Are you teaching writing by using writing prompts? It’s okay if you are, but not if it continues to be your single way of teaching the craft of writing to your students every day.
What Are Writing Prompts
If you are not familiar with the term writing prompts, writing prompts are simply an unfinished sentence, question, or statement given to students. Students then respond to the prompt. Many writing prompts are often asking students their opinion such as “Do you prefer dogs or cats?” Sometimes the prompt will just ask them to finish the story and give them the beginning sentence or two.
Writing Prompts Do Have a Purpose
First, I want to be clear that I am not completely dismissing using writing prompts. I have used them in my own classroom each year. They do still have a purpose in your classroom.
Writing prompts are a great tool to use for a writing center. Are your students finished early with their writing task? Choosing a writing prompt is a great way to keep them writing when they say they are done.
I also like to use writing prompts when I need a substitute. This is a great time to leave a writing prompt for your lesson because it needs very little instructions. Most substitutes tend to be familiar with giving students writing prompts. This makes my sub plans very easy to write up last minute.
Since state testing usually asks students to write from a prompt, students need exposure on how to do this. If you are in a grade that tests writing, I recommend using a writing prompt once a month for students to have practice with this format. (College essays are also a classic use of a writing prompt students need to know).
Writing to Prompts Take Away Choice
When students are regularly writing to prompts, they are not given choices of what to write. Now, there is some choice when they are using a prompt. For instance if the prompt asks them to write a story about an alien that is new to visiting the planet they then can make lots of choices. They can choose to add other characters, name the alien, write about setting, and decide on the events.
But the process of figuring out their writing ideas is taken away from them. In my writing curriculum, I teach students how to brainstorm topic ideas. When students choose their own ideas, they will often write more and write longer during writing time. This is not true of all students, of course. You will always have a few reluctant writers - no matter the topic.
Think about those reluctant writers though. Are they reