Using Sample Essays to Improve Student Writing

One of the most underused resources in AP Literature are the sample essays (or anchor essays as I call them) on the College Board AP Lit exam page. College Board provides sample responses for Question 1 (poetry), Question 2 (prose), and Question 3 (open-ended) for every year dating back to 2003. In addition to the essays, College Board provides a summary justifying the scores the essays received at the reading. These essays are GOLD, and the possibilities of using them to improve student writing are endless. Here are a few ways I use them in class:

Scoring Essays

Having students score essays not only gives them the opportunity to see a full range of essays but provides a purpose for close and evaluative reading. Scoring essays most importantly offers students a model of a good (or average or bad) timed writing. In addition to reading essays, students become familiar with the scoring guide and learn exactly what constitutes 9/8, 7/6, 5, 4/3, etc. (Whenever I give students a prompt for a timed essay, I always provide them with the scoring guide for that prompt on the back so they will know exactly how that prompt will be evaluated and will have the prompt and guide together for reference when I return the essay).

Highlighting Essays

Highlighting essays helps students zero in on certain aspects of writing. For example, at the beginning of the year, my students use three different colors and highlight claims, evidence, and analysis. Every word in an essay should fall into one of these three categories; if it’s not, there’s no reason for it to be in the essay. From this, we will move to looking for and highlighting more intricate areas of writing such as analytical diction, sophisticated syntax, and specific tone. For more on highlighting essays, read The Power of Highlighting Essays.

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Reading Essays Before Writing

Just like stretching before exercising, reading anchor essays before writing is a great way to warm students up for writing. On occasion the day before writing a timed practice essay in class, I will give students a similar high-scoring anchor essay to read and discuss. For example, if students are writing on Question 1, we will read a poetry essay that received an eight or nine score. Students will read and mark things they like in the essay, and we will have an informal discussion about the essay (notice and note). When students write the next day, good writing is fresh in their minds, and they are ready to go.

Reading Essays After Writing

Other times we will read essays after students write. If a student seems to be stuck at a 4, 5, or 6, comparing their essay to an anchor essay that scores one or two points higher is beneficial. Students can identify one or two small tweaks which will take their writing to the next level. I see so many students trying to write 8s or 9s when they should focus on moving their writing up to the next level then the next. Anchor essays are perfect for modeling the next step up.

Revising Sample Essays

Melissa Smith gets credit for this idea that I used in my class this week. Provide students with a mediocre sample essay to read and discuss why it received its score; I used a 5 essay. Students were then paired and instructed to take the 5 essay and revise it to an 8/9 essay. This forced students to evaluate several parts of the essay including claims, evidence, analysis, writing style, and organization and expand upon them to improve the essay. Students enjoyed and benefited from the collaboration and saw gains in their writing after this activity. 

How do you use anchor essays in your classroom?

2 thoughts on “Using Sample Essays to Improve Student Writing

  1. Apt advice for AP English teachers. Kids can see that adding 2-3 sentences of insightful commentary can take a 4 to a 6. I might add, though, with the students I work with the hardest thing is to get them to trust themselves and their own interpretations. How I wish they didn’t want to “play it safe,” which produces bland, non-specific, low-scoring essays.

  2. Love, love, love this advice. I find sample essays one of the best tools my AP kids learn from. Thanks for sharing.

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