English Language Arts, Mentor Text for Personal Narratives, What is Mentor Text

Teaching Writing with Roald Dahl Part 1

Growing up, my teachers always had a fondness for Roald Dahl, and for that, I am grateful. Roald Dahl was a British author famous for such works as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, and The Witches. If you haven’t read those books, chances are you’ve seen the above movies. Dahl has sold more than 250 million books worldwide and continues to be popular among many teachers and students today.  This blog post will cover different techniques for teaching writing with Roald Dahl and his marvelous books.

Roald Dahl’s birthday was September 13. Therefore, we thought we would go down memory lane and discuss how his books can be used as mentor text to teach writing. Mentor texts serve as real-life examples of writing to provide a model for students to emulate. Students can learn how to write effectively from Dahl’s published works.

Matilda: Forming Ideas and Creating Characters

My personal favorite of Dahl’s is Matilda. This novel is appropriate for grades third and up. It is a wonderful read-aloud for younger grades as well. This story is about a five-and-a-half-year-old girl with remarkably intelligence. With the ability to read advanced works and the knowledge to do upper-level math, Matilda stands out as the oddball in her family of self-centered people. Her family doesn’t appreciate her need for learning, and they treat her in borderline neglectful ways. Matilda even inhabits some interesting magical gifts. Once Matilda starts school, her precious teacher Miss Honey sees the young girl’s remarkableness. However, the mean oaf-like principal, Miss Trunchbull, does not. This novel is heartwarming and unique. 

Matilda is a wonderful example to use as mentor text to teach your students how to write interesting, complex, and multi-faceted characters for their stories. Matilda is chock full of them from an interesting whimsical pigtail-wearing friend of Matilda’s named Lavender to the sweet Miss Honey whose name alludes to her even sweeter demeanor. Students could be inspired by Bruce, the boy who loves chocolate cake, and Matilda’s whacky and tacky used car salesman father. Ms. Trunchbull and her scary disciplinary ways is another example of a captivating character. Analyzing the characters, listing their character traits, and evaluating their motivations (why do they do what they do), can help students hone in on some spellbinding characters of their own. 

Many students struggle with how to get their ideas flowing that are needed for writing. Matilda has magical elements mixed with realistic characters that could inspire children to use their imagination to form ideas. Some enthralling ideas students could explore range from how to intermingle realistic elements with fantasy and magical ones to how to write shocking scenes. Roald Dahl is famous for this. I believe anyone who has read Matilda remembers the scene in which Bruce eats an entire chocolate cake in front of the school, or when Miss Trunchbull spins Lavender over her head and throws her into a field. Shocking scenes make for interested readers and students can learn that from Roald Dahl.

James the Giant Peach: Setting and Descriptive Language

James and the Giant Peach is my mother’s personal favorite. A four-year-old boy named James becomes an orphan when his parents are eaten by rhinos. (Classic Roald Dahl to throw in the shock factor.) He is sent to live with his Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge who are evil. Three years later, James is extremely depressed and begs his aunts to take him to the sea where he lived with his parents, yet they say no as evil aunts will do. James, distraught, runs outside to find an old man in a green suit. This old man gives James magic green crystals and tells James to eat them and in doing so, amazing things will happen. James is about to do as commanded, but then trips over his aunts’ peach tree’s roots and the crystals burrow into the ground.

Immediately a gigantic peach starts to grow. The aunts immediately see this as an opportunity to get rich as crowds form around the spectacle. Next, James is sent to clean up after the crowds and sees a hole in the peach. He crawls in and discovers a whole world with bugs his size from a spider to a ladybug. From this encounter, the story becomes more and more enthralling and kooky as the giant peach falls off and squashes the aunts. The peach rolls and rolls and finally plunges into the sea with James floating inside the peach with this kooky crew of bugs. More and more spellbinding scenarios occur leaving readers intrigued.  

Since the majority of the story takes place in a peach, analyzing the setting will help students come up with their own interesting settings. Evaluating how settings impact stories is crucial when teaching writing. James lives on top of the peach as it continues to travel and float in the sea. That is until seagulls lasso it into the sky.

Students learn that if it weren’t for the setting of the peach, the story would be entirely different. They can imagine a scenario in which the peach isn’t part of the story. Next, they can discuss what elements of the story would then change. Dahl emphasizes that setting plays such an important role that it takes on the life of being another character in a way. Encourage students to think outside of the box in terms of where their story will take place. Settings can range from outer space to even a piece of fruit.

Descriptive language is one of Dahl’s strengths. Dahl spins words together in such a spellbinding fashion. By taking excerpts from James and the Giant Peach and analyzing them, students can become inspired with their own writing. Here is an example of how Dahl uses descriptive language to illicit wonderful imagery: 

Another example of Dahl’s use of descriptive language: “Everybody was feeling happy now. The sun was shining brightly out of a soft blue sky and the day was calm. The giant peach, with the sunlight glinting on its side, was like a massive golden ball sailing upon a silver sea.”

Teachers can have students analyze what word choice created this imagery. Dahl’s writing is full of similes, metaphors, and descriptive language. His works are an amazing example of mentor texts that helps students write their own unique works.

Boy: Roald Dahl’s Autobiography

Roald Dahl not only wrote amazing fantasy novels, but he also wrote an autobiography.  Boy Tales of Childhood details his childhood into early adulthood, his life in the public schools of England, and his very first job. Boy Tales of Childhood chronicles how his life experiences shaped him into becoming a writer. His autobiography spans the 1920s-1930s in Wales, which makes for an interesting backdrop. His childhood contains comical mishaps with teachers and mischievous musings with his friends. Dahl was inspired to create Trunchbull from memories of his semi-abusive principal from his boarding school. Students can get a glimpse into Dahl’s early life and see how many aspects of his childhood have influenced his works, including how the Cadbury company used Dahl and his classmates as focus group members and how this inspired Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Boy Tales of Childhood makes a perfect example to use to teach students how to write a narrative or their life story. Dahl includes many quotes that are perfect tips for writing an autobiography. 

“When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful. Truth is more important than modesty.”

“An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details.”  (We admittedly would tell students we don’t want all the boring details.)

Boy Tales of Childhood also has many shock factor scenes that show students how honesty in narratives will keep readers interested. I first read this book when my Miss Frizzle-like fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to us. The scene I remember the most was when Dahl’s boil was lanced. The way he describes it and his feelings minute-by-minute made for a shocking yet hilarious story. Additionally, Dahl describes how he put a dead mouse in a candy jar at one of his favorite candy stores which makes for laugh-aloud moments. Dahl had many interesting adventures which can inspire students not to hold back when writing about their own life experiences. 

Conclusion

Roald Dahl is an author who will always stick with you once you read his works. If you have not introduced your students to him, now is the time for a new generation to experience his writing. By using his works as mentor texts, students can learn how to write unique characters and settings, come up with compelling ideas all while using descriptive language. Roald Dahl is one of our personal favorites and we hope he becomes one of yours too. 

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