Teaching students to write is a passion of mine. I am constantly reading about the art of teaching writing. Some of my favorite authors in this area are Aimee Buckner, Carl Anderson, Lucy Calkins, and Ralph Fletcher. These master educators have so many professional resources for helping us teachers continue to develop our understandings for what is best practice in the area of writing.
So the question I have today is: Are writing prompts right for our kids? Before I can answer that question, I want to define what a prompt is. There are three types of prompts: close-ended, cliffhangers, and open-ended.
In a close-ended prompt students have to generate a written piece about one specific topic. They are not able to write about what is on their mind and must respond to a specific question These types of prompts are often seen on standardized tests or in daily writing workbooks. An example of a closed-ended prompt is: “What are your favorite Thanksgiving foods? Tell about them.”
Close-ended prompts can be appropriate if teachers are looking to assess what their students can and cannot do as writers. They are helpful to analyze student writing in order to determine what writing strategies need to be taught next. They should NOT be used on a daily basis and certainly NOT as the only writing time students have. If students spend all their writing time responding to closed-ended prompts, they will never have time to write about what they really care about. And don't all writers write what they really care about!?
In a cliffhanger, students are given the beginning of a story with a problem, and they must finish the story by adding a middle and end. An example of a cliffhanger is: “The Turkey woke up the day before Thanksgiving knowing it might be his last day alive. He hatched a plan for him and his family to escape. Just as he was about to put his plan into action he heard the barn door open and the farmer's footsteps nearing the coop…”
Cliffhangers are typically used with a whole class. Everyone writes from the same prompt, but their stories might end differently. Usually teachers use these as writing projects and attach cute illustrations. Although this type of writing can be fun, I would argue that it limits students from writing about what they really want to say. An author's life experiences and passions should be the focus of their writing; not writing as a group about the same topic.
Open-ended prompts are those types of prompts that suggest a topic, yet leave the structure and organization of writing up to the writer. They often give a suggestion, but do not require a specific response. An example is: “Make a list of all the things that come to your mind when you think of Thanksgiving. Then circle a few and write more about them.”
This type of prompt allows students to use their own experiences and think creatively. Even though it is asking students to write about a topic (Thanksgiving), it is also giving them freedom to write about whatever comes to their mind about this topic. Open-ended prompts can be great tools for struggling writers to begin thinking about their ideas and what they have to say. They can help writers think critically about their own experiences and beliefs so that they can find their voice in writing.
Overall, prompts should NOT be the entirety of a teacher's writing curriculum. They should be used with a combination of many different writing elements, some of which are; teaching writing strategies, doing genre studies, holding writing conferences, holding guided writing groups, and having freewrites.
If you are in need of some strong open-ended writing prompts, I have several available at my Teacherspayteachers store. There is a set of Thanksgiving Writing Prompts that would be great resource for this time of year!
Thanksgiving Writing Prompts: Open-ended!