A writing prompt is the set of written directions for a writing task. It provides the necessary instructional support that sets clear expectations for all students. Writing prompts should always be tied to curriculum goals, allowing students to demonstrate their content knowledge and composition skills. A good writing prompt will always be free from bias, include an authentic audience, and have a suggested structure for the response (essay, letter, brochure, newsletter, etc.). It may also include an example or mentor text to reference. Let’s explore some main components of a writing prompt you should consider to help you ensure all students can successfully interact with the writing tasks in your classroom.
Writing prompts should always be tied to your curriculum goals. Anytime you design an assignment for your students, it is a form of assessment, whether formal or informal. These assignments are a way for you to see how students are progressing towards learning the intended knowledge and skills from your school or district curriculum. Writing tasks are no exception and should be directly aligned with your writing standards. Most likely, your curriculum standards will not dictate topics but will provide you with what genres the students should be able to compose.
Your curriculum will also outline grade-level standards for conventions such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. As you create a writing prompt, be sure to set your expectations for which standards you are assessing. Clear expectations are important for ELLs, so they know what is expected of them and can check in on their own progress throughout the writing process. These expectations can include things like “Be sure to capitalize the first letter of every sentence” or “Use the narrative format that you learned yesterday in class as you prepare to write your essay”. Stating clear expectations that are tied to your curriculum goals not only helps students know exactly what to expect but also helps you monitor their progress over time.
Audience, Structure, and Format
Writing prompts need a clear audience and a specific format for students to follow. When provided with a writing prompt, students should have an intended audience they are writing for. The audience can be as simple as their own classmates or the teacher, but they often invest more time and effort in their writing if they know that someone will be reading their work outside the classroom. Maybe they are writing to share with an older class, or maybe they are writing letters they will mail to the recipients, hoping to get a reply. Directly tied to this audience is WHAT the students are writing. Are they writing letters? Publishing a short story in book format? Writing an informational article to be published on a class website? Or are they writing essays and need to follow a specific structure such as compare and contrast or chronological order? It is always helpful to have examples for students to read as well. These could be student examples of final essays from previous years or real-world mentor texts such as magazine articles, online blog posts, or a picture book. An authentic audience, a specific format, and examples all help to provide clarity for ELL students as they work through the writing task to connect the final product to the initial writing prompt that you will provide to them.
Writing prompts should limit bias and not have requirements for specific background knowledge. Bias is an attitude or response to something specific to one’s own experiences and understanding. While we can never truly free ourselves from the many biases that exist, we can work to limit how our own biases impact our student’s experience in the classroom to give all children the best chance at successfully completing assignments. In cultural bias, for example, we may interpret ideas or events through the lens of our own culture. In confirmation bias, we may draw conclusions based on our own personal experiences and beliefs. In gender bias, we may make assumptions about our students based on whether they are girls or boys. Many types of bias exist, and they all contain a similarity- that we approach the world based on our own experiences and ideas. In teaching, being mindful of our own biases and limiting bias whenever possible helps to craft lessons and tasks that are as accessible as possible to all students. The way we interpret ideas may inadvertently make classroom tasks more difficult for students to understand and complete if they have a different outlook. This is especially true of English Language Learners and other students that may come to our classroom with different cultural experiences, limited understanding of certain culture-related background knowledge, or limited vocabulary understanding.
Samples and Mentor Texts
ELL students particularly need exposure to different writing genres by reviewing examples and writing about different genres independently. Accompanying your prompt can also be examples of writing that is well-aligned to the same or a similar prompt. To help further demonstrate to students the structure and format of their article, their intended audience, or simply how a completed essay aligns to the assigned prompt, consider what samples of writing you can share with students. Allowing students to analyze writing samples will help provide them with the context required to understand and then complete the writing prompt.
You can also spend time explicitly teaching the prompt and the expectations for writing, assisting students with any misunderstandings they may have, background knowledge they need, or vocabulary they must learn prior to beginning the assignment. If a cultural reference in the story is necessary for students to understand the text, you may also need to introduce this to your students. Since some prompts may include information that is not easily accessible to ELLs but still important for the lesson, like prompts that include specific vocabulary ELLs may not be familiar with, make sure to take the time to explain the prompt in multiple ways.
A Writing Prompt in the Classroom
When students return from winter break, Mrs. Schauer asks her 1st-grade students to “write a personal narrative about your favorite gift from Santa for Christmas”. She shares three examples from her students from last year during their read-aloud time. Additionally, she provides students with a rubric that outlines her expectations, including dialogue, beginning with a catchy lead, and using descriptive language, which are all skills they have been working on. She explains that these narratives will be compiled into a class collection to keep in her classroom library for future students to read. Mrs. Schauer has a class of 21 students, including 5 ELLs, 3 of whom do not celebrate Christmas.
Mrs. Schauer ensured that her prompt was tied to curriculum goals, even creating a rubric that outlined what she would be assessing. Additionally, she let students know the format they would be writing in (personal narrative), who their audience is (future first grade students) and showed them several examples. However, Mrs. Schauer may not have accounted for the ELLs that were not familiar with Christmas or Christmas traditions- or who may have been familiar with Christmas but whose family did not participate in the tradition of Santa Claus. She might have restructured the prompt to allow students to write about their favorite morning over the break, or a favorite gift they had received in the past, or simply something fun they had done at a past holiday. A prompt restructured simply as “Write a personal narrative about your favorite gift you have received. You can talk about a gift you recently got from Santa for Christmas, a favorite birthday present, or even a gift or item you received “just because” from a family member or friend”. Now, in this situation, Mrs. Schauer provided options for students to ensure that everyone would be able to answer the prompt. Because this particular topic is not specific to the curriculum, it’s important to ensure that a student unfamiliar with the topic is not at a disadvantage when writing.
What you may notice in this scenario is not only did Mrs. Schauer have to thoroughly plan for her writing prompt and the support she would give to students, but she also needed to understand her students well. Consider how you might find ways to get to know your students, their backgrounds, and their own individual experiences so that you can craft a writing prompt that is accessible to everyone in your classroom!