Essay Prompts

When we want our students to write an essay, we need to communicate clearly. In the U.S., we talk about giving our students written “prompts” with the essay assignment. I like the word “prompt” because it reminds us that the written instructions can “prompt” student thinking and remind them of what they’re supposed to address in their writing. If we’re only giving instructions orally, it’s easy to forget details or expectations, so the written prompt is an important tool to use in teaching.

Sometimes prompts can be quite brief; for example, when we ask students to prewrite, we may just have a prompt that contains just one or two sentences. It may be that we project the prompt on an overhead or use some other more temporary method. However, sometimes prompts need to provide a lot of detail . . . especially when the writing assignment is a complex project that may take many class periods to produce.

Here is a list of things that the prompt could include:

* The audience (who should the students address in their writing?)
* The form of discourse (a letter? a persuasive piece? a short story?)
* The topic (what is the writing supposed to be about?)
* The purpose (what should students accomplish with their writing? why should they care about the piece of writing in the first place?)

Written prompts can also include prewriting activities that students might engage in to brainstorm ideas, limitations on how long/short the resulting text should be, details on how the writing will be graded, due dates, etc.

I find that I need to create a nice balance between providing enough detail and giving too much information. Students can become confused by our instructions if we aren’t careful.

Still, I like to create prompts that help my students understand the context of the assignment–how does it fit into our curriculum? Why do I think this is a worthwhile writing assignment? What should the students’ work demonstrate about their learning? If we can’t answer these questions, we shouldn’t be asking our students to write. And if they CAN answer these questions, our students are more likely to understand our curricular goals and why they’re being asked to write.

A good writing prompt can help our students succeed in their writing.


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