Prompt Writing Guidelines

Many educators already have a format they use to develop effective writing prompts. Writing prompts come in all shapes and sizes. However, if you want some guidelines to use as you begin to develop your own prompts, read on!

The purpose of a writing prompt is to invite students to think about, develop a perspective about and write about a topic. A writing prompt introduces and focuses the writing topic. It also provides clear information or instructions about the essay writing task. Think about the following as you begin to develop your prompts: the essay type, prompt construction, brevity, instructional match, appropriateness, and fairness.

An effective prompt introduces and limits the writing topic and provides clear instructions about the essay writing task. When writing any prompt, you should consider issues such as the essay type (rhetorical mode), prompt construction, brevity, instructional match, appropriateness, and fairness.

Essay type: Essay types (also known as rhetorical modes) include: argument, descriptive, expository, narrative, opinion, and persuasive. Expository essays are also sometimes referred to as evaluative, reflective, or analytic writing. When writing a prompt, first determine which of these types of writing you want the students to produce. The sections below provide specific suggestions for each of these essay types.

Prompt construction. A useful approach to prompt writing is to think of your prompt as having three parts. The first part introduces the topic or situation to your students. The second part encourages your students to think about the topic or situation. In some cases, this can be a pre-writing step in which students brainstorm for ideas as they develop the message of their essays. The third part describes the writing task for your students and may include such particulars as the mode, a suggestion to include specific types of information, the intended audience for the writing etc. Below we guide you through each of these parts.

Brevity: The prompt should be short and focused. Wordiness can confuse the student by obscuring the topic and by distracting from the actual task. However, you want to provide enough information so that your students are clear about their writing task and can do their best writing. You might consider using specific cue terms or words that signal each essay type to the student. Examples for cue terms specific to each essay type are listed below.

Instructional match: The prompt should address the knowledge and skills your students have already focused on in the classroom or that make up the general life experiences of your students.

Appropriateness: The prompt should ask students to write in a mode (e.g. argument, descriptive, expository, narrative, opinion, or persuasive) that is grade-level appropriate. The topic should also be appropriate for your students. Your students should have some knowledge of, experience with and/or interest in the topic.

Fairness - bias and sensitivity: Topics should be accessible to all of your students. Be careful to avoid cultural, ethnic, gender, and economic imbalance and stereotyping. These can unfairly inhibit or enhance the performance of one or more of your students.

The next sections provide more specific information on creating prompts for the various essay types.

*

Descriptive Prompts

The purpose of descriptive writing is to create an image or experience in the reader's mind. A descriptive essay allows readers to experience a situation, thing or person with all of their senses. The writer describes what something looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, etc.

For descriptive prompts, use the cue terms: describe in detail, tell how something looked, (felt, smelled, or tasted) and make the reader to see something with their own eyes. Descriptive prompts should avoid the word why and explain because they tend to elicit expository writing.

Prompt Construction

Part 1. Introduce the topic or writing situation.
Make a statement or generalization about a particular subject that orients the student to the topic.

Example. Many people have a favorite place, a place that only they know about or a place that is special to them.

Part 2. Encourage students to think or brainstorm about the topic.
Lead the student to make a personal response to the subject identified in the first part. You might want to include some specific ideas to help your students get started thinking.

Example. Think about your favorite place. It could be a room in your house or a store in the mall. It could be a park or a playground. Think about what this place looks like and what it feels like to be there.

Part 3. Describe the writing task.
State the mode or purpose (to describe). Identify the audience. Provide enough information so your students are able to do their best writing.

Example. Write an essay that will be read by your classmates in which you describe your favorite place. Make sure you provide enough details so your readers can see it and feel what it is like to be there.

Some additional hints.
The three parts of your prompt may be repetitive. In this example prompt, "special place" is repeated in each part of the prompt. Using parallel wording when possible will help students stay focused on the specific writing task.

Example Descriptive Prompt

Many people have a favorite place, a place that only they know about or a place that is special to them.

Think about your favorite place. It could be a room in your house or a store in the mall. It could be a park or a playground. Think about what this place looks like and what it feels like to be there.

Write an essay that will be read by your classmates in which you describe your favorite place. Make sure you provide enough details so your readers can see it and feel what it is like to be there.


*

Narrative Prompts

The purpose of narrative writing The purpose of narrative writing is to tell a story and to create a central theme or impression in the reader's mind. Narration, specifically, is writing that recounts a personal or fictional experience or tells a story based on real or imagined events. Narrative writing is characterized, as appropriate, by insight, creativity, drama, suspense, humor, and/or fantasy.

For narrative prompts, use the cue terms: tell about something, tell what happened, or write a story. Narrative prompts should avoid the word why and explain because they tend to elicit expository writing.

Prompt Construction

Part 1. Introduce the topic or writing situation.
Make a statement or generalization about a particular subject that orients the student to the topic.

Example. Sometimes it is rewarding to do something kind for another person.

Part 2. Encourage students to think or brainstorm about the topic.
Lead the student to make a personal response to the subject identified in the first part. You might want to include some specific ideas to help your students get started thinking.

