Exemplar Essay

Below is a list of writing analysis activities you can implement in your classroom using our Exemplar Essays.  


Whether you're preparing your students to write to a Revision Assistant prompt, or teaching them how to spot the key features of a strong essay, the activities below paired with our Exemplar Essays are a fun, hands-on way to enhance your writing analysis lessons.




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. 


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 an exemplar that scored highly for organization. Remove the transitions between paragraphs. Have students attempt to reconstruct it and develop transitions to bring the pieces back together. Now present students with the original and have them compare their created transitions to the original, high-scoring transitions.


Apply this strategy to another focus area listed above (ex. remove the thesis or claim and have students construct one that matches the body paragraphs).

After the previous transition activity, present students with another deconstructed exemplar--this time completely missing transitions within one or more 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.

Present students with a low-scoring exemplar, one with particularly bland or poor word choices. Have students work in pairs to identify key places where language could be improved. Consider allowing students to use a thesaurus. Once pairs have made substitutions, join them into groups of four. Together, identify and discuss the common poor word choices selected. Share substitutions and discuss the rationale for these changes. Each group should come to consensus about the improved word choices and submit to the teacher for rescoring. Afterwards, 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.

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.

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.

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 explanation to the quotes to connect to the essay’s central idea or claim.




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).

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?

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 student 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 list of required content. Students should revise their list, 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 what effect the missing pieces have on the story.

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 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 and 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?

Explanation of Essay Exemplars
Grades 6-10

These exemplars serve to stimulate and facilitate conversations about student writing, teacher expectations, standards, and instructional strategies for improving student writing, with the ultimate goal of improving teacher instruction and student writing. Additionally, these exemplars provide parents, guardians, and students models of grade-level performance in standards-based writing.

Process of Exemplar Selection

Much work has gone into the development of Oakland student models that demonstrate exemplary writing or writing that exceeds a basic level of proficiency. A committee of instructional coaches collected samples of student writing and chose exemplars that best demonstrate examples of advanced student work that meet grade-level standards in the priority writing applications (or genre) for each grade level. To evaluate the essays, we used the 4-point PWA grade-level rubrics, which are genre specific and focus on rhetorical strategies as well as organization, language, and conventions. We were careful not to select student essays that are out of the range of possibility for student grade-level performance.

When we felt the model did not reach the advanced proficiency level, we revised and edited the writing to improve upon it. Before making any changes, we asked ourselves, “If we conferenced with this student, would this be an achievable and realistic change that student could make?” Therefore, while these models are not the exact originals of the student writing, we are confident that they are authentic representations of OUSD students. They are not perfect essays and in all cases and could be improved upon. Because we are moving to a new priority-writing genre in the 9th grade and do not currently have samples of this kind of student writing, the 9th grade model included here was written by a teacher.

Connection to the District Process Writing Assessment

Currently, the Process Writing Assessment anchor papers and training papers serve the purpose of fully demonstrating the range of achievement at each grade level and at each score point on the rubrics. In the future, we hope to collect student writing that students have had the opportunity to go through the stages of the writing process fully, including the process of revising and editing.  We expect that when students have had the opportunity to plan, revise, and edit a piece of writing, the quality will surpass that demonstrated on an on-demand assessment. For this reason, we ask teachers to be wary of making direct comparisons between the PWA anchor and training papers that have scored a 4, and the exemplars that we have selected.

Future Work

Our goal is to collect samples of student writing that represent the range of student performance and to publish annotated exemplars that span the K-12 continuum. Again, the purpose of these exemplars is to help facilitate conversations about grade-level standards and expectations and explore related instructional strategies.

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