Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Writing Prompts for Students: How to Strike the Right Balance

How much is too much? Currently a commercial for AT&T is asking if more is better, and, of course, the little kids sitting in the circle clamor that more is definitely better.

In the world of writing prompts, though, more or less becomes one of those debatable things. Be too specific, and a teacher may actually be limiting student creativity. Yet, being too vague might frazzle kids completely.

Before I begin, let me say that there is no correct answer to that question of "How much is too much?" The only real answer is "It depends." It's sort of like Goldilocks when she eats the porridge. Not too hot, or too cold, but just right. Goldilocks just knows.  Same for prompts. However, there are some guidelines.

As a teacher, when we create writing prompts, we need to think through exactly what we want students to do. Exactly what do we plan to address and assess?  Even more importantly, at what level are our students? What is their current competency? What level of support and instruction do they need? All these things are crucial when we write up the prompts on which we expect them to base their compositions.

Prompts can be very narrow or very wide open. You can give a kid one line: "Write about your summer vacation." The kid could then return anything from one line "It was fun" to a short autobiographical novella on his mission trip to Ecuador. So, realistically, teachers must be somewhat specific in what they want students to do and the product on which teachers expect to see.

The ACT provides great, concrete examples of prompts and scoring on its website. For example, the ACT provides the following sample prompt on its website:

Educators debate extending high school to five years because of increasing demands on students from employers and colleges to participate in extracurricular activities and community service in addition to having high grades. Some educators support extending high school to five years because they think students need more time to achieve all that is expected of them. Other educators do not support extending high school to five years because they think students would lose interest in school and attendance would drop in the fifth year. In your opinion, should high school be extended to five years?

In your essay, take a position on this question. You may write about either one of the two points of view given, or you may present a different point of view on this question. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.

The ACT prompt always provides two perspectives and then asks the student to take a position in his or her paper. As students aren't allowed to use their cell phones for research, many students use their own personal experiences for support in answering the prompt. If you really look at the prompt, while there is a lot of background, the prompt itself (the portion of what the students are to do) is actually very broad:  take a position and support. The sample ACT responses on the website are what give the writer a clue to how he or she will be scored.

So while this prompt seems to be wide open, the samples help narrow down what the ACT is expecting from the writer.  So the "how much" comes not from the prompt itself, but in the expectations of scoring. Nowhere in the prompt does it say persuade, but by taking a stand, that becomes the expectation.

Before moving on, let's look at a literary analysis prompt given to freshmen. It reads, "In his short story, 'A Retrieved Reformation,' O. Henry uses three literary techniques to tell the story of Jimmy Valentine, a career criminal who changes because he falls in love. What are the literary techniques that O. Henry uses? Using examples from the story, describe each of the literary techniques and how each was important to the story."

In this case, the prompt is very specific. The writer knows he must identify three literary techniques (although he may pick which three) and describe how they are used in the story. He knows he must back them up with examples. The writer gets all this direction from the prompt itself, which lets the writer know that three body paragraphs are probably expected.

Compare this to the AP Language and Composition summer homework given to rising juniors at my school. They are required to read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and then they have a choice of six prompts on which they will write. Here are two:

Select an important character who is a villain. Then in a well-organized essay, analyze the nature of the character's villainy and show how it enhances the meaning of the work. Do not merely summarize the plot.

One of the strongest human drives seems to be a desire for power. Write an essay in which you discuss how a character in a novel struggles to free himself or herself from the power of others or seeks to gain power over others. Be sure to demonstrate in your essay how the author uses this power struggle to enhance the meaning of the work.

These are high-end prompts requiring the writer read the work, understand the work and then analyze the work, all before forming his own thesis/opinion about the work; then, the writer must support that thesis. So while the prompt seems to have a lot more, it actually is very wide open, forcing the writer to make a lot of choices. Just because a prompt is long doesn't mean it has more. It can, in fact, have less.

So again, the question is not how much or how little to give students, but what is expected as the writing product. The great American novel can be whatever the writer wishes it to be, and a college thesis or a research paper are often on topics of the writer's choosing.

My students recently received this prompt: "You will research a topic, form an opinion, and then write and send a persuasive letter on that topic to an elected official. The letter must be mailed." That was it. But I broke it down into steps and I provided a letter format. The choice, though, of whom to write and what to research and what to say becomes the students' decision. The results were fantastic.

The bottom line is that, when designing prompts, you must consider your students and what they know and what you expect. You also need to decide how much choice and freedom you want students to have, and how much instruction you will provide. That's when you'll get it just right. 


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 4th 2013, 10:18 AM
Comment by: William A.
Michelle, that "bank commercial" is sponsored by ATT. Lesson for the advertiser: You cannot overdo the exposure of your brand.

[Fixed, with a link to the commercial! —Ed.]

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