Writing to a Prompt

In November and April, our district assesses writing in grades K-8 using a timed writing prompt.  The completed pieces are scored using a common district-wide rubric and discussed at grade-level team meetings.  This year, the junior high teachers noted the prompted writing did not accurately reflect the capabilities of their talented writers.  “He’s a much better writer than this!” I heard the teachers say.  Or, “Ugh!  She usually writes the best introductions!”  I was not surprised at the discrepancy. Our students spend their time in choice-based, unit-driven writing workshops.  They are not accustomed to writing to a prompt. It is rather foreign territory to them.

Of course, we want our students to be successful when faced with a timed writing prompt.  We want our writing instruction to transfer to all situations – prompted or not.  How, we wondered, could we improve their performance on prompted assessments without sacrificing what we know to be true about good writing instruction?

1.  Modeled Writing
Students need to see how a skilled writer approaches a writing prompt.  Teachers will model for students how they, as writers, read the prompt, how they annotate the prompt, and how they understand the directions.  Teachers will think aloud as they read, making their writerly thinking visible for students.  Teachers will model how to quickly plan an approach to the prompt by brainstorming and jotting notes.  They will write aloud for the students, sharing their decision making along the way.

2.  More practice
Students need more practice in responding to a prompt.  We can integrate prompt practice into our writing workshop without sacrificing the integrity of the workshop.  Some suggestions were to practice responding to a prompt once every quarter or as a post-assessment after each major unit of study.  Practice builds confidence.

3.  Anchor charts
Teachers will hang and refer back to their writing anchor charts more often, especially those charts which outline a writing skill students could use in a timed writing situation.  Anchor charts identifying “Ways to Introduce an Essay” or “Types of Evidence” or “Sophisticated Transitions” could definitely lift the quality of students’ writing.

4.  Feedback
Teachers agreed to use the prompts as teaching materials.  Students will have the opportunity to review their finished pieces along with the scoring rubric.  Students can reflect on areas of strength and weakness.  Students will have the opportunity to confer with their teacher about the scored prompt.

5.  Build on their strengths
Writers do not approach prompt writing without consideration of their strengths, preferred genres, and writing territories.  To this end, I directed teachers back to this post from the Two Writing Teachers archive, Writing Territories + Test Prompt Writing.  In this post, Ruth Ayres uses favorite writing territories to ease the anxiety of writing to a prompt.

By making these small changes to our writing instruction, we hope to give students the confidence and skills to approach timed prompt writing in a way that will showcase their many talents as writers.