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Use anchor papers to define “good” writing
February 7, 2024
Have you ever tried to shoot a basket without ever seeing the hoop? Imagine doing this every time you write. Of course, students will question if they wrote a “good one,” or if they accomplished what the teacher wanted, or if they are “done.” When they don’t ever see the target, how will they know if they hit it?
To help your students better understand what good writing looks and sounds like in your classroom, begin utilizing anchor papers (also known as exemplar papers, benchmark papers, writing samples, etc.).
Anchor papers help educators set clear expectations and provide concrete models for students. Strong writing samples can become stepping stones for your students, guiding them towards your expectations and boosting their confidence as writers.
Generate a list of qualities
Begin collecting writing samples that are grade-level and/or subject-area appropriate. Be prepared to reveal a strong sample of what you are looking for BEFORE students write in a particular genre, mode, or style.
Put up the writing sample and dissect it with students for the characteristics of strength. Make a list of qualities, traits, skills… What do we notice about the good ones?
(See an example list of characteristics that Maureen Scane created with her fourth graders after studying strong narratives.) You could create a similar list for a strong science lab report, chapter summary, journal entry, math explanation, classroom description, or any other type of writing.
Consider pairing anchor papers with writing rubrics on displays or handouts, creating a clear road map for success. This visual reference point empowers students to self-assess their work and identify areas for improvement, nurturing a sense of ownership and responsibility over their writing journeys.
Reveal parallel examples
Of course, show students these strong writing samples on parallel topics. If you reveal a strong anchor paper on the very topic you want them to write about… students will inevitably copy the piece. Rather, if you want them to write up a science lab report on topic A, then reveal a lab report on Topic B. Or, if you want them to write a personal narrative about an embarrassing moment, then reveal a personal narrative on a sad moment.
Build a collection of strong writing samples to reveal to students.
- K-12 Common Core Writing Samples: Appendix C
- The Vermont Writing Collaborative
- Collection of K-12 Argument/Opinion writing samples
- Text sets, prompts, and written responses for grades 2-12
- Student models grades- 1-12 in various genres
- K-2 writing samples in students’ own handwriting
You might also use this as an opportunity to reveal weak examples. Don’t only give kids a vision of what you are looking for but also a clear picture of what you are not looking for.
Don’t shy away from showcasing anchor papers that reveal common pitfalls alongside strong qualities. These “learning anchors” offer invaluable opportunities for deeper analysis and reflection.
By examining both strengths and weaknesses in action, anchor papers can help students not only learn what “good” writing looks like but also delve into the nuances of what makes it work. This open discussion encourages healthy risk-taking and fosters a deeper understanding of writing strategies.
Reveal developmentally appropriate samples
Kindergarten teachers, you will want to reveal samples that nudge students to meet the vision of “good” as it changes throughout the year. For example, show them anchor papers of just pictures with details in August. Then, in late fall, reveal anchor papers with letters/words matching the pictures in late fall. And maybe, by mid-winter, you can share sentences with pictures.
Be prepared with anchor papers at all stages of the writing. However, don’t end the year with the vision of “good” being simply one perfect sentence. Rather, several sentences on a single topic is better, even if it’s laced with convention errors. To see some strong end-of-the-year kindergarten anchor papers check out the examples below.
Organize your anchor paper collection
You know how important it is to show authentic examples of student work to your class, but keeping track of why you kept a certain piece is tricky. We have all collected piles of papers from one year and then wondered why in the world we wanted a particular piece when we looked at it the next year.
Always label the sample with the specific writing skills and genre specifics it demonstrates (e.g., shows great beginning. includes clear how-to organization, or has good word choice, especially paragraph 3).
Keep in mind that as you begin collecting, you’ll realize that one paper might act as an anchor for several different reasons. It’s better to have a smaller collection of papers than to try to keep track of too many. Remember to hang on to those potential anchor papers and keep track of why you like them so you can pull them out and use them next year to teach the Six Traits of Writing.
Anchor papers aren’t merely classroom tools; they’re also vital allies in aligning your writing instruction with broader frameworks like the Common Core State Standards. By referencing pre-made anchor paper sets or creating your own that reflect these standards, you can ensure your curriculum and expectations are in perfect harmony. This not only simplifies your planning but also provides students with a clearer sense of how their writing fits into the bigger picture.
While it’s crucial to showcase exemplary pieces and dissect them for strengths and weaknesses, the power of anchor papers extends beyond the classroom.
Establish a system for grade-level teachers to share and swap anchor papers—no sense everyone collecting strong writing samples. And keep in mind, special education and resource teachers need access to multiple grade levels. Not to mention, when switching to a new grade level, it’s very convenient to have grade-level samples on hand.
Sharing and discussing anchor papers within your school community can lead to a more calibrated understanding of rubrics and ensure consistent application of standards. This, in turn, fosters a fairer and more transparent assessment field for your students and provides a clearer and more consistent instructional plan for your teachers.