December 5, 2019

Using Mentor Sentences to Build Language

Using mentor sentences to build language acquisition!
day 2 | using a picture card to build their own sentence.

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Working at a bilingual school the majority of my class is made up of students who speak two to three different languages - both as native speakers and through our school's bilingual program. In addition, my kids receive instruction in both French and English. As their primary English teacher, I only get about 6 hours a week with each of my three classes which means my instructional time needs to be precise and intentional.

When I accepted this position, I knew it would be a year of growth and change for me as an educator. I couldn't be more exhausted each day, but also feel so enlightened and filled with excitement at the very same time. I'm working alongside some pretty amazing French and English colleagues and I can sit here and with an honest heart, write how much I love my job.

One of the largest aspects of my job as the English kindergarten teacher is adapting to the level of which my kinders are at. First, in the French curriculum, kindergarten is considered the final year of preschool. Second, with our school's bilingual program, much of their instruction has been in French so naturally their understanding of the English language isn't necessarily on-par with traditional American kindergarten classes. I'm really having to adapt my own understanding and experience as a kindergarten teacher and find new ways to present appropriate lessons for this group of learners.

In addition to adapting my own understanding of teaching kindergarten at a bilingual school, I'm learning new ways to expose my students to the English language. One way in which I am playing with this with my classes have been the use of mentor sentences.

Using mentor sentences to foster language development

Throughout the last few weeks I've been reading and researching this approach to language and have already seen some pretty amazing results. Mentor sentences refers to a sentence that students will use and manipulate throughout the week in different lessons. This sentence is pulled from a read aloud and as students work with it, they begin to develop a sense for language. The end result is not so much getting them to read or memorize the words, but rather expose them to the written and spoken words.

Day 1 | Introductions and mix & fix activity

day one | mix and fix the mentor sentence
 Day one always consists of introducing the mentor sentence to the class after reading the mentor text. This particular week for us we began a unit on the desert habitat so the mentor sentence I chose came from the book Cactus Hotel by Brenda G. Guiberson. I really love this story because it's realistic and tells the story through the life cycle of the cactus. Throughout the story our class was introduced to a variety of animals and insects that call the cactus home.

After reading and discussing the story I then introduce the mentor sentence. The sentence I chose was:

"Everybody wants to live in the cactus hotel."

I informed my students that we will be using this sentence all week in different ways, but that today I wanted them to just look at the sentence and tell me what they notice. This could range from identifying familiar letters, the number of words in the sentence, how some of the letters look (i.e. lowercase and uppercase), to noticing punctuation or capital letters or sight words. I loved encouraging each class to notice something different and I was excited by some of their responses! They can be so observant!

The activity I paired with this lesson was a mix and fix handout that they would complete at their seats. I try to be very mindful as to how long I have them seated on the carpet and this activity helps get them up, moving, and engaging with the material.

The mix and fix activity was simply the mentor sentence reproduced but out of order. They would simply read the sentence then cut and glue the words in the correct order. I would have them read the sentence once more before gluing it into their workshop notebooks. Afterwards, I'd gather my class back on the carpet to review what we had worked on and orally read the sentence together.

Day 2 | Picture cards

On the second day using this mentor sentence I removed "everybody" from it and inserted a blank. So, now our mentor sentence looks like this:

"A ____________ wants to live in the cactus hotel."

This time students will be introduced to the picture cards that have a photo and the name of an animal or insect from the story printed. After reviewing the mentor sentence, this time I shared that they will select a card and that will be the word they will use to fill in the blank to complete the sentence. The kids loved exploring the different animals and insects and I purposefully used real photos (instead of clip art) since so many of these animals and insects were new for them.

Typically day 2 would incorporate a shared writing activity, but again being mindful of how long I have them on the carpet, I decided to skip it. Instead, I gave them a handout with the new mentor sentence and explained that this time they will be filling in the blank with the word from their card.

Day 3 | Finalizing sentences

We're getting closer to finalizing our sentences and on day 3 my kids used the work they had completed the previous day to write, in their best handwriting, their sentence onto publishing paper. This day is all about focusing on pencil grip, body posture, and writing clean and neat lines to form their letters.

I had students use their notebooks for their reference and stamped their work with the date. Afterwards they painted their newspaper cacti green and were dismissed to choose their workshop centers. I loved how the newspaper cacti added a depth to their work and once everything was assembled, turned out to be such a cute project to display in the classroom!

Day 4 | Adding illustration details

day four | newspaper cacti and adding desert details

It's the last day of this mentor sentence unit! 

My students have collectively worked so hard all week long and day 4 signals the final day! At this point we had been working on reading our mentor sentence as well as writing our new sentences using the word from their picture card on day 2. This day is all about those final touches like cutting out their cacti, gluing them to their paper, and adding detail to their illustrations to match the desert environment.

In kindergarten, a standard we work on and practice all throughout the year is adding details to illustrations that matching their writing.

I spent some time using a student sample (above) to get my kids thinking about the details worth adding such as the colors they should consider for drawing the desert (i.e. red, orange, yellow, and brown), the shape of the plants they want to draw (discussing the sharpness of desert plants), and any details like animals or insects they wanted to add.

From there, their work is glued on yellow or orange construction paper and put up for display in their classrooms! Once they saw their work displayed, they were all so excited to find theirs and share it with others. I can't wait to invite parents in to see the culmination of such hard work in kindergarten!

The inspiration for this mentor sentence unit was from Jessica over at Ideas by Jivey blog! I loved how she made learning so much fun and engaging - meanwhile sharing simple approaches to sentence writing! I couldn't recommend her blog and TpT resources more for anyone looking to add a dash of intrigue to their ELA lessons (especially those who teach bilingual/multilingual students!).

Are mentor sentences appropriate for kindergarten?

Simply put: yes.

I have found that current research supports the notion that second language (in my student's case, English) acquisition occurs when the learner has multiple opportunities to engage with language in a variety of ways (i.e spoken, written, etc.) and their writing.

Additionally, the scaffolding of these lessons are slowly lessened so that students can build upon their own understanding of written English and feel confident in sharing it by day 4. The goal isn't necessarily that students begin to read, but rather be exposed to the words in the English language, grammar, and skills like handwriting. I found that the more my class became familiar with the sentence each day, the more confident they became in their writing abilities. AND at the end I saw an immediate boost in their confidence to read (or speak) English to their peers and with me!

So, I couldn't encourage primary teachers or teachers working with ELL students to try mentor sentences more! Adapt them to the learning you're creating and have fun with it - you'll be amazed with the level of work and understanding your students will achieve!