I have been teaching long enough to remember a time before our large-scale state writing assessment when the word “prompt” wasn’t connected to writing. Yet after receiving our first set of unfortunate writing scores years ago, my team bought a Book of 101 Everyday Prompts. Our well-intentioned assumption was if teaching kids to respond to a prompt helped, then having them practice more would really increase their success. Some teachers tell me their students respond to a writing prompt every day. Here are a few prompts I’ve read student responses to:
Write about your favorite TV program.
Write about a time you wished you could fly.
You discover a magic egg. Tell the story of what happens next.
While many kids will compliantly write to these starters, their responses are often formulaic, lacking both elaboration and voice. Because for every prompt there are obstacles. Maybe seven. Maybe three. Or if you are lucky, just one, and his name might be Zachary. When Zachary tries on the prompt it doesn’t fit.
What the prompt says: Write about your favorite TV program.
What Zachary says: “I don’t watch TV.”
What the prompt says: Write about a time you wished you could fly.
What Zachary says: “I’m afraid of heights.”
What the prompt says: You discover a magic egg. Tell the story of what happens next.
What Zachary says: “I think magic eggs are stupid.”
The obstacle is that one prompt doesn’t fit all because kids need to make personal connections to their writing topics.
Students Need to Make Prompts Their Own
Before we go swishing the prompts out with the bathwater, there is a place for them. Beyond large-scale assessments, students need to write to a prompt when they are filling out college forms, scholarship applications or applying for a job. Vicki Spandel reminds us in her book Creating Writers, that there are a few decent prompts that provide multiple entry points for writers. In addition, it’s our treatment of the prompt that can make or break it.
Students can make a personal connection to prompts by:
- Reading or listening to related high-quality mentor texts;
- Talking with their classmates about unique approaches to the writing;
- Brainstorming lists as a whole group and individually; or
- Challenging the prompt with a turn-around.
Let me say a little more about “challenging the prompt.” If Zachary is prompted to “Describe a delicious meal” but what he really wants to write about is the disgusting pea soup and crusty dry bread that Grandma makes on Sunday, I want the bread-and-soup writing. When young writers balk at a prompt, ask them, “Is the opposite more true for you?” By changing a word or two, can we make it fit better?
Prompts are the Beginning, Not the Finish Line
If the purpose of a prompt is to get students writing, then we shouldn’t also expect it to also be the finish line. This came to light when our K-6 students wrote in January about a time they were hurt. Some teachers were confused with what we found to be proficient writing. For example, one child began by writing about the time he got hurt and his Grandma gave him a band-aid and her dog, Sadie, came up to lick him. Most of the paper was about his obvious affection for Sadie, the dog.
A colleague challenged this paper, “It’s more about the dog than it is about the hurt. Why isn’t this off prompt?”
I asked, “Did the child write?”
“And can you tell he read the prompt?”
“Yes, but only because he mentioned the band-aid.”
“Then the prompt did its job because the child wrote a quality piece that began with an idea prompted by ‘write about a time you were hurt.’ We aren’t scoring how many sentences were about being hurt, we’re scoring the quality of the writing. His descriptive elaboration of Sadie? That’s what we’re looking for.”
Organic Writing is Always Healthy
Four times a year for the specific purpose of having a common conversation across our elementary schools and collaborative scoring opportunities, we use prompts. Every year I get requests for more prompts, lists of prompts, and books of prompts. I use this story to explain why I won’t send out more prompts. Once I was coaching in a classroom on a hot day. I was observing the teacher when a fuzzy little friend popped in through the open door and ran across the room. The children squealed and picked up their feet as a squirrel, obviously confused, dashed about trying to retrace his steps to get outside. He scurried up the pillows in the quiet corner and ran behind the “Top Ten Ways to Grow a Reader” poster. Eventually the teacher and I persuaded him to go outside, and the kids named him Nutty.
A little later as the students returned from lunch, the teacher turned on the overhead and said, “This is Dental Awareness Week. Today we’ll write about this — ‘If you were a toothbrush, what kind would you be and why?'”
My mouth dropped open. When a squirrel named Nutty comes into your classroom, there is no better gift for a community of writers. Imagine the writing that might have come from that opportunity!
I encourage teachers to have students choose topics from shared experiences, personal journal entries, wonderings, science observations, and any other writing that arises organically. The salt, pepper, and everyday spices are teaching them to write because they have something important to say. Prompts are fine every once in awhile, like a dash of smoked paprika. Just don’t overdo it. Here are some possibilities to consider when integrating prompts into your teaching:
1. Choose a prompt with multiple entry points. Here are some we’ve liked:
a. Write about a time you were hurt (emotionally, physically, or a time when you almost got hurt but didn’t)
b. Write about something you know or something you can do
c. Write a letter to persuade your teacher or family member to make a change
2. Give kids leverage to make the prompt their own. For example, you might:
a. Read mentor texts related to the topic
b. Let them talk and brainstorm with others
c. Turn the prompt around if necessary
3. Ask yourself: Can you tell they read the prompt? Did they connect and start writing?
Finally, write organically as much as possible and remember to keep prompts in their place.