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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.

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writing prompts

Dana Murphy View All

Literacy Coach, Reader, Writer

10 thoughts on “Writing to a Prompt Leave a comment

  1. These are helpful strategies for testing prompts. It’s difficult for students to be restricted in their writing prompts for assessments when teachers are encouraging their students to be unique and creative. Hopefully the students’ input will be valued in the future for creating these prompts. The best case scenario would be to have 3 prompts for the students so they could choose which to elaborate on.

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  2. As a student, I totally agree. It’s so difficult for me to write based on a prompt and those strategies have proven to be extremely helpful for me in the past. I really wish my teachers would follow something similar to your strategies. Unfortunately, I’ve had two teachers who have only assigned 1-2 essays an entire school year consecutively. One of those teachers never returned a single graded paper…

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  3. Dana,
    The use of a prompt so all students write on the same topic so apples can be compared to apples is not a bad idea for once a quarter. It also provides the teacher with another example of what a student can produce independently.

    It’s a measure of student thinking, drafting, and responding under pressure. It’s not a life-changing all-powerful summative assessment that will label the student as “proficient” or “not proficient”. As one more “piece of the assessment puzzle, I believe that we have an obligation to our students to provide some “practice” with this!

    Reasonable time frames are important! I’ve been on the side watching when I asked students to “keep writing. . . use time wisely . . . time’s not up” when students followed my directions and added “crappy filler” in order to be compliant. I learned some valuable lessons from that. “End with a good thought and in a good spot” is way better advice than “write every minute”.

    Depending on the grade, I would consider some student input. Do we want to call this a flash draft? What kind of topic(s) should we try? Thoughtful writing in response to a prompt will be called for in life . . . answering emails, responding to a blog post, etc.

    THANKS! ❤

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  4. Dana, writing to a prompt is a real world skill when you think about it. For example, there is a prompt involved for the writing component of job interviews and other prompts for those responding to op ed pieces. Twitter chats promote responses to questions posed. Therefore, there is value in exposing children to on-demand writing tasks. Unfortunately, in the educational world writing to a prompt is connected to testing situations. Thank you, for shedding light on how we can improve students’ writing for on-demand tasks while still making solid connections to good writing instruction.

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  5. In most of our classrooms, the only writing done is to a prompt to practice for the test. I have even had to work on this with my gifted students. With them, the voice is strong and the writing is usually organized, but they do not take the time to go back to the text and provide “text evidence.” I miss the days when the prompts did not include reading two texts. But the nonprompted writing practice, that habit of daily meeting a blank page is necessary for students to feel confident with any prompt.

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