Writing in Second Language: Scaffolding Student Writers by Mentor Texts
*Babita Sharma Chapagain
Mentor texts are example stories, either fiction or nonfiction, gathered or developed by language teachers. They can serve as a powerful tool for scaffolding creative writing and offer “myriad possibilities for our students and ourselves as writers” (Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007, p. 3). This article highlights the importance of using good mentor texts in the classroom and its significant contribution to overall development of young learners. To justify this, I have made an attempt to develop and present a set of activities, shared an example story written by one of my students from my country, Nepal and elaborated my thoughts based on my experiences as well as my readings.
The set of activities I have designed here (Appendix 1) is appropriate to the context of a primary school where English is introduced as a subject from grade one. My target learners are eight-year-old grade three students who learn English as a foreign language. The class size is small, consisting of 16 children. Since the children learn English only 45 minutes each day for five days a week and get very little exposure to English outside the classroom, they are still not fluent in English, but they can read and respond to simple texts written in English. Besides those five periods a week, they also get an extra library period every week to utilize the books available in the classroom. The head teacher has set up a book corner in each classroom of the school, and she is very eager to bring about change in teaching and learning English. Therefore, the teacher is allowed to use three periods a week, i.e. two periods from her regular English periods and one library period to utilize the books in the best way possible and enhance children’ reading and creative writing skills.
The whole set of activities aims to scaffold young learners to improve their English in general and creative writing skill in particular. There are three activities, and each of them engages the learners in making predictions, reading aloud mentor texts, and thinking, sharing, and writing a creative piece. While writing, the learners are encouraged to add some more details and descriptions, trying to apply the author’s techniques/crafts into their writing. In the first activity, children write a story in groups because they might get puzzled and may not be so confident to work alone. From the second activity, children then gradually start working more independently. Regarding my book selection, the picture books, based on which the first two activities are designed, are quite easy for my students because the two activities are designed to be conducted at the beginning of the academic year to teach something simple and interesting. In contrast, the book named “Fireflies” used for the third activity is comparatively difficult to understand, as the third activity is designed for the end of the academic year assuming that the process of using mentor texts will be continued throughout the year. By that time, the students will have already developed a certain level of language competence well enough to be able to understand “Fireflies” and write a story using their real life experience and based on “Fireflies.”
As I reflect on my own experiences with creative writing, I still remember how I was confused, started panicking and my mind had gone blank, as I was not sure where to begin, when my English teacher asked me to write a story or a poem in English. Now I understand, as a teacher, that since it is not easy to write such creative pieces in my own language, it is obviously a huge challenge to write them in English, which is my second or foreign language. Having worked with children for a long time, I have developed some kind of awareness about how children learn. The experience taught me that giving children exposure to literature, fiction, and nonfiction in a balanced manner is very important to assist the young writers to think critically “through reading and writing” (Fisher, 1990, p.196) and develop their creativity. Particularly, we can guide the children through “mentor text” (Ray, 1999; Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007; Fletcher, 2011) and teach them various aspects of a writer’s writing process as well as crafts “such as effective repetition, predictable patterns, use of imagery, or rhythm and rhyme” (Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007, p. 4). Even if the teachers are not great creative writers themselves, “with a room full of authors to help us teach, teaching writing doesn’t have to be so lonely” (Ray, 1999, p. 150). They can certainly scaffold their learners to become good writers with the use of mentor texts. Mentors are essential part of our lives as they always guide us to do something we are unable to do on our own; therefore, it is obvious that children who are learning to write some creative pieces in their writing sessions need mentors, such as good authors and their works, which teachers can always bring “into the classroom community to serve as mentors” (Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007, p. 2).
In regard to the activities I have designed with an aim to activate children’s prior knowledge, I have started each of my lessons with brainstorming around the title, the front cover of the story, the opening pages or the key words that need to be highlighted in the lesson. Children get to listen to the story repeatedly in the lessons. The underlying principle behind this is that children can read it once to enjoy it, and they read it again as a writer paying attention to how the text is written, what kind of words, phrases or imagery in the piece of writing surprise or puzzle them or what interesting language expressions they would like to use in their writing (Fletcher, 2011).
I have decided to use mentor texts for my creative writing lessons because I believe that fiction as well as non-fiction mentor texts (Dorfman and Cappelli, 2009) make a rich contribution to the learners’ creativity as well as their linguistic, cognitive, social, and academic growth. Since mentor texts are carefully selected to engage children in creative writing, such literature and fiction in particular “has the potential to play a powerful role in children’s creative development” (Cremin, 2009, p. 101). During the process of writing, children not only learn to imitate the language of authors, but “literature will be engaged with as a source of inspiration and ideas” (Cremin, 2009, p.105). When they continue to explore authors’ styles and write their own pieces, they begin to build up on what they have learned from the mentor texts and expand the horizon of their creative writing. The stories written by one of my trainee teachers using a mentor text make me believe in the tremendous possibility of developing learners’ creativity with the help of mentor texts. Mela (Appendix B) is one of the good examples of such creative work.
In my lesson, the teacher reads aloud the books to children, and children also read aloud to themselves or to each other. Children then read silently and discuss how they feel or share their experiences. As they read aloud or read between lines to study the writer’s craft, teachers, and students begin to see how language works in real life situation and how it is different from learning about language rules in regular lessons. Children then not only learn to write but also improve their listening, speaking, and reading skills simultaneously. When teachers begin to do such activities in language class, it creates a strong connection between the study of language and teaching of writing “that has been sadly absent from traditional, perspective approaches to study language” (Ray, 1999, p. 24). Although reading aloud has been a contentious issue (Gibson, 2008), it is one of the key aspects of my lessons, specifically to enthuse the learners, make them hear the author’s voice louder, go deeper into the story, feel it and bring a connection to their own life experiences. However, in such lessons, it is important for the teacher to have “clear learning objectives” (Gibson, 2008, p. 35) and prepare how reading aloud is going to be carried out effectively.
Thus, children develop their overall knowledge about language spoken by the real people in real situations as a natural process when they are actively engaged in listening to the story over and over again, reading themselves, reading between the lines, and digging deep to study the author’s craft. Thus, teaching through stories is “a natural way to help children developing skills in a second or foreign language” (Linse, 2007, p. 46). Although the main focus of my lessons seems to be reading and writing, listening and speaking occur naturally during the lesson when they have to share their feelings or experiences with friends and teachers or when they are involved in group work.
Also, I believe this kind of activities foster children’s cognitive growth. For example, in my third activity, the teacher reads aloud to the children second time particularly to make them think. The teacher then asks them to read the story again in groups underlining each and every interesting word or phrase they find. Then they need to think how they can write their second draft adding some more details and description about the characters’ actions and feelings, trying to make their language more interesting than that in the first draft. This task is more challenging for children as they need to review their work, expand it to give an original flavor and achieve some kind of effects in their writing. Therefore, writing is a very complex process, and “it can play a key role in cognitive development, particularly in the development of abstract thinking” (Fisher, 1990, p.197).
As far as children’s social growth is concerned, I have incorporated some collaborative tasks in my lessons, which children perform in groups or pairs. For instance, in the first activity, children are supposed to be in groups, take a ten-minute walk in the school premises and note down at least three interesting actions they see people or animals doing. Then they need to write how they feel and make a sketch to represent each of the scenes. Similarly, there are other collaborative tasks mentioned in other activities. According to Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (cited in Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007, p.10), “children learn best when they are in the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and can work in collaboration with a more knowledgeable other (teacher, student, and/or mentor texts) to help them reach their full potential.” Although creativity is taken as an individual phenomenon, social interactions that occur while working in groups, before or after they write individually, make a rich contribution to their social growth. By discussing their response to the books they have read, “children can make connections, interrogate their views about the world, and learn about themselves in the process” (Cremin, 2009, p.104) and learn about their relationship with the social environment. While discussion in L1 is used most frequently, the teacher can always encourage them to increase the time they discuss in L2.
From my several years’ experience of working with young learners, I learned that mentor texts can be a rich source to impart subject matter knowledge to the learners, if the books/texts are chosen carefully taking curriculum into consideration. For example, the book “Fireflies” can be introduced to relate to the science lesson about “conservation” as it can serve as a springboard for discussion in science lessons about preserving animals/insects and their habitats. Such discussion helps children to understand the connection between themselves, their real world, their subject content, and the text. They can achieve deeper understanding of text-to-self connection, and, overall, such activities foster their social, linguistic, and cognitive growth.
The activities open the door to learner’ opportunity to reflect on their life experiences when they get to connect themselves to the text. For example, the teacher asks children to think of a time when they had a similar or different experience, such as trying to catch insects like butterflies, tadpoles, etc. when they were younger. Here they can also reflect how they felt while they caught or tried to catch something or they saw other people doing this. Similarly, children are asked to write in their journal and reflect on their creative writing lesson. They can express how they feel while observing different things happening in the school premises (Appendix 1, Activity 2), what they find interesting in the lesson or if they find something quite challenging. It is always important to give children an opportunity to reflect on the lessons, and it is always “possible to get children to reflect on their learning processes in both speaking and writing, in both L1 and L2” (Pinter, 2007, p. 48). Children’s reflection can also be the basis for teachers to reflect on their lessons and evaluate their own teaching skills.
Since my lessons are designed for young learners, I have made sure in the lesson that children get to listen to the story repeatedly. Similarly, the texts I have chosen have either basic sentence patterns or lots of repetition or both. For example, in the first story, the opening sentence is: In Patan Dhoka, we saw people worshipping in a temple. All other sentences in this story have a similar pattern as they all begin with ‘we saw…” followed by a noun and a progressive verb, which makes it easier for children to follow certain grammatical structures and write similar sentences. The story introduced in the second activity has a similar easy pattern, but the names of the animals, painted by the artist, are different on each page. Although the third story is quite long and a bit challenging, repetition of words, phrases or even sentences has made the story interesting and easy to understand for children. An example of a repeated word or a sentence is: Fireflies! Blinking on, blinking off, dipping low, soaring high above my head, making circles around the moon like stars dancing. I believe “ELT young learners adore hearing the same story read over and over again and very quickly memorize the repetitive grammatical patterns and chime in as it as being told and retold with or without teacher prompting (Linse, 2007, p. 48).
The Teacher’s Role
Since stories play a role of a mentor that supports to build up a foundation for the learners’ creative writing, it sounds as if the teacher does not have much to do in my lesson; however, the teacher’s role is of paramount importance. The most important work of the teacher is to choose the right books with examples of author’s crafts. The teacher needs to think or let the children think how the mentor text serves children’s interests and needs, and how the book connects with the curriculum (Dorfman and Cappelli, 2007). The teacher who has confidence in writing can also demonstrate her/his own writing or fully involve herself/himself in the reading and writing processes with the children to give them more confidence in their writing. As “everything we do as writers we have known in some fashion as readers first” (Ray, 1999, p.18), the teacher reads a lot and encourages the learners to read even outside the classroom.
Giving students constructive feedback is another important role of the teacher, for example, the teacher can ask questions like: Can you describe what kind of day it was? Was it a sunny day? Was it a rainy day? How were you feeling when you caught the fish? Could you please add some more details? Similarly, the teacher “thinks about when she should intervene and how to intervene to support each child’s writing development” (Browne, 2009, p. 99). Overall, the teacher is the person who creates an environment or establishes a platform where the learners get to interact with teachers, peers and the mentor texts and develop their writing.
Regarding the teacher’s role in bringing a balance between L1 and L2, L2 is used quite frequently because it is the target language here. However, the teacher can reassure the students that using L1 is also allowed when serious discussions take place particularly during first two activities, in order not to hinder children’s learning. For example, in the second activity, children need to think about real colours of the animals mentioned in the story and discuss how a story is different from the real world and how the two are connected. Children obviously cannot express clearly in English when they need to participate in such discussion. During the third activity, the teacher can encourage children to use as much English as they can in the discussion. The reason is this activity is designed for the end of the academic year when children have already developed a certain level of fluency in speaking with the exposure to English in creative writing sessions throughout the year.
Next, another role of the teacher is she/he rectifies some errors in children’s writing and displays children’s stories and appreciates their work. Regarding error correction, the teacher can provide correct models for them to see and deal with one or two errors at a time (Browne, 2009) but does not correct each and every word. Rather, she/he keeps track of their progress to develop different strategies to help different individuals.
To sum up, the set of activities I have presented here underlines the importance of using mentor texts as tool for scaffolding learners in creative writing in a second or foreign language class. Teachers are recommended to read children’s literature widely, gather or develop mentor texts, and make an effort to teach their students to read stories as writers so that they later become creative language users and successful individuals.
Cremin, T. (2009). Teaching English creatively (Vol. Learning to teach in the
primary school series). London: Routledge.
Dorfman, L. R., & Cappelli, R. (2007). Mentor texts: Teaching writing through children’s
literature, K–6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Dorfman, L. R., & Cappelli, R. (2009). Nonfiction mentor texts: Teaching informational writing
through children’s literature, K–8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Fisher, R. (1990). Teaching children to think. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Fletcher, R. (2011). Mentor author, mentor texts: Short texts, craft notes, and practical
classroom uses. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Gibson, S. (2008). Reading aloud: A useful learning tool?. ELT journal, 62(1), 29-36.
Linse, C. (2007). Predictable books in the children’s EFL classroom. ELT Journal, 61(1), 46-54.
Pinter, A. (2007). Linking ‘learning to learn’ and writing in young learners’ English classrooms.
In N. Joseph, K. Powell, and H. Mol (Eds.), Literacy in ELT: The role of the YL professional in developing reading and writing (45- 49). Canterbury: IATEFL YL SIG Publication.
Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and writing in the elementary classroom. Urbana,
IL: National Council of Teachers of English
(*Babita Sharma Chapagain is working as a teacher trainer at Rato Bangala Foundation, Nepal. She earned her Master’s degree in English Language Teaching (ELT) from Kathmandu University. She also completed an MA in ELT (with specialization in Young Learners) at the University of Warwick, UK as a Hornby scholar 2014/2015.)
Teacher: Sabita Grade: III Time: 45+45 minutes
Subject: Creative Writing Lesson: 1 Date: June 25, 2015
Materials required: Book named: In Patan Dhoka, we saw…
In Patan Dhoka, we saw people worshipping in a temple. We saw children playing in a park. We saw a man selling balloons. We saw a shopkeeper selling fruits and vegetables. We saw a man making a statue. We saw some children going to school. We saw a girl riding a bicycle.
Worshipping, temple, shopping, playing, riding, statue
By the end of the lesson children will be able to write a simple story in group describing what they see in the school premises.
Sequential Outline of Classroom Activities:
Teacher starts her/his lesson with a question: ’ Today while I was coming to school, I saw a boy helping an old man cross the road. It felt so good. …’.’ How do you feel when you see something good or bad happening?’ Teacher allows them to express their views and brainstorms the words that show actions and describe people’s feelings.
Teacher reads aloud a big book, ‘In Patan Dhoka we saw …’ with expressions and little actions. Divide the students into groups of three or four. Ask them to take a ten minutes walk in the school premises and note down at least three interesting actions they see people or animals doing, write how they felt and make a sketch to represent each of the scenes.
As they come back to the classroom, the teacher tells them that they are going to write about their experiences, as the writer has done in the book that was read recently. The teacher asks each group to share their findings with the whole class and negotiate in group to choose an event to write a story in group on a big chart paper and illustrate.
Teacher writes a phrase on the board which they can begin their story with, e.g. In Rato Bangala School we saw …. I felt… Before they begin to write, the teacher read the big book again. She makes sure that same story is not repeated by different groups.
After the task is completed, the teacher collects the stories from every group, and compiles into a big book. They all read the book together and the teacher displays the story book on the display board.
Reflection: Ask children to write a journal in their journal book how they felt during story writing session, what they enjoyed the most and what they found most challenging task. They can be asked to illustrate or tell orally if they cannot express fully in writing.
Teacher: Sabita Grade: III Time: 45+45+45+45 minutes
Subject: Creative Writing Lesson: 1 Date: July 5, 2015
Materials required: Book: I am an artist who painted a blue horse by Eric Carl
New vocabulary: Artist, horse, crocodile
By the end of the Activity students will be able to write a short story describing what they do or like to do and complete illustration to represent their story.
Sequential Outline of Classroom Activities:
Teacher brainstorms with children the name of animals they know and make a list on the board. Then she shows them the cover of the book, ‘I am an artist who painted a blue horse’, asks them to predict what the story might be about and allows them to express what they think about it.
Teacher reads the story aloud showing the pictures on each page and asks them to think about real colours the anilams mentioned in the story and discuss how a piece of art can be different from the real world but still how they are connected. Have a discussion about it and teacher makes sure that L1 is used during such serious discussion.
Now allow them to think about their own favourite animals, favourite colours, their interest or hobbies or something they can do and note down on a piece of paper. Teacher then reads the story again and asks them to write who they are and what they do or they like to do. Some children might write a similar story, e.g. I am an artist who painted a red fish, a black rabbit, a pink cow and a yellow horse. I am a good artist. Likewise some children might want to write something different, e.g. I am a carpenter. I make brown table, pink bed, black door, etc.
Children take turn to share their story with the whole class. All unfamiliar words including the names of all the animals, they have painted, are put up on the Word Wall and teacher gives them advice how they can refine their writing, if they need to do so. They are also asked to see each other’s work in pairs to check spellings. They can also be asked to do self-correction looking at the Word Wall before they write the final draft.
Provide the children with A/4 size papers and painting materials. Each child paints animals of different colours. They are allowed to use their own imagination to choose a colour for each animal they draw. Teacher moves around to check if they need any support. Children leave the paintings to dry and next day they compile it. Children have fun reading aloud their story to their peers.
Reflection: Ask children to write a journal in their journal book how they felt during story writing session, what they enjoyed the most and what they found most challenging task. They can illustrate or tell orally if they cannot express fully in writing.
Teacher: Sabita Grade: III Time: 45+45+45+45 minutes
Subject: Creative Writing Lesson: 1 Date: July 10, 2015
Materials required: Book: Fireflies written by Julie Brinckloe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92xOTPfiKEU)
New vocabulary: Fireflies, blinking on, blinking off, dipping high, soaring low, moonlight, glow, cellar
By the end of this lesson children will be able to write a short story based on their real life experience getting inspired from ‘Fireflies’.
Sequential Outline of Classroom Activities:
Show the cover page of the book ‘The Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. After showing the cover page ask if they know fireflies. Show the picture on the cover page again to those who do not understand the term.
Stick two different pieces of newsprint paper having written ‘fireflies’ and ‘feelings’ on the board, brainstorm some words related to the terms ‘fireflies’ and ‘feelings’ and write them around the key words.
Read a few pages of the book carefully with expressions and ask them to predict whether or not the boy would be able to catch fireflies and allow the learner to express their opinion.
Read the whole story showing them the pictures and ask them to think of a time when they had a similar or different experience when they were young, for instance they might have tried to catch insects like butterflies, tadpoles, etc. Ask them to note the incident and write how they had felt while they caught or tried to catch something or they saw other people doing this.
After children finish writing the first draft of their story, allow them to share their stories with their friends in group. Read the story again and discuss the sequence of events and author’s writing style/craft, which are used to make the language interesting. For instance: a lot of repetitions, e.g. “Fireflies! Blinking on, blinking off, dipping low, soaring high above my head, making circles around the moon, like stars dancing”; expressions, e.g. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” and other interesting language used, e.g. “I can catch hundreds!”
Children read and underline each and every interesting line discussing in groups and then write the second draft adding some more details and description about the character’s actions and feelings, trying to make their language more interesting.
Allow them to share it to the whole class and give each other some feedback to improve their story. Then, they write the final draft and make a storybook with some beautiful illustrations.
Summary Activity: Reflection
Ask children to write a journal in their journal book trying to answer the following questions:
- How did you feel during story writing session?
- Have you improved your writing than before?
- If yes, what strategies helped you the most to improve your writing?
- What did you enjoy the most?
- What was the most challenging task during the writing session?
A mentor text
It was Saturday. Sita went to the market to see a Mela (fare). To her surprise, she saw lots of funny people there. There were five men dancing on the stage. There were ten shopkeepers selling pets and toys. There were five mothers carrying their babies on their backs. There were thirteen children playing volleyball. There were two elephants with two children riding on each of them. There were ten jokers wearing masks. There was a woman singing a song. There was a man selling balloons. There were 15 children sitting in a circle and playing ‘Hot Potato.’ They all looked very funny. I could not believe my eyes.