Saturday, September 05, 2009

Writing Prompts May be Obstacles to Quality Writing


Writing prompts are ubiquitous in this age of high-stakes testing. The belief is if we allow students to respond to (daily) prompts, their writing will improve. But this doesn't always happen.

This morning, via a tweet from Ira Socol, I came across a post entitled The Over-Prompting of Young Writers. The excellent points made in this article may cause you to rethink your use of writing prompts. What are the unintended consequences? Do writing prompts, in fact, stifle quality writing? What do we do when students are unable to make connections to the prompt because it does not relate to their life? The author, Heather Rader states:
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. (emphasis mine)
How do you deal with the Zachary's in your classroom? Read the rest of the post to learn new strategies that help you create an environment which recognizes one-size-does-not-fit-all.:

Image attribution http://www.utsa.edu/today/images/graphics/writing3.jpg

8 comments:

K said...

About ten years ago I taught intensive special education in an urban district in Massachusetts and also tutored fourth grade English Language Arts MCAS (high stakes testing) for the district. There was a boy in my tutoring group who really did not need tutoring, he was referred for the program to give him something to do two afternoons a week. The day of the essay exam I walked past the in school suspension room and this little boy was sitting alone in there kicking the wall. I spoke to the building nurse and found out he had been sent there because he had refused to take the exam. The nurse agree to watch my student and I went in to visit with the little boy. I found out the writing prompt had been, "Write about an adult who had been a positive influence in your life." This boy lived in the local public housing projects (which was a pretty scary place) with his alcoholic grandmother. His mother was dead of a drug overdose, his father was in prison and his teachers sent him to in-school suspension rather than realize why this question was painful. My heart broke for him. We chatted about his options. He could lie and make up a person or he could write and essay about why this was an unfair question. The purpose of the exam was to prove he could write well. He refused, telling me he had nothing to prove to nobody. I asked him what it would take to get him to write. Candy? Soda? He told me money. I offered a dollar. He countered with ten. I offered three. He countered with five. I took the deal and wrote a note to his test procter, a friend of mine, asking her to send him to my room if and when the essay was completed. He returned to class and wrote an essay about his Grandfather who had died when he was five. When he was done he did indeed come to my classroom and collect his five dollars. The next fall I learned that he (and all my students in my tutoring group) passed the exam. Sadly he dropped out of school in the tenth grade. I often thing of this boy as a prime example of what happens when the educational system fails.

Lisa Parisi said...

I think there is so much more going on here than a lack of empathy when dealing with writing prompts. As for my opinion, I was "trained" in the Columbia College Writing Program. Write, write, write..then find nuggets (commonalities) and write about that. No prompts. I tried it. About half my kids sat, day after day, saying they had nothing to write about. By December, only three kids had published anything. I began going back to assigning writing and giving the students great freedom in the assignment. Now my kids publish often and improve in their writing. Some children write often, going way past assignments. Others just stick to the assignments. But all of them write.

We need to know our students and be prepared to give them what they need in order to be successful, be that writing prompts, no prompts, brainstorming sessions, conversations, etc.

Lee Ann Spillane: said...

Brenda Power had an interesting piece in The Big Fresh this week about prompts and prompted writing: http://www.choiceliteracy.com/public/972.cfm

In my own classroom, I do both. Write, write, write...conference, draft, invent and write some more, but we also prepare for on-demand writing and write to prompts. Prompted quick writes connect to our lessons or work as debriefing and reflection tools. Not all the writing we do in class is strictly to write, to craft a piece for a specific purpose or audience--much of it is to process what we are learning.

Kaiya West said...

This post opened up a new outlook on writing prompts for me. I am not yet an educator, but have my fair share of writing to prompts throughout high school for essays, journals, standardized tests, etc. One activity I really want to implement into my future classroom is a weekly journal entry. I assumed the only way I could do this activity would be to give my students a journal promt because that was the only way I was taught to write classroom journals.

After reading your post, I have realized there are better ways to get quality writing out of students. I do think being comfortable with writing to a prompt is important, but I completely agree that the best writing comes from creativity and topics that students feel applies to their lives, and many times that doesn't come from a prompt. I will remember this post one day when I begin my lesson plans for my classroom. Thank you

Kaiya West, University of Nebraska- Kearney

Danielle said...

This is a terrific outlook on writing prompts. I, like Kaiya, am not an educator yet (I actually attend the same university) and I planned on using a daily or weekly journal in my classroom. I hadn't had many thoughts about prompts but I've always assumed that they were better because I have been given writing prompts through out middle and high school, and even now in college professors give a very specific set of topics that they want papers on.

After reading this article I realize that what may be popular isn't always correct and I will keep this in mind when I get a chance to teach.

Danielle Gillham, University of Nebraska-Kearney

Erlinda said...

I think students need to be more connected to the writing prompt for it to be effective. I agree finding a prompt that students can relate to and/or are knowledgeable on would produce better results. Also making the prompts more personal helps teachers learn more about their students.

Just a suggestion... Try TeachHUB's YouTube Writing Prompts. Each week, TeachHUB provides grade appropriate writing prompts (K-12 options) to use in the classroom. Check it out here... http://www.teachhub.com/teacher-tips/

Angelina said...

I have worked a summer camp for kids who use AAC and as an aide in an autism classroom. I find your blog very interesting. When I saw this article I thought you and you readers may find it interesting.


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