching grammar to students. It just makes sense! I am reading Out of My Mind to my 8th grade language arts class right now, and it is such an impactful, beautifully-written read aloud. I just love it! Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading my blog. It truly makes me so happy to know that my blog and TpT resources are helping middle school teachers.

      Kasey

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  16. Thank you, Kasey, for encouraging the use of mentor sentences with older kids. It just makes so much sense. I love that you read aloud every day. It's a way to model so many great things (fluent reading, discussion, thinking while reading, mentor text, etc.), not to mention that the kids love it. I'd love to develop a list of short stories, novels, and picture books for older kids. Thanks again for your post.

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    1. Hi Marcy,

      Thanks so much for reading my post and for commenting. I couldn't agree more that mentor sentences and interactive read aloud work great for middle school students, too! I don't know what I'd do without either literacy practice in my daily teaching. Having a mentor text list is a great idea!

      Kasey

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  17. I have recently moved to middle school from teaching elementary for 18 years. I did mentor sentences with my 5th graders using picture books. I loved the idea, and how much my students learned! I have wanted to bring this practice to my 6th grade ELA class, but was unsure how to incorporate it until I came across your blog. Do you have your mentor sentences for Out of My Mind in your TPT store?

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    1. I'm so glad you came across this blog post. Mentor sentences definitely work for older students, too! I love using the read aloud in combination with mentor sentences. It just makes for a great tie-in. I don't have any mentor sentences products for specific novels in my TpT store at this time. Don't hesitate though to look through the book and pull out sentences that stand out to you that you think would be worthy of your students digging deeper into!

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  18. Hi Kasey!
    How do you decide which grammar concepts you're teaching which week? And do you think it is okay to start class with the IRA, then move into this word study? When do you incorporate your reading mini-lesson? I do IRA, reading lesson, reading time, then grammar. ?

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