The Danger of Teaching Writing Through Prompts

Writing prompts are one of those enduring teaching practices that seem great in theory, but in practice do not support young writers. This is a teaching practice that I continue to see in lesson plans as well as in the classroom during writing time. Prompts give the feeling of control over what is being taught to students as well as the feeling that students will stay on track with their writing. 

For me, writing is a time for students to write about what matters to them and I have learned through many interactions with young writers that they are most interested in their writing when it is on a topic that they love. 

For two years, I had the opportunity to work with a group of students when they were in first and second grades. When they were in first grade, they were beginning to write their own stories and often they began writing time by drawing illustrations and then adding the text to accompany their drawings. However, by the middle of second grade, they complained about writing and dreaded days that they had writing instruction because they did not like answering the prompts that the teacher assigned. The teacher meant well. She was very proud of the prompts that she created for the students to respond to and felt that she was having them answer prompts that would be of interest to them. One prompt, for example, asked the second graders to write about their best friend. She was excited because she felt the topic would generate lots of excitement and the students would have lots to say in their writing. 

Unfortunately, she was wrong. The students in her class, even the students who I thought would be fine responding to this prompt, did not like it. A few of the girls told me that they did not want to have to choose a friend to write about because it would exclude other friends and the ramifications would play out on the playground during recess and in the lunchroom. Two of the boys were pretty clever and decided to make up their responses to the prompt. They told me that nothing in their prompt was true and figured the teacher would never know. 

After the students finished their writing about their best friend, the teacher was surprised that the pieces were very short and did not include many of the strategies that she had been teaching them. She wondered what went wrong. 

Imposing a particular prompt on students can signal that you do not trust the students to select their own ideas for writing. I feel that as writing teachers, we need to trust our students to have their own ideas and be allowed to write about those ideas in their pieces. Encouraging students to write about their lives helps them make sense of their world. I have learned through my observations of students during writing time that children will write more about what is important to them because they want to communicate with others about the people, places, interests, and things that they value.

*Photo: Journal writing during the snowstorm this week.