Mentor Sentences: Teaching Grammar, Mechanics, and Craft

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noun: a trusted counselor or guide.

For several years, teachers at Trinity School have continued to engage in conversation around an integrated approach to grammar instruction. We probably remember the traditional methods of direct instruction using various worksheets that might involve filling in blanks, finding mistakes, diagramming sentences, circling the correct answer, and then moving along to the next skill. But what we know, and what best practices in teaching grammar have shown us, is that teaching grammar in an integrated approach through reading and writing is meaningful and relevant.

In Patterns of Power, Jeff Anderson writes, “instead of showing Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 9.59.27 AMyoung writers the mistakes to avoid, we argue for illuminating the patterns of language that mold meaning and have powerful effects on readers.” Teaching in context, with engaging mentor sentences that students can connect with, bring meaning and relevance to the work of grammar, mechanics, and craft. This is where teaching through mentor sentences come into play.


Screen Shot 2019-10-15 at 10.02.45 AMIn Mechanically Inclined, Jeff continues to write, “…the light of correctness. If students are going to stare at writing and talk about it, they must see powerful writing models.”




One of the most rewarding things that I get to do in my job is to visit classrooms and work with students and teachers when we shift in pedagogy and program at Trinity School.  A team of first-grade teachers has invited me into their classroom to work on mentor sentences with their students. The students gather on the rug for their weekly read aloud, I’m reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. As soon as I hold up the book, the students automatically begin telling me they know and love this story. Perfect! The ability to re-read over and over again is so powerful with children. I tell them that I’m going to read until the marked page in my book. There’s a light blue post-it note sticking out of the side of the book. I’ve been intentional in selecting the perfect sentence to teach with.  As I read about the tiny egg on the leaf and the really hungry caterpillar, we begin the days of the week and all of the food that the caterpillar eats.

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He started to look for some food.
On Monday he ate through one apple. But he was still hungry.
On Tuesday he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry. 


I stopped reading and told them that I just found the most beautiful sentence written by Eric Carle. I re-read it to them, “On Tuesday he ate through two pears, but he was still hungry.” I wrote that sentence on the chart paper and invited the students to notice.

This didn’t come easily. The teachers observed from the back of the classroom as there was dead silence for about 15 seconds. “I notice spaces between the words,” announced one student. “I see lines,” said another. “There are letters,” said a third student.

I glanced back at the teachers with a look of  “good grief, I hope that there’s something deeper that comes from this” and suddenly another hand goes up. “I see a capital letter,” she proclaims. “Wonderful,” I say, “that’s at the beginning of a sentence. Do you notice another capital letter?” And then the noticings started coming…proper noun, pronoun, verb, noun, punctuation, capital letter.

Here is what they noticed:
Proper Noun- Tuesday
Pronoun- he
Verb- ate
Noun- pears/plural

When we ask an open question like, “what do you notice?” there is an entry point for all students. Low floor/high ceiling activities such as this enable all students to offer something. This unpacking of parts of speech was an interesting formative assessment opportunity for the classroom teachers who were observing my lesson. This provided a pathway for planning based on what the students already knew that would take place the following day.

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