Using Children’s Books as Mentor Texts

One of the best professional decisions I have made was applying to become a fellow with the National Writing Project. Because of my interaction with colleagues across the spectrum from K-12, my teaching has expanded and I see possibility everywhere. One of my favorite techniques for assessing students both for formative and summative purposes that has come out of these connections has been through the use of children’s books. Here are three of my favorites:

ABC Books

ABC books can be used for either summative or formative assessment. It’s a great way to get students to tell you what they know about a topic without having to you having to read through stacks of long reports/papers. The premise is simple: have students assign a fact/idea/keyword to each letter of the alphabet. (I allow my students to cheat when it comes to the “hard” letters—Q,U,X,Y, and Z— and just find a word that contains the letter.) This can be used with any grade or ability level. The only thing that would change is the style of ABC book you use as a mentor text.

My favorite way to use this is as a vehicle for research into a time period about which they aren’t readily familiar. In the past, I have used it to look into Elizabethan England, but, for the past couple of weeks, my students have been immersed in 1920s America in preparation for our study of The Great Gatsby. Both my honors and college prep juniors have been researching everything from fashion to crime. At the end of the project, we have story time as a class and share our findings with the others (milk and cookies are a great bonus).

At the start of the project, I present a mini-lesson on text immersion. Students get into small groups and look at sample ABC books. While I bring in a variety, I make sure that all students have at least two copies put out by Sleeping Bear Press. (I am a fan of these because each letter has a couplet and a more detailed description—about two paragraphs—of the topic.) Because I am a high school teacher, I want students’ ABC books to be more involved than the one word/sentence fact. Students look at several books and write down what they notice about each. After viewing two or three books, students come together as a class to define what makes a “good” ABC book. They notice pictures and representations of the upper and lower case letters. They notice the words and length of descriptions. Invariably, I push them to look at tone and ages of the audiences based on the type of writing. After that, we make a rubric for their own books, which matches the qualities they observed in the models. The only additions I make are for parenthetical citations and works cited. (I am, after all, looking at their research.)

Students, then, work in small groups to research their time period and area of interest. I have each group choose an editor, who is responsible for fewer letters than the group members. The editor is responsible for looking at mechanics, formatting, design, etc. The group is accountable to the editor’s due dates and expectations. The editors are also the ones who communicate with me about any questions that their group may have. (It’s easier to work with one point person, who has all of the information that their group needs than to answer the same question 25 times.

This is also valuable because I force students to work with databases and, for this particular time period, the Library of Congress. So, I am able to discuss primary and secondary sources and reliable research. In addition, I am not left grading 30 individual research papers about narrow topics and instead get a closer look at the interests of the students.

I have also used this as a formative assessment to review major characters and works that we’ve done in AP class or literary devices that I’d like them to be able to identify. (R is for Rhyme: A Poetry Alphabet is such a great tool for this.)


Previously by Allan Ahlberg is a delightfully fun book that strings a series of fairy tales/nursery rhymes together and reframes the action as a result of something that came before. For instance, at the beginning of the book, Goldilocks arrives home after having been running through the woods. Previously, she had been climbing out of a window to get away from some bears. Previously….

The form is a fun shift in perspective, and it is great as a formative assessment in checking student understanding. I read the short book to them so they understand the structure of the story and then I will put the following sentence on the board: Nick finds himself “lying half asleep in the cold lower level of he Pennsylvania Station” (Fitzgerald 37). Previously…

Students are, then, be expected to work backward from the end of chapter two and recount all of the events that took place in the chapter.

I love this because it is 1.) interesting to see what stuck in their heads, 2.) a great jumping point into a discussion about the reading and what they see as important, and 3.) asks them to reframe their understanding of events and causal relationships. Here’s a student example:

Nick finds himself “lying half asleep in the cold lower level of he Pennsylvania Station” (Fitzgerald 37).

Previously, something weird happened between him and the guy from party.

Previously, Tom slapped Myrtle and broke her nose.

Previously, Myrtle had been chanting Daisy’s name.

Previously, everyone had been drinking and doing really weird things. (Did Myrtle and Tom have sex?)

Previously, Nick had been brought into Tom and Myrtle’s love nest.

Previously, Tom bought Myrtle a dog.

Previously, Tom and Nick had been in one section of the train but Myrtle had to sit in another.

Previously, Tom introduced Nick to Myrtle.

Previously, Tom forced Nick off the train and into George Wilson’s garage.

Previously, the train Tom and Nick were one stopped in the Valley of Ashes.

Previously, Tom and Nick had been headed to New York, away from the Eggs.

The Important Book

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown is a great outlining/paraphrasing tool. It takes basic concepts, like grass and snow, and delineates the important features of each. It wraps around and states the most important feature twice.

This is a rather simplistic form, but I really like it when teaching poetry and literary devices. Too often, my students feel that if they’ve read one poem they’ve read them all. They have trouble separating works we’ve read and have trouble thinking about the subtleties of language and how they convey tone or theme. So, I have them keep an “Important Book”, which serves as a summarizer each day.

Students select the primary image of the poem and draw it in the background or the corner of the page. The focus of the pages shift depending on whether we are working on technique or message. Here are a couple of student examples:

The important thing about

“A Psalm of Life” is that all people

have the power to influence others.

We are not alone in this life;

People who have gone before us

Serve as examples.

So, we must persevere.

But, the most important thing about

“A Psalm of Life” is that we all

can be heroes for others.


The important thing about

“A Psalm of Life” is its rhythm.

It uses a staccato rhyme scheme to

sound like a march.

The feel of the march echoes the

metaphor of life as a war.

The alliteration and consonance

Also make the sound pop.

But, the most important thing about

“A Psalm of Life” is that life is a battle

we can we and in which we can lead others.


*photo by Jeremy Brooks, Creative Commons