A question I’m commonly asked by upper elementary teachers in regards to using mentor texts is just how to plan a schedule that can fit it all in… for some teachers, outside forces make it very difficult.
Strict mandates from your administration or bell schedules obviously cannot be helped. (If you have 45 minutes for ALL of your ELA standards –yes, there are teachers who have written to me asking for ideas in this type of time block –this post will probably not be for you…) I will do my best to offer some suggestions for even the most time-constrained schedules.
However, this post will also NOT be one of those dream scenarios that reading and writing gurus like to share in their books where you have 3.5 or 4 hours every day to devote to reading, writing, and grammar. (Where are these schools?!)
Using Mentor Texts
First thing’s first: the schedule suggestions I’m sharing with you incorporate the use of mentor texts. A mentor text is not simply a read-aloud. Although mentor texts should be read for enjoyment FIRST, that is not its only purpose. It is not an entire novel either. You can absolutely model skills from a chapter book, but a mentor text should be shorter in length so that it can be referred to throughout a week (or two or three!) for different skills. Think picture books, poems, songs, articles, chapters from a novel, etc…
Using a mentor text, or sometimes called “anchor text,” allows you to teach several skills, and gives students the opportunity to dive deep into comprehension over a longer period of time, as well as analyze it for craft.
In an ideal (but not dream) world, I’d hope for 2 or 2.5 hours to devote to ELA. Check out the “blueprint,” then keep reading for details on what I’d include!
Still too dreamy for you? Here is what a 1.5-hour schedule might look like.
Reading on the Schedule
I like to start an ELA block with the subject of reading. Please don’t interpret this as “only teaching reading comprehension” during that time slot on the schedule though… I am a huge believer in integration. This is why I think an ELA block should be just that: A BLOCK. Not “reading time” and “writing time” but “studying the art of language time” – however, I know that many teachers must specify the subject for their plans, so I am breaking it down the best that I can for you here.
On that note, I also must mention the importance of content integration. It’s the best way to not only maximize your teaching time, but also to help students gain a better understanding of a science or social studies topic. When it came to mandated schedules in my classroom, I always did okay with the timing for ELA, but usually, Science and Social Studies were the areas that got the shaft (for a few years, I had only 30 minutes for BOTH… combined!) so I became quite the “integration expert” if you will. It was often the only way I could still help students learn about the history I had to teach, but then I also was able to teach reading standards, language skills, and writing craft!
In my experience, I have found it’s essential for students to work with comprehending a text first before analyzing it for writing purposes. One way to help students understand a text, especially on a first-read, is to use Interactive Read-Alouds, or IRA. There are TONS of resources out there for this method, or you can take my one-hour course on it here!
Teaching vocabulary is one of the top skills to do with an Interactive Read-Aloud. It is the perfect way to explore words using context clues. I am a huge proponent of “throwing out the vocabulary list” and actually helping students understand how to use vocabulary in their speaking and writing, not just memorizing a definition that they can pick out from multiple choice at the end of the week.
In my classroom, I found IRA was NOT an exercise that should be done every day with every skill or mini-lesson, so I also incorporated gradual release (“I Do, We Do, You Do”) when introducing new skills or reviewing tricky skills. This is especially helpful when using a mentor text that students don’t all have a copy of in their hands.
Remember, the “You Do” part of gradual release means students need time for independent application. You might offer students another short passage to demonstrate their understanding of a skill, or you might give students a different section of the mentor text to use than the one you worked with for the “I Do, We Do” portion. (You could project a page or two on the wall/board for them to see, or photo-copy, or scan into a sharing app.)
During independent practice, I would aim to pull at least one small group to work on current skills, remediate past skills, or push to enrich skills. If you are hoping to run your ELA block in a workshop style, you might want to check out Launching Reading Workshop Tips and Printables in my shop!
Using More Than Mentor Texts
If you provide students with a “cold read” (something new to read while assessing their understanding) during their independent practice, I would encourage you to give them something of their reading ability. I know this can be controversial because students might “get a high mark” on something they read below grade level so does that really mean they are passing the grade? I think the question you always have to ask yourself is: “Am I assessing if they can read the text, or am I assessing if they can apply the standard that I just taught them?”
I really love pairing a picture book or a chapter book with an article or poem that deals with the same content (to go deeper on a topic) or theme (to allow students to compare, for example).
This doesn’t always have to be provided as a cold read though. You also might consider assessing students’ comprehension after doing a close read of a more rigorous text TOGETHER. This way, they have tackled tricky words, made notes about (and overcome with your help) confusions or misunderstandings, and can work to analyze or compare within texts rather than go in with no prior knowledge. (And remember, this is perfect for content integration, too!)
Of course, determining the meaning of a pair of passages or articles, and integrating information from the two, are skills that students are required to learn to do. You might take several days to analyze and dissect a pair of articles together by close reading and annotating, then allow students to respond to the texts through writing.
You can read more about using paired texts to teach AND assess here.
And on that note, let’s move into some writing, shall we?
Grammar on the Schedule
As I’ve said over and over already, integration is important for writing, too. Integrating grammar skills into writing is the best way to develop a student’s language and communication. (That’s right: something else to throw away… no more grammar workbooks!)
Mentor sentences tackle integrating your grammar skills in the most fantastic way. Students will see the RIGHT way to write, rather than the wrong like so many programs tend to do, and it only takes a few minutes each day to work through. Students will notice the good things about a sentence from a mentor text you are already using for another lesson. It’s the perfect way to begin your “writing time.” It helps get students’ brains into a mode where they are analyzing, revising, or even imitating a written piece of work.
Writing on the Schedule
I just mentioned the mentor sentence coming from a mentor text you are already using… remember, you absolutely should be using a mentor text for as many standards as possible to truly maximize your teaching time. That means the same book you used for a reading lesson can also be used for a mentor sentence AND a writing lesson! No matter what genre you want students to write, you can find style, language, and organization patterns in mentor texts to use as models for students. Oftentimes, your mentor sentence lesson can even become your writing lesson for that day!
I don’t believe shared writing should only happen with the younger grades. It is just as beneficial to walk through the steps of planning, drafting, and revising writing for upper elementary students. Model your thinking and allow students to make suggestions. This also helps get those creative juices flowing for their independent practice.
Finally, don’t feel you must always have students writing a long “go through all the phases of the writing process” writing piece. Responding to literature, constructed responses to articles or paired texts, or even just quick writes to demonstrate knowledge on some content are just as important. Also, don’t forget to look at drafts of old writing pieces. Look for ways to improve them with newly learned skills. It’s so easy to “file them away” once they’re done, isn’t it? But think of all the opportunities to show growth!
I hope this was helpful for you!
Here are some more helpful links to check out when planning your ELA lessons: