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Making Model Sentences Approachable for Early Readers

Maggie and Hazel have quite an assortment of board books that we read together daily. In their board book collection, there are Sandra Boynton books (which are wonderfully entertaining for little ones), a few of Elizabeth Wernick’s Best Behavior series (focused on Social-Emotional Learning with titles like Feet Are Not For Kicking and Teeth Are Not For Biting), numerous titles by Eric Carle including The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Grouchy Ladybug, and Turn, Crank, ZOOM!, and so forth. We add to our board book collection with every birthday and gift-giving holiday, and even though my early readers can get overly-enthusiastic and sometimes break their books, both kids love them nonetheless. Maggie may be nonverbal, but her attention to the pictures and contents of the books grow daily while Hazel will bring me book after book, completely absorbed in the contents of every story as I read them aloud.

There’s one book in particular from my daughters’ board book library that caught my eye recently and made me consider a strategy to help early and struggling readers that would be applicable at any grade-levels, both primary and secondary.

The Jungle Book: An Animals Primer by Jennifer Adams is not an original text. Organized by the animals of Rudyard Kiplings’ classic novel The Jungle Book, each page features an illustration by Alison Oliver of a character, the name of the animal with his name from the text, and an original (and sometimes abbreviated) sentence from the Kipling’s original text. Each of the sentences either describes a characteristic of the animal or the character.

For example, the first page features the wolf Akela, the head of the Seeonee Council of wolves. The sentence used in the board book for this page was, “Akela... led all the pack by strength and cunning.” An ellipsis is a series of three periods that indicates an omission from the original text. If I look up Kipling’s original sentence, it reads: “Akela, the great gray Lone Wolf, who led all the Pack by strength and cunning, lay out at full length on his rock, and below him sat forty or more wolves of every size and color, from badger-colored veterans who could handle a buck alone to young black three-year-olds who thought they could.” To state the obvious, the original sentence is significantly wordier and would require unpacking for struggling or early readers if read to its entirety. Instead, Adams deftly condenses the sentence to its main descriptor of the character which also encompasses the hierarchy of a wolf pack.

Who was the leader? Akela. What did he do? He led the pack. How did he lead? With strength and cunning.

Going beyond understanding the meaning of this sentence, how else could this sentence be used beyond simple comprehension? Mentor sentences are excellent tools to help early and struggling writers organize their thoughts into composing their sentences modeled after the mentor sentence. As a scaffolding tool, a teacher could provide the following stem with the Akela example: [Name of character] led [who or what was led] by [characteristic] and [another characteristic]. I used to call this strategy the Mad Libs strategy when I was teaching. If you wanted to spiral grammar, you can create stems with parts of speech. For example, [Proper noun] [verb] [adverb and modifier] [prepositional phrase].

As an extension, once a sentence like this is mastered, a teacher can introduce the parts of the sentence that was removed in the children’s version. For example, you can spiral a mini-lesson on appositives by modifying the mentor sentence to read: “Akela, the great gray Lone Wolf, who led all the Pack by strength and cunning.”

The next page has an illustration of a black panther with the sentence: “Bagheera’s eyes were as hard as jade stones.” This mentor sentence incorporates the use of a simile, which compares two unlike things using the words like or as. This sentence is written exactly as-is from the original text. If I were to teach this sentence, I would have students pick a person (or character), pick a physical feature, and describe that feature with a metaphor. Using my dog as an example, Khaleesi’s hair is as white as melting snow.

From this board book, each of the sentences is syntactically and semantically different.

  • WOLF: Akela... led all the pack by strength and cunning.

  • PANTHER: Bagheera’s eyes were as hard as jade stones.

  • BEAR: Baloo... eats only nuts and roots and honey.

  • PYTHON: Kaa... could slip along the branches as quietly as moss grows.

  • ELEPHANT: Hathi the wild elephant trumpeted.

  • PEACOCK: All long tail and loud talk — like Mao, the peacock.

  • JACKAL: Tabaqui... runs about making mischief.

  • PORCUPINE: Ikki is full of stories half heard and very badly told.

  • MONKEYS: Vain, foolish, and chattering, are the monkeys.

  • TIGER: Shere Khan roared... in the night.

Taken together, another exercise could be to incorporate the stylistic differences of all the sentences in a single writing assignment. If I consider middle school writers, many will naturally gravitate to repeating the same sentence structure and length, usually a subject, verb, object configuration. If a writing assignment lacks sentence structure variation, it creates a choppy rhythm. There is a place for short sentences, which creates a punchy rhythm, just as there is a place for long sentences that incorporate figurative language and descriptive sentences. For middle schoolers, after writing an essay, I would have students go back and revise their sentence structure to be modeled after all of these, which would have the result of increasing sentence variety along with adding figurative language and other descriptors.

My point is this book shows how a complex text geared for older readers (Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book) could be made accessible to younger or struggling readers by selectively pulling mentor sentences and abbreviating as needed. Parents, teachers, as you read for pleasure or teach other texts, consider the use of mentor sentences with your kids.


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