Using Student Exemplars to Maximize Writing Success
Models provide a concrete reference for young writers, which helps to improve writing strategies and skills.
By Dawn Dodson
Easy as pie—well that’s the way the workshop gurus made it sound at the several writing instruction conferences I have attended over the years. No matter how many “how to” books, writing structure worksheets, and template organizers I purchased, my writers continued to struggle with revising to improve their writing. It was always the same routine: open with a mini-lesson, try out a trait, conduct free writing time, move on to conferencing. Kids were producing multiple writings and were engaged when it came to proofreading and editing, even word choice wasn’t that bad, but to say that writing style and achievement was growing... I honestly couldn’t.
What I needed were solid examples of student writing that would present a challenge, but at the same time not cause writers to become frustrated. So, in an answer to this dilemma, I began searching for student exemplars: pieces of writing that held a high standard and could be analyzed as well as provide a structure for my writers to mimic. Once found, they were an immediate success and the uses became abundant. The exemplars are now a mainstay of my writing instruction routine.
Exemplars for Introductory Lessons
Throughout the school year, I teach several different writing structures—both fiction and nonfiction. As a part of each unit of study, pupils are required to demonstrate their aptitude in independently creating each structure. Introducing each text structure with an exemplar allows the entire class to discuss, read, and analyze the features and expectations of each piece. In order to home in on specific aspects of an exemplar, students color code the elements outlined in the mini-lesson. I also provide students with a graphic organizer to record the elements that make the piece an exemplar. These activities are placed in our writer’s notebooks and used as study resources and reference pieces for writing assignments and projects.
Exemplars for Revision Practice
My sixth grade writers breeze through the writing process... until they meet the revision and editing steps. Oftentimes, they combine the two steps, which means I have to work with each person, explaining why it is necessary to separate the two steps. Exemplars are a wonderful way to present the strategies and concepts of revising and editing writing. With a partner, class members discuss how the message of a piece of writing could improve. From here, we discuss transitions, word choice, and sentence variety as a class. Seeing a concrete example provides writers with a scaffold to assist them in trying out new strategies and improving current strategies.
Exemplars to Celebrate Writing Successes
Taking the time to celebrate individual student success lets young writers know they are achieving, and these celebrations motivate other writers to evaluate their own writing and better understand the changes they need to consider in their work. I use both informal and formal student exemplars to share and discuss with the class. Informal exemplars demonstrate thinking and effective employment of a writing strategy or skill. When teaching revision techniques, I will post a student’s work on the whiteboard and have the class discuss changes made to the original draft and guess the reason(s) the author might have chosen to revise. Not only does this offer an opportunity for critical thinking skills, it also gives those hard workers a well-deserved pat on back for a job well done.