Classroom Strategies

Common Mistakes with Student Writing Prompts

Are your writing prompts letting students show what they know?

Writing prompts in schools have a long and varied history. Anyone who has spent time in a classroom, attempting valiantly to teach students to write, has tried – probably repeatedly – to use a writing prompt. Our shared hope has always been that we can learn something from the results – that when we look at the student work, we will be able to say, “Aha! Now I can see what the problem is!” (Or, hopefully, “Aha! Look how much they’ve learned!”)

Sometimes, that happens. Often, however, we don’t get clear results like that from a writing prompt.

What could go wrong? Let’s look at a typical classroom scenario and see if we can learn anything. 

It is 3:30, and Ms. Riccio has just finished the day in her fourth grade class. Her students, all 22 of them, spent a chunk of time today working on a writing prompt that she had designed. Most of them, she had been pleased to see, had worked hard….it had been such a pleasure to see their heads bent over their desks, and hear the sweet sound of pencils scratching across papers. To be sure there were a few (well, maybe 7 or 8)  who had avoided the task with drinks of water, pencil sharpening, and the like – but most had earnestly taken on the task.

Ms. Riccio sits down at her desk and re-reads the prompt students worked with.

“What makes someone admirable? Think of a person you admire and write about him or her. What do they look like? How long have you known them? What do you do together? Why do you admire this person? Be sure to organize your writing and give details that help explain your thinking.”

Ms. Riccio thumbs through the papers. She briefly considers beginning with the drink-getters and the pencil-sharpeners, but a glance at those papers shows there is little writing there. So, she decides to begin with Francine’s paper. It is long and neatly written, uses four paragraphs, and appears to have mostly correct spelling ( a good sign!)

But as she reads, Ms. Riccio feels a growing sense of dismay. Francine has indeed written four paragraphs – but each paragraph is about a different question in the prompt.

 I am writing about my mom’s friend Charlene. Charlene is a little bit chubby, but she always wears great clothes and really cool shoes. Every time Charlene sees me, she gives me a big smile. She asks me how I’m doing and whether I have read any good books lately. 

I have known Charlene my whole life, about nine years. I don’t remember the first two years because I was a baby, but for the past few years she has been my mom’s good friend, so I see her at least every week.  

Charlene and my mom and me  do lots of things together when she is at my house. Sometimes we bake brownies, which are my favorite cookie. In the winter we might make popcorn and watch a movie together. Last summer Charlene came with my family and me to the beach for a day. That was so fun!

We played frisbee and went swimming and Charlene showed me how to dive right into the waves. We also had hot dogs and French fries and a milkshake. 

I admire Charlene because she’s so nice. She’s nice to me and my friends and my whole family. She laughs a lot too. Charlene has a rescue dog named Suzy that she takes really good care of, and she is also very nice to my family’s dog. I admire people who are nice to animals.

Mrs. Riccio reads on. Several other students have approached the prompt in a similar way, diligently answering each question separately. Their pieces, she realizes, are more like well-filled out worksheets than essays. Other students have written paragraphs that appear to answer one of the questions in the prompt – one has written about how nice her teacher last year was, one has written about going ice-fishing with his grandpa, two have written about their big sisters and all the nice things they do for them.

Mrs. Riccio sighs. How useful was the prompt she designed in learning about her fourth graders’ writing abilities? What did she learn? What does she still not know?

From the results of the prompt, Ms. Riccio knows:

  • which students can organize their thoughts into paragraphs, and which can not
  • which students can use varied vocabulary and syntax, and which can not
  • which students can pay attention to the whole prompt question, and which can not
  • which students can use writing conventions independently, and which can not

From the results of the prompt, Ms. Riccio does NOT know:

  • how well students understand any content
  • how well students can formulate a focus statement in response to a question
  • how well students can use evidence from a text
  • how well students can organize their thoughts into paragraphs to support a focus
  • how well students can use transitions to make their essay a coherent whole
  • how well students can create an introduction
  • how well students can conclude

Hmm……..Ms. Riccio takes a good look again at the pile of student writing in front of her.

She takes a good look at the prompt.

And she realizes…..the prompt itself is a big part of the problem!

Most of us teachers have found ourselves in Ms. Riccio’s shoes. With the best of intentions, we create a writing prompt that will give kids something to write about, and give us useful information about their writing.

But often, our efforts do not pan out as well as we had hoped. For various reasons, the prompt we tried does not yield helpful information about what kids can and cannot do – and we are left, as caring teachers, still in the dark about what we can do in our classroom instruction.

Stay tuned for the next blog, when we will consider some useful, manageable alternatives!

5 thoughts on “Common Mistakes with Student Writing Prompts

    1. Yes! I have definitely experienced this. My suggestion is to write a broad prompt such as: What makes someone admirable? Think of someone you consider admirable. Write an essay describing this admirable person. Make sure your essays paints a picture of the person using words.

      This allows the student to do more of their own thinking and include their own ideas about the person.

  1. Unfortunately the example prompt is exactly the way the publishers and test makers have often worded them. It is how AP essay tests prompts are often written. The old CAHSEE did a better job: one task and then in a separate image a “as you write consider the following” box. The SAT uses one task and then uses the phrasing: support your claims from your readings, observations, and experiences.

  2. The problem is that we don’t get to choose the prompt for state testing and they are hard to understand sometimes. As much as we prepare the students on what to do with a prompt, them understanding what is wanted isn’t always what we get.

  3. I wish you had included the “next blog” here. We all can relate to what you are saying here, but I, for one, wish you didn’t make us wait for the alternatives.

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About the Author: A longtime middle school teacher in a Vermont public school, Joey has been deeply involved with content-based writing instruction at both the state and national level. At the Vermont Department of Education, she worked with the development of the Vermont GE’s in writing, grades K-12, and the writing portion of the New England Common Assessment Program. Joey is now working with the Common Core Standards at the state and national level and presents nationally about Common Core writing instruction. She is a co-founder of the Vermont Writing Collaborative and the lead author of Writing for Understanding: Using Backward Design to Help All Students Write Effectively.