Given the plethora of writing prompts that are freely available on the internet, that is the best library for prompts . A simple search of the internet with the term “writing prompts” results in hundreds of sites offering a slew of them for students of all ages attending elementary, middle, and high schools. These prompt libraries, however, have two serious problems: lack of discourse and ‘prompting’ (pun intended). Therefore, fixing them becomes an important task.
Types of Discourse
First, most prompts found on the internet need to highlight the type of writing discourse they are designed to engender. In other blogs, we’ve identified three main types: creative/ narrative, persuasive/argumentative, and informative/expository. These discourse types should drive students to write for different audiences, provide different organizational structures, and use different words. It would also be helpful to label the prompt explicitly so students know how to tailor their writing.
Creative Prompts: Use interesting language describing primary settings, characters, events, problems, and solutions. Your audience should enjoy and appreciate reading your work.
Persuasive Prompts: Be clear in distinguishing your opinions from important objective information. You should convince your audience of your point of view.
Informative Prompts: In your research, follow the structure of the materials to organize topics and summarize the information as accurately as you can (but don’t copy, highlight). Your audience should know more about the topic after reading your response.
Second, these prompts are threadbare and need some juice in directing students’ writing: They are usually a simple statement of a topic for the student to consider, but they offer little perspective-taking. They also fail to help the student get started with any writing strategies. Perspective-taking and writing strategies can be helpful when built into the prompt and move the student quickly into drafts. Perspectives reflect voice and ownership, experiences and interests, and language conventions. This last issue is important, but best worked on with revisions.
On the other hand, writing strategies are myriad and can be taught directly, the best of which involves free writing, outlining, structural plans, peer collaboration, and process planning. In the examples below, we emphasize enriching prompts by clearly distinguishing the discourse and providing the student with explicit discourse and strategies for writing. Note: One big source of ‘writer’s block’ is that it is difficult to start the writing process. By providing more information in the prompt, you can help students get something written quickly as part of a sloppy copy that they can rearrange later.
Journal Buddies offers grade-based prompts with many different options. For example, on the link below, prompts reflect Letter Writing Topics, Prompts, and Ideas for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. These prompts are designed for students to “convey their thoughts and feelings… and clearly and concisely express their thoughts to a specific intended audience.”
All the prompts use the same consistent theme of writing a letter but vary in the topics proffered.
8. Write a letter to a friend that includes one or two of your favorite memories together.
9. Write a letter to the President and share your opinion on a current event with him.
10. Research a local issue and then write a letter to a local congressperson about it.
Possible Adjustments to Writing Prompts
Rx8: Write to your friend describing your favorite memories with them. Describe some of the things you did together, either of your reactions and how it made you both feel. Why was it memorable, and how did it influence you and your friend? Use creative language: Clearly describe your friend and what happened. What emotions were stirred up by this memory? Your writing should be creative. You have a story to tell.
Rx9: Write to the President of the United States describing your view (positive or negative) on an event that is in the news and that you think affects you, your friends, or your family. Include a description of the event, and provide important information about it and what it means to you. Be persuasive and convincing in your writing so the President agrees with you on its importance and why you are right. Back up your opinions with important facts and statistics. In fact, start with this and then describe the effects. Your writing should be persuasive.
Rx10. Write to a local politician in your community (mayor, city council member, etc.) and provide critical information on an important issue. Include information from different people, historical records, and various forms of news coverage (newspapers, internet, television, etc.). Provide factual and objective information about the issue from these different sources, but cite them in your writing. Your goal is to make your audience aware so they can consider it in community meetings. Your goal is not to persuade them but it is to inform them.
Suggestion One for Fixing Writing Prompts
When accessing prompts on various internet sites, be critical of the uniformity of the prompts. Some sites mix prompts up across different types of discourse, which means they need to be adjusted and finessed to be clearer and more explicit in generating a specific discourse type.
The New York Times provides another resource on narrative discourse.
These prompts provide “questions that invite students to write about themselves, their lives, and their beliefs,” reflecting 445 questions on everything from family, friendships, and growing up to gender, spirituality, money, school, sports, social media, travel, dating, food, health and more.” Two examples are illustrated below.
6. How Resilient Are You? The problem with this prompt is that ‘resilience’ is a term that may be unknown to students (in its meaning) and may have a different meaning for different students. Here’s a possible rewrite (with the focus on narrative/creative writing).
Rx 6: Resilience is a term that reflects facing difficult situations and staying the course, not retreating, and not giving up. Think of a time when you faced a difficult situation and responded with strength and gumption (springing back in responding). Be descriptive in the situation and your response, using creative words that let the reader know what it was like. Your goal is to write something your friends enjoy reading.
Another example is presented under Technology and the Internet, with the following prompt, 189. What ‘Old’ Technology Do You Think Is Cool?
Rx 189: An easy fix would be to rewrite it as…Old technology includes various devices and services we once used but is no longer available. For example, record players (vinyl), VHS tapes for watching movies, and cameras with film rolls are all old technologies. Pick out an example of a technology and describe how it was useful back in the day and why it is no longer present. Be informative so the reader can better appreciate its features and uses and how/why it was important back then.The other prompts from this list are clearly narrative/creative, but all could be dressed up to give students a running jump in their writing responses. The prompts could use more definition in the construct (the central idea of the prompt) and more explicit direction for the student to take.
Suggestion Two for Fixing Writing Prompts
Question the source. Such a prestigious source would provide a more disciplined and thoughtful set of prompts. Yet, these prompts need to be more threadbare and provide more direction for the student to begin or structure their writing. Even though the latter prompts are from the New York Times, they also reflect many of the problems noted in the earlier blog on prompt writing.
In summary, writing prompts are plentiful, but they need to be fixed so they are direct in the writing they are designed to elicit (discourse type) and provide students with a jump start on perspectives and strategies. They also can be given to students with other documents that might be useful, mainly when using strategies.