25 Ways to Use Exemplar Essays
15-30 Minute Activities
Print a high scoring exemplar text for all students. Choose one focus area of which students will find and highlight examples:
- the claim or thesis for Argumentative, Informative, or Analysis essays
- elements of the exposition in a Narrative essay
- evidence that matches the central idea/claim/thesis
- analysis/explanation of evidence and its relation to claim/thesis
- organization (text structure, paragraphs for introduction, support, and conclusion)
- transitions between and among paragraphs and ideas
- word choice (academic/advanced vocabulary, formal tone, vivid imagery, etc.)
Review the rubric criteria for the corresponding category and discuss why the element identified is a strong model.
Using a collection of exemplars from multiple prompts, have students perform a scavenger hunt to find and highlight the claim in each essay. Then have students rank the claims from strongest to weakest and write rationales for their ranking. Discuss as a class. Extension: Apply the scavenger hunt strategy to any focus area listed above, or for different types of evidence, vivid verbs, colorful modifiers, specific sentence structures or variety, etc.
Deconstruct a high scoring exemplar, in particular, one strong in organization. Remove the transition words within and between sentences in one paragraph. Have students attempt to complete the sentences with appropriate transitions to reconstruct the essay. Now present students with the original paragraph from the essay and have them compare their drafts to the original, high-scoring transitions. Extension: Present students with another deconstructed exemplar, this time missing transitions between paragraphs. Again, have students create transitions to show relationships between and among ideas. Have students exchange their revised work with another group. Have groups “score” the revised work with the rubric and make suggestions.
Choose a high-scoring exemplar and remove the breaks/spaces between paragraphs so that it appears as one continuous text. Present students with this version and ask them to decide where the breaks should be. Have them answer these questions: What information helped you make this decision? How does breaking the text into paragraphs help the reader? Extension: Choose an exemplar that scores poorly for organization. Have students add to paragraphs and ideas that need to be developed further.
Present students with a high-scoring exemplar essay. In groups, have students try to backwards map from the essay to the prompt that would generate the essay. Once they have a draft, give them the original prompt. Ask them to compare their prompts with the original. As a class discuss why it is important to be able to “see” the pieces of the prompt in the essay.
Provide students with an exemplar that uses long quotes or many quotes without explanation. Have students revise to summarize or paraphrase where appropriate. Extension: Have students add an explanation to the quotes to connect to the essay’s central idea or claim.
Present students with a low-scoring exemplar, one with particularly bland or poor word choices. Have students identify key places where language could be improved with domain-specific, academic, or precise vocabulary. Students may work in pairs and use a thesaurus to select appropriate language and make substitutions. They can then join together with another pair to compare and discuss the poor word choices, their improvements, and the rationale for the changes made. In a quad, come to a consensus about the improved word choices and submit to the teacher for rescoring. Afterward, have individual writers replicate the process with a piece of their own writing and come back together to share and evaluate new language choices.
Choose an Informative exemplar text that clearly demonstrates a biased viewpoint or definitive opinion. Have students identify the words and phrases that demonstrate the author’s bias and revise those sentences to present the information objectively.
Give students an exemplar with exceptional word choices. Give students 2-3 minutes to read the exemplar. Tell them to focus on the writer’s use of interesting or vivid word choices and not the topic or the overall writing. Collect the essays and ask students to individually generate a list of the most vivid words they remember from the essay. Once students finish, brainstorm a list from the whole class. Star words that are repeated. Ask students to consider why these words stuck out for them. Discuss the different effects that strong word choices can have on readers and on the effectiveness of an essay overall. Extension: Create your own list of vivid words from the essay prior to distributing to your students. Compare the class’s list to yours. Talk about why you remembered specific words and how they may or may not be different from the class’s list.
30-60 Minute Activities
As a class, score an exemplar and connect it to the rubric. Work together to identify specific elements that would need to be changed in order to improve the score (within a trait or across traits). Have students work collaboratively to revise the exemplar to improve it (within a trait or across traits).
Provide students with exemplars commensurate with their performance levels. Have students score their own work against the rubric and compare it to the exemplar given (within a trait or across traits).
Share the highest scoring exemplar and identify the key components. Compare this exemplar to a lower scoring exemplar and pinpoint which key elements are missing. Have students revise individually or in groups to improve the lower scoring exemplar.
Have students compare their work to a high performing exemplar. Have them compare the exemplar to their own work and answer the following questions: Am I writing at this level? Where am I and where not? What would I need to do to achieve this level?
Give students an essay prompt. Have them answer basic questions about the prompt, such as:
- What is the topic?
- What is the purpose?
- Who is the audience?
- What product is required?
Then have students write a step-by-step list of what would need to be included in this specific prompt. Now, present students with an exemplar essay and have students highlight the content that matches their lists of required content. Students should revise their lists, as needed. Have students identify any missing content as compared to the required content. Extension: Have students revise the exemplar to include any missing content. Consider doing this activity with several prompts and exemplars over the course of multiple days.
Choose a mid-scoring exemplar of a narrative prompt. Have students complete a plot diagram from the exemplar and look for missing pieces. Have students work to fill in any missing pieces and talk about the effects the missing pieces have on the story.
Use two highlighters to identify A) evidence and B) explanation of evidence within a high-performing exemplar. Repeat the process with a low-performing exemplar. Compare the visual effect. Now repeat the same process with the student’s own essay. Have the student write a plan of action that assesses his/her work in comparison to the exemplars and proposes specific actions for what he/she should do to improve his/her writing.
In an argument exemplar, use three highlighters to identify A) the claim, B) the evidence to support the claim, and C) the counterclaim. Now, repeat that process with the student’s own argument. Have the student answer the questions: Do I have all these pieces? Do I have sufficient evidence? Is my counterclaim stronger than my claim?
Discuss the purpose of a conclusion and its relationship to other parts of an essay. Now, give students an exemplar without its conclusion. Have students write the conclusion, based on the parts of the essay they have. In pairs, have students exchange essays and evaluate how well the conclusion serves its purpose and relates to other parts of the essay. Give each pair the originally written conclusion and have them compare all three, ranking them in order of quality. Discuss as a class.
60 Minute/Multi-Day Activities
Print exemplars and ask students to highlight key components or rubric criteria in different colors. Discuss highlighted information (and lack thereof) as it correlates to the scores received. Repeat the process with a student’s own writing and compare. Have students write statements about the comparison.
Give students a collection of exemplars that reflect final drafts of various writing prompts over the course of time. Have them work together in groups to identify changes over time and where they see improvements. Now, have them replicate the process with their own drafts.
Give students a collection of exemplars that reflect final drafts over time on different prompts. Have them work together in groups to identify changes over time and where they see trends in specific elements of the writing. Now, have them replicate the process with their own portfolio of writing over time.
Professional Development & Non-Classroom Use
Use a collection of exemplars with a variety of scores as the basis for a professional learning community. Discuss with colleagues: How do these compare to the work our students are producing? What would we need to do instructionally to help our students meet these expectations?
Use high-scoring exemplars for a writing assignment as a communication tool for parents. Walk through the essay and explain that, “this is what a 4 looks like.”
Use a collection of exemplars with a variety of scores for interdisciplinary conversations. Discuss with non-ELA colleagues: What elements cross into the types of writing you want students to produce in your class? How can you use exemplars in your classes?
Practice essay score calibration with a PLC. Clarify criteria from the rubric (What is the difference between a “clear” and “significant” claim? When is evidence “sufficient”? What makes transitions “effective”?) Present faculty with the highest-scoring exemplar for a particular prompt ask them to identify evidence of the corresponding rubric criteria. Compare and discuss selections. Then, present teachers with lower-scoring exemplars and repeat the process. Discuss what lead to score discrepancies amongst graders, come to consensus on the thresholds for performance levels, and identify specific examples from the essay for clear illustration (e.g. What language constitutes a 3 vs. a 4?). When scoring norms are well-articulated, provide faculty with a set of new exemplars to be scored on the same genre rubric. Ask teachers to score independently, then discuss their scores and rationales for scoring decisions.