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Teaching Upper Elementary Students to Write Effectively: Using Exemplar Essays to Improve Writing

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

There are so many things elementary teachers do to increase student knowledge about the writing process. And lucky for us, they all retained their knowledge of complete sentences, capitals, and punctuation from the earlier grades, right? We wish! We know as hard as the teachers prior to us worked, the students still struggle with basic sentence structure and the components that go with a well written essay. So, we are left wondering, on top of all the things we have to teach, how can we teach a student to introduce a story with a well written thesis statement, formulate a beautiful body that incorporates voice and visual pictures, and wrap it all up with a magnificent conclusion that restates the central idea? It’s a mountain that seems nearly impossible to climb.

Effective writing is a vital component of elementary students’ literacy achievement. Over the years, we have found that "drill and kill" doesn’t work to cultivate talented writers or even mediocre writers but providing quality examples of writing does! Showing them strong writing, not telling, is key.

1. Find examples of scored writing.

These can be downloaded from the Internet, your state education website, or previously scored student examples you have stored away in your filing cabinet. If you’re new to the subject or grade level, check in with your colleagues to see if they have some student writing samples they would be willing to share.

2. Give each student a 1, 2, 3, and 4 scoring card.

Review your writing rubric with your students before reading an essay aloud. Afterward, the students will “score” the essay by holding the scoring cards close to their chest, choosing an answer, and revealing it when the teacher requests. (If easier, you could also use dry erase boards and markers.) For example, 4 = the best, 3 = good, 2 = adequate, 1 = unsatisfactory. This can be modified to fit your grading system, or you are welcome to use our free expository rubric and scoring cards available here (it also includes a fun student-friendly version with emojis).

3. Read an example aloud.

At first, point out a few positive and negative qualities the paper may contain, such as content, organization, central idea, sentence variety, word choice, voice, conventions, etc. The students will learn what to look for as they determine a score. As the students learn more, scaffold them by saying less about the qualities the paper may contain to determine if they can identify them on their own.

4. Students show their cards.

The students enjoy taking ownership over their choices, and they will begin to justify their answers with examples from the text. In the beginning, you may want to give students time to discuss their thoughts with a partner or their table groups while they are learning the traits of well written essays. Then, slowly remove this support as students become more independent writers.

5. Teacher provides feedback and reveals the score.

The students enjoy learning even more when they think they are as “smart” as the teacher or scorer and feel proud if they determined the correct answer. They naturally want to become experts, and they can if we guide them along the way.

Very soon, students will begin to beg to score writing samples, and they will be disappointed when you don’t do it. If a student is unable to identify the positives and negatives of a writing sample, this is usually a clear sign that he has difficulty writing. You will find that this activity is also an excellent way to incorporate mini lessons such as capitalization, punctuation, spelling, voice, visual pictures, central ideas, concluding sentences, and a host of others into your writing workshop.

What’s next?

After you’ve shown students plenty of samples, model for your students how to incorporate the writing techniques learned into your own writing. Become vulnerable, make your thinking transparent, and model drafting, rereading, revising, editing, etc., while your students actively listen and observe. Explicitly demonstrating how a proficient writer thinks and acts as they write helps teachers to authentically connect with students during the writing process.

Once you have sufficiently modeled high-quality writing, your students will now be ready to apply and practice the modeled strategies in their own writing. Then, after they’ve completed their rough drafts, you can:

  1. Allow students to evaluate and reflect upon their own and peers’ writing and the use of the modeled strategies.

  2. Confer with students and assess their strengths and areas for improvement before modeling more strategies or teaching a new strategy or skill.

  3. Analyze your students’ writing to tailor future instruction.

  4. Regularly monitor students’ progress while teaching writing strategies and skills.

  5. Integrate writing and reading by using a variety of mentor texts to highlight key writing strategies.

The more you implement these proven methods into your writing instruction, you will build your students’ writing fluency and see your students’ writing begin to slowly transform before your eyes.

Do you have any other tips you use to improve your students’ writing? We’Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon. d love to hear them! Please share in the comments below.


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