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Strategies for Developing Effective Writing Prompts

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In a recent live webcast, long-time instructors Matthew Davidson, chair of the English department at Sutherland High School in Pittsford, New York, and Charles Trafford, English teacher at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore, Washington, shared their experiences with getting their students to think critically and deeply about writing prompts.

Addressing the function of a prompt and the relationship that a prompt has with a rubric and the objective, Davidson starts by discussing something he learned early on in his career as an educator:

“I was coming up with some prompts that I thought were creative and I thought were interesting and I thought I’d get some great writing from the kids, but they weren’t always giving me the kind of result I needed to really learn about their writing, which is precisely what we’re looking to do when we give a writing-type assessment.”

Davidson has re-evaluated and refined his approach in creating and assigning prompts to his students over the past 20 years. First, Davidson says to clarify the objective you have when creating a prompt. Ask questions like, “What do I want to know from the kids?” and “What do I want to get from the assignment?” and have a clear objective provides the opportunity for educators to measure the things that they are looking for with a rubric or scoring guide. “A good prompt must provide a result that, one, you can measure using your rubric, and two, it’s connected to your objective or objectives.”

In the beginning of each year, Davidson learns the different kinds of writers that are in his class and establishes a baseline. This is what he defines as his objective. “I want to know what kind of writers I have in front of me this year, and that’ll help me to establish what I need to do in terms of developing my lessons, my units, my assignments, etc.” Prompts that are poorly-worded, unrelatable or full vocabulary that students don’t understand will limit the ability of students to accurately address the objective.

“So, in creating a basic prompt, I want to make sure that I create a prompt that will address my objective or objectives, be simple to understand, apply to all of my students equally, regardless of personal interest or background, and provide a result that addresses all the areas of measurement.”

Trafford adjusts his assigned prompts based on the direction his students are going. In particular, Trafford’s methods develop his students skills in literary critical analysis and writing. “I have a series of assignments with specific prompts to develop these skills, and they all build on each other throughout the course of the year.”

To get his students to understand the idea of tone and analysis, Trafford schedules eight poetic essays to be assigned throughout the year. “I have an example that I use from All the Pretty Horses that gives students an idea of seeing the depth of what it is that I’m looking for. And so they focus on the idea of a symbol and on how that had an impact, not only on the passage, but also looking at the work as a whole.” Next, Trafford moves his students to apply literary critical analysis skills and theme analysis to larger pieces of work such as novels and plays.

Teaching in both AP literature and in his school's IB program, Trafford assigns prompts focused on skill sets that help students pass the AP and IB exams towards the end of the year. These assignments range from free response questions, compare and contrast poetry and passage-based prompts that allow students to apply literary critical analysis skills looking at tone, syntax, and symbolism.

To measure the effectiveness of prompts, Trafford uses Turnitin to track his usage of QuickMarks. “For example, if students are having punctuation or paragraph issues, things like that, I can track that on Turnitin and I can see, okay, this is something that we need to revisit. If I look and see that the majority of students are having difficulty with, say, figurative language and understanding figurative language and how it’s being used, or depth of analysis, or that they're failing to tie their analysis to major themes in the novel, then I’ll spin mini-lessons from this, and then refocus where it is that we’re going within the class.”

Watch the on-demand webcast, “Prompt Up the Jam”: Strategies for Developing Effective Writing Prompts

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