Examining Exemplars and Using Mentor Texts

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
67 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

Examining Exemplars is a strategy used to help students identify and understand what the expectations are to be able to produce a high-quality assignment, task, or project before they complete that task. By examining exemplars (or example pieces of student work), students are able to compare and contrast strengths and attributes of pieces of work through discussion with their peers and the teacher. This strategy can be used in any content or grade level.

Implementation Steps

20 minutes
  1. Narrow and define exactly what you want students to take away from this experience. For example, do you want students to learn, by analyzing an exemplar, what a proficient math open response should include?

  2. Select an example of proficient product that covers not the content expectations, but the student work product expectations. There are many resources available online, or an example can be created or selected from student work from prior years (this is a great reason to save sample student work throughout the school year). Some resources, and an example, are included below.

  3. Analyze the example to make sure it has the exemplar criteria you want students to "discover."

  4. Make a list of the criteria so that you won't need to worry whether students have left something out during the discovery process. Also, if needed, write up your sentence stems to ensure that your prompts are rigorous thinking questions, not just knowledge-level questions.

  5. Determine how you will display the exemplar. You want it to be visible to all students and in a format that allows you, or students, to mark it up.

  6. Implement:

    • State the purpose of the activity. Make sure to include that this piece of work is an example of "exemplary" work for a student at their grade level.

    • Display the exemplar where everyone can see it.

    • Go over the exemplar with students first. Some interactive ways to do this include choral reading, popcorn reading, or reading where students pick the student reader after them.

    • Ask students, "What do you notice about this example that makes it good?"

    • Take all student responses, but don't hesitate to prompt and question to guide students to dig more deeply. Initially expect surface responses that focus on presentation, but eventually push students to identify additional qualities of the example.

    • As responses are given, when appropriate, annotate the exemplar. You want this model to be displayed for students to reference and compare their work to to determine if their work is proficient (you can also make a photograph of the model so that you can make a printed copy for students).

    • Continue the process until your "secret" list of criteria is covered.

  7. Set the expectation for how students will use the exemplar by modeling. You will need to do this as students begin working on the work product this is intended for.

  8. On your own, use the student-discovered criteria to make a checklist or rubric, organized by sections, that students can use during the work process. 

  9. Keep expectations "doable." Initially, you won't expect students to have a perfect completed product. Focus instead on specific elements of the work, for example writing an attention-grabbing opening sentence, to ensure the expectation is reasonable for students.

  10. As students continue the work process, have them compare their work to the exemplar and the list of criteria. You may also consider using a peer feedback protocol, in which students analyze their peer's work according to the exemplar criteria. Monitor student progress closely so that you can pull individuals or small groups who are struggling.

Using Non-Examples

Sometimes students gain greater clarity from non-examples. Using a non-example can be confusing for some students, so use this approach with caution and do many checks to ensure that students realize that they are discovering "what not to do." 

If students already use a model of non-examples, such as the Frayer model, that will help students "get" the idea of this process. Don't be discouraged from using non-examples, but you might want to start first with using them in a context that includes identifying/providing an exemplar as well. 

Using Mentor Texts to Incorporate Culturally Relevant Sources

Genee' Johnson
CRTL Master Teacher

Mentor texts that are culturally relevant can provide marginalized students with a mirror into their own experiences since typically the curriculum may not represent their cultures and interests. 

  1. Pair the assignment or skill with a piece/text that is relevant to the students culture. Doing this helps to connect students' everyday life and interests into the world of academia which increases engagement and comprehension.

  2. In choosing a text, consider the following questions:

    • What are ways that student voice can be incorporated into the list of culturally relevant texts?

    • What is current in the students' culture and pertains to this skill set or topic of assignment?

  3. Teachers should know what is relevant to students through periodic interests surveys, discussions in class and having students create list from topics given by the teacher. 

    • For example:

      • If assigning narrative writing, giving the students a print out of the lyrics TuPac's “Brenda's Got a Baby” would be an excellent mentor text in addition to the teachers' mentor text. 

      • Social Studies teachers could use current events that pertain to student's culture to based their Mentor Text or Project topic on, such as the Central Park Five.

      • Science teachers could use environmental issue that directly affects the students community, i.e. Worlds of Fun amusement park is a major pollutant  

    • Ensure that the mentor text piques students’ interests and allows for easy comprehension.

Special Education Modification

Providing students with learning disabilities with multiple exemplars, and discussing the attributes that make the piece of work an exemplar, can help students explicitly understand what the expectations are for their own work. Students could also collaboratively work with the teacher to make a list of the top 3-5 elements of the exemplar that they feel are most important to include in their activity, project, or task.

Questions to Consider

  • How could you use this strategy to encourage students to self-monitor and assess their progress on work assignments?

  • How could you interactively model this assignment?

  • What could be challenging about this strategy for students? How could you prepare to address any challenges in advance?

  • Could there be an advantage to examining work that may not meet exemplar standards?

Coach Tips

Cheryl Belknap
BetterLesson Instructional Coach
  • If the exemplar to be analyzed is complex or lengthy, or if you are working with early elementary students, chunk the process to focus on one or a few similar skills at a time, followed by student practice of those skills.

  • Hang onto student work to use as exemplars in future years. To save space, convert these to digital files.

  • Pair the use of exemplars with rubrics and checklists, as in this example. This ties together more than one aspect of student work at a time and sends the message that all students can reach proficiency by following these steps.

  • Don't use an exemplar that covers the same content students will be working on; otherwise, students will copy it.

Tech Tools

Document Cameras

  • Document cameras are a powerful classroom tool that allow you to project an image of work on paper but also a petri dish, a cube, or pretty much anything you can fit under the camera.

  • How this tech tool supports this strategy:

    • By adding a clear piece of acetate, the exemplar can be "annotated" right on the camera bed. Alternatively, you can annotate on the projected image.


  • Seesaw allows for the documentation of artifacts, audio, video, and writing that can easily be shared with an entire class or with parents as students build their seesaw portfolio. Seesaw can also be used as a class discussion tool via its blog feature.

  • How this tech tool supports this strategy:

    • Training students to upload their work to SeeSaw creates a self-generated repository of student work exemplars that can be saved and used in the future.


  • ClassDojo is a free, simple-to-use platform that supports student-led portfolios. If you're already using ClassDojo, why replicate the work of uploading students' names, etc. to another tool to create student portfolios?

  • How this tech tool supports this strategy:

    • Training students to upload their work to ClassDojo Student Stories creates a self-generated repository of student work exemplars that can be saved and used in the future.

Related Lessons

  • Explore the "True or False" lesson by 1st grade Math teacher Amanda Cole included in the resources below to see how she uses exemplars to demonstrate to students how to effectively explain their thinking and problem solving strategies.

  • Explore the "Expository Exemplars" lesson by 6th grade ELA teacher Hillary Boles included in the resources below to see how she uses exemplar essays to help students align their understanding of what an Expository essay is supposed to look like.

  • Explore "Wild Water Slide: Engineering and Experimental Design" lesson by Erin Greenwood, included in the resources below, to see how to use an exemplar for a project.

  • Explore the "Writing a RECALL Lab Conclusion" lesson by Erin Greenwood, included in the resources below, to see how to use an exemplar for writing.

  • Explore the "Technical Reading" lesson by Sidney Schuler, included in the resources below, to see an example of a complex writing expectation.

  • Explore the "Adopt an Element Research Project" lesson by Erin Greenwood, included in the resources below, to see an additional example of the use of an exemplar to establish clear work product expectations for a student project.

  • Explore the "Reach for the Sky (or at least an Exemplary Personal Narrative)" lesson by Hillary Boles, included in the resources below, to see an example of using exemplars for less than, proficient, and advanced work. Not a recommended process unless most students are already at proficient, and do not recommend the use of less than proficient.