My Favorite First Sentence: Charlotte’s Web

Happy birthday Teach Mentor Text! I’m excited and honored to be a part of the celebration.

I stole the following from the Teach Mentor Text blog:

What Are Mentor Texts?

Mentor texts or anchor texts are books that can be used as an example of good writing for students.  Students can use the writing in these books to improve their own writing.


As part of this birthday celebration, I was asked to write about my favorite mentor text. That is like asking me which one of my children is my favorite. I’ve been thinking about what book to chose for a couple of week now, and I’ve decided to go at this from the angle of leads. In my fourth grade class leads are the first couple words, sentences, or paragraphs of a story. Some people call them hooks or attention grabbers. We call them leads. I’ve decided to write this post on one of my favorite leads.

Sixty years ago one of the greatest children’s book of all time published: Charlotte’s Web. I won’t go into details about the awesomeness that is this Newbery Honor book. I’ll save that for a post I have planned in the fall, where I’ll talk about how The One and Only Ivan is the best book for fourth graders since Charlotte’s Web.

My fourth graders really like to start their stories by saying something like: One day… it doesn’t exactly hook the reader. I think one of the best places to have students begin to look at mentor texts is through leads. Students can take a tub of books back to their desk and read lead after lead after lead. They can find leads that work, and then use that as a model to craft their own lead.

When I model this lesson I make sure that I always have Charlotte’s Web in my stack of books. I read through a bunch of leads and I discuss with the student what we notice about the leads that we like. Then I read the lead from Charlotte’s Web. I read it again. Then, I read it again. I let it sit in the air, surrounded by silence. After I’ve given students a little bit of time to think about the lead I write it on a piece of chart paper.

(written from memory)

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mom as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, 1952

I then ask the students to tell me what they notice about the lead. I often get things like:

  • It starts with a character talking
  • Fern is doing something
  • It makes me think about what Papa is doing

We then name a couple of things that we really love about what E.B. did in his lead: he uses a specific action, his character asks a question, it makes us think.

I then take the story that I have written in front of the class and I try to write a lead for that story that incorporates some of the things that E.B. did in the lead to Charlotte’s Web.

Some students go back to their desk and try to write a lead taking what we learned from the Charlotte’s Web lead, and some students try and model their lead after another book. I think that leads are a great way to begin to use mentor texts in an elementary classroom. It sets the stage that in this classroom we are going to produce high quality kick butt writing, and we are going to use some of the best authors in the world to help us.

I think that this lesson worked pretty good this year. A couple of weeks ago I saw a student model the lead to their story after what I think is the best book since Charlotte’s Web: The One and Only Ivan.

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, 2012


3 thoughts on “My Favorite First Sentence: Charlotte’s Web

  1. It’s just a pleasure to read this, Colby, to find that you like still another book I adore. First, have you found The Story of Charlotte’s Web, a marvelous book out last year about E.B. White & his life that leads into his writing of the book? It’s great. Second, looking and looking at many other books’ leads is helpful to students because they seem to find one that fits the individual tastes. Your lesson sounds terrific, and of course they will later find out what that ax means.


  2. I love how you are using not only well-loved, well written texts, but also your own writing as mentor texts. I think it’s through our own rough attempts that we can build a bridge between published authors and the hard work we are asking students to do. It makes it real and possible!


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