Example. You might want to include some specific ideas to help your students get started thinking Think about a time when you did something kind for another person. Think about what you did, what else was happening at the time, where you were, who was involved, and the time of day or year it happened.

Part 3. Provide directions for writing.
Give the student the specific task (to write!). State the mode or purpose (to tell a story). Identify the audience. Provide enough information so your students are able to do their best writing.

Example. Write a story for your teacher about a time when you did something kind for another person. Make sure you include enough details so your teacher can understand and follow your story.

Some additional hints. The three parts of your prompt may be repetitive. In this example prompt, "something kind" is repeated in each part of the prompt. Using parallel wording when possible will help students stay focused on the specific writing task.

Example Narrative Prompt

Sometimes it is rewarding to do something kind for another person.

Think about a time when you did something kind for another person. Think about what you did, what else was happening at the time, where you were, who was involved, and the time of day or year it happened.

Write a story for your teacher about a time when you did something kind for another person. Make sure you include enough details so your teacher can understand and follow your story.

*

Expository Prompts

The purpose of expository writing is to inform, clarify, explain, define, and/or instruct. Sometimes this prompt type is referred to as evaluative, analytic, or reflective writing. The subtypes of problem and solution, cause and effect, and how-to essays also are grouped with this category of writing. Expository essays are typically guided by a purpose and with a specific audience in mind, where voice and organization align with subject and audience.

For expository prompts use the cue words: why, how, what, and explain.

Prompt Construction

Part 1. Introduce the topic or writing situation.

Example. Some animals have evolved to live and thrive under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet.

Part 2. Encourage students to think or brainstorm about the topic
Lead the student to make a personal response to the subject identified in the first part. You might want to include some specific ideas to help your students get started thinking.

Example. Think about an animal that you have learned about that has evolved to live under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet. Think about where this animal lives, what the climate conditions are like, the types of food it eats and how it gets its food. Think about the possible advantage and disadvantages for the animal of living in this habitat or eating this diet.

Part 3. Provide directions for writing.
Give the student the specific task (to write!). State the mode or purpose (to explain). Identify the audience. Provide enough information so your students are able to do their best writing.

Example. Write an essay that will be read by your classmates in which you identify the animal and its unique habitat or diet and explain why it is an advantage for the animal to have evolved this way. Make sure you include specific details to support your explanation.

Some additional hints.
The three parts of your prompt may be repetitive. In this example prompt, the ideas of unique habitat and diet are repeated in each part of the prompt. Using parallel wording when possible will help students stay focused on the specific writing task.

Example Expository Prompt

Some animals have evolved to live and thrive under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet.

Think about an animal that you have learned about that has evolved to live under extreme climate conditions or to eat a very specific diet. Think about where this animal lives, what the climate conditions are like, the types of food it eats and how it gets its food. Think about the possible advantage and disadvantages for the animal of living in this habitat or eating this diet.

Write an essay that will be read by your classmates in which you identify the animal and its unique habitat or diet and explain why it is an advantage for the animal to have evolved this way. Make sure you include specific details to support your explanation.

*

Persuasive Prompts

The purpose of persuasive writing is to convince the reader that a point of view is valid and/or that the reader should take a specific action. It is important in persuasive writing to address the potential concerns and questions of the audience as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the "other" side. These should be approached in a way that ultimately supports the student's own position.

For persuasive prompts use the cue words convince, persuade, and why. Persuasive prompts should avoid the word how because it tends to elicit narrative, descriptive, or expository writing.

Prompt Construction

Part 1. Introduce the topic or writing situation.
Construct a policy statement or make an assertion about a particular subject that orients the student to the topic.

Example. Some schools have a policy of not allowing soda or candy to be stocked in vending machines on school property. The principal of your school is considering such a policy.

Part 2. Encourage students to think or brainstorm about the topic.
Lead the student to make a personal response to the subject identified in the first part. You might want to include some specific ideas to help your students get started thinking.

Example. Think about whether you agree or disagree with this policy. Think about the possible advantages and disadvantages of selling soda and candy to students, teachers, parents, school administrators.

Part 3. Provide directions for writing.
Give the student the specific task (to write!). State the mode or purpose (to convince or motivate). Identify the audience. Provide enough information so your students are able to do their best writing.

Example. Write a letter to your principal in which you state your opinion on the policy of not selling soda and candy in school vending machines. Include enough specific details to support your opinion and to convince your principal that your position on the issue is correct.

Some additional hints.
The three parts of your prompt may be repetitive. In this example prompt, the idea of selling soda and candy is repeated in each part of the prompt. Using parallel wording when possible will help students stay focused on the specific writing task.

Example Persuasive Prompt

Some schools have a policy of not allowing soda or candy to be stocked in vending machines on school property.

The principal of your school is considering such a policy. Think about whether you agree or disagree with this policy. Think about the possible advantages and disadvantages of selling soda and candy to students, teachers, parents, school administrators.

Write a letter to your principal in which you state your opinion on the policy of not selling soda and candy in school vending machines. Include enough specific details to support your opinion and to convince your principal that your position on the issue is correct.