Classroom Strategies
Part 2 of Writing Prompts

Designing Useful Writing Prompts

The elements of a well-structured student writing prompt

Remember Ms. Riccio?

Ms. Riccio was the fourth grade teacher who had enthusiastically designed a writing prompt for her students, so that she could see what they could (and could not) do with writing. Here was the prompt she created:

“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.”

You might also remember that Ms. Riccio was disappointed with what she learned from her students’ writing – and much of the problem, she has realized, lay with the prompt itself.

Let’s think about that. What was the problem?

First, the prompt asked too many questions – five questions, in fact. Importantly, those “too many questions” made it almost impossible for students to establish a focus statement for their writing. Without a focus statement, they did not have a clear direction for organizing the information they were trying to write about. So, many of them, with enthusiasm equal to their teacher’s, carefully answered all of the five questions, producing what was what in effect a collection of short answers on a worksheet.

Second, the prompt had no connection to content. There was no way students could provide any textual or informational evidence – there was none to give. They had to come up with content from their own personal lives. Students may have enjoyed doing this (and certainly it’s important for kids to sometimes write about their own experiences), but it was a missed opportunity for Ms. Riccio to see where her students were in terms of text-based writing.

Third, it was not clear what sort of writing students were being asked to do. Was this a story? Was it an opinion? Was it informational? Students could take any (or all) of these approaches – which made it hard for them to write, and hard for Ms. Riccio to assess.

So, what might we consider in designing useful writing prompts?

A prompt that encourages students to respond with a clear focus statement

Writing instruction guru Donald Murray reminds us of the importance of focus elegantly and forcefully in his The Craft of Revision (2004). He writes,

First of all, I must answer the question: “What is the one thing I must say?” For years – decades – I fought this, wanting to say two things or three or more.  No matter what clever designs I created, what rhetorical tricks I employed, what new approaches I created, they all collapsed in confusion. In writing my column and my textbooks, my poems and my novels, my essays and  my articles, I could only say one thing. Everything in the  piece of  writing had to lead to or away from that single message.

Focus makes sure that one meaning is emphasized, and once that is established everything in the piece of writing must support and develop that meaning. (2004)

Depending on grade level and other factors, there are many variations on this focus.  Most basic and accessible is a prompt which guides students to a focus statement that turns the question into a statement (“How does the story show that the Grinch changes?”)  As students grow and develop as writers, writing prompts can push students to answer a question more precisely and thoughtfully (“What is the author suggesting about courage?”).

As we saw with Ms. Ricccio’s experience, a lot depends on this clear focus statement. Organization depends on it – which means use of transitions depends on it. Both introductions and conclusions emerge from this clear focus statement, this clear sense of direction, for the writer.

In short, without a clear focus, it’s hard for students to produce effective writing.

A prompt that is text and/or content based

Writing has many purposes. While some of these are of course personal (like Ms. Riccio’s prompt), others are academic. We know that most students need a lot of instruction and practice in making meaning from text and content, and showing that understanding in writing. That means a prompt should often reflect that instruction.  Making sure that kids are writing about something substantive that they know, and grappling with that independently in evidence-based thinking and writing, is often an important criterion for a writing prompt.

A prompt that allows students to show the elements of the standard for the type of writing they are being asked to do

As teachers (and maybe as writers ourselves), we know that much writing is not a “single type” but is in fact a blend of some sort. However, for our developing writers, blending can be a challenge. When designing a writing prompt for our students, it’s useful to think about this. The more clear we are with what type of writing we are asking students to do, the more likely they are to do it!

A prompt that the teacher herself could answer

Over the years – and through lots and lots of mistakes – we have learned a lot about the importance of what we call the “test drive.” None of us would think about buying a car we had not driven – yet we often ask kids to write things we have not tried to write ourselves. When a teacher “test drives” a writing prompt, she sometimes finds that even she could not really answer that question. (Ms. Riccio might have saved herself some time and disappointment if she had tested her prompt on herself first!)

What are some examples of writing prompts?

Below is a short example of what useful writing prompts could look like (and of course there are dozens of other possibilities!)

Content/text  Non-example Effective prompt
 Story of Ruby Bridges

(Grade 4)

What would you have done if you had been Ruby? Why would you have acted that way? How did Ruby show courage in this story? Use evidence from the text to support your thinking.
Study of American Revolution

(Grade 6)

Compare and contrast the views of the Loyalists and the Patriots about the British laws. Why did the laws cause such trouble? Which side would you have agreed with? Was the Boston Tea Party a good thing or not? Write a letter to the editor about the Boston Tea Party, either from the perspective of a Loyalist or a Patriot, giving reasons for your opinion.
 Of Mice and Men

(Grade 8)

How do you feel about Lennie? How do you feel about  the ending of the story? How could you write a different ending? What does the story seem to be saying about the American Dream? Give evidence from the text to support your thinking

As we all know so well, getting useful information from our students’ writing can make a huge difference in our ability to provide good instruction. Good luck on your writing prompt journeys!

One thought on “Designing Useful Writing Prompts

  1. I attended a workshop last Fall with Joey and Jane as presenters I believe. I should really recall! There was a teacher there who shared her biographies from grade 2 students. They were wonderful. Can you help me find them on your site? Thanks so much.

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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.