Imitation. The word has somewhat of a negative connotation. But when imitation is used as a system of learning, we can see the positive. Take art for example: we expose children to the great artists and prompt them to create their own work of art, imitating Picasso or O’Keeffe. We applaud their efforts, and we encourage them, with time, to find their own personal style.
Can we apply this use of imitation to teaching young writers?
Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli answer that question with a resounding “yes.” Dorfman and Cappelli, authors of Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children's Literature, have developed a comprehensive strategy for teaching children to write that is centered on this basic premise: all artists begin by imitating others. Dorfman and Cappelli argue that in order to learn the skills associated with good writing, children must first begin by imitating their favorite authors. “We all learn to be better writers by imitating those authors who inspire us. Rose and I are still learning from mentor texts. We return to these texts regularly,” Dorfman says.
Want to inspire a love of writing in your child, but aren't sure where to begin? Dorfman and Cappelli offer these tips:
Read Aloud Daily
You've heard it before, but the importance of reading to children cannot be emphasized enough. Dorfman explains that when parents are told to read aloud to their children daily, it’s not just to expose the children to storybook characters or concepts; it’s not just to teach children to comprehend plots and character motivation; and it’s not just to teach children to read. In fact, reading aloud to children every day also serves the purpose of exposing children to rich and precise language and to the tricks writers use to share their characters and information in a way that is exciting to read.
“You have to really take risks to grow as a writer,” Dorfman says, “because if you write the same thing every day and never try anything new, you won’t be any better tomorrow than you are today. By studying the authors and imitating them very closely at first and then deviating and varying the sentence structure—by imitating and then moving away from it and changing it, you can grow and develop as a writer.”
Dorfman refers to the “gradual release of responsibility” model. A teacher models for the children; then the children and teacher practice together as a shared or guided experience (and sometimes that experience is repeated once or twice); and finally, the teacher releases responsibility to the children to work on their own. The problem with this model when it comes to teaching writing, says Dorfman, is that the responsibility is often too quickly released. “The shared or guided experience should be repeated until the students are comfortable writing independently,” she says.
Dorfman emphasizes the importance of children keeping a writer’s notebook. This is a place where children can jot down their ideas, lists of wonderful words, or memorable moments. Dorfman explains that the writer’s notebook is different from a diary because it’s not private. It’s not a place to write secrets; it’s a place to experiment and practice and write for the good of the writing community.
“Some children like to keep writer’s notebooks at home and at school. Some only like to keep them at school. All children are different,” Dorfman says. “The key is to encourage them to explore their writing in their notebooks. To practice.”
Learn from Mentor Texts
So what is a mentor text and how is it used? Cappelli explains that a mentor text is a book that you go back to again and again, over a period of one, two, or even three years. “We think of a mentor as someone who stands alongside you as you grow, someone you learn from,” Cappelli says. “The true mentor text is the one that you can use for many different purposes. Let’s go back to such and such a book or such and such an author. Let’s see what that author did.” Dorfman suggests that a mentor text actually becomes as familiar and comforting to a child as a friend.
Parents and teachers can use mentor texts to expose children to the “whys” of writing. Stopping and reflecting while reading allows children opportunities to wonder aloud. “Why at this moment did the author use a metaphor?” “Why did the author use a fragment?” “Why does that work here?” Pausing simply to linger and relish words is also beneficial and helps children develop a love for words.
Read Picture Books
Parents shouldn’t make the mistake, Cappelli says, of stopping reading aloud from picture books after children can read independently. “I wouldn’t abandon picture books too early,” Cappelli says. “There is such a plethora of high-level picture books that aren’t written for young kids—that are complex and have deep content, that deal with war and the Holocaust, things you wouldn’t want to read to very young children.”
Cappelli explains that parents can read aloud from picture books at a higher level than children can read on their own. By reading aloud from these books, parents expose their children to new vocabulary and more complex sentence structures. “We want them to hear that rich language that they can’t read on their own,” Cappelli says. “I like picture books because in a short time you can get a whole story.”
So, read often with your children and take time to savor the words. Be aware: passion for writing is contagious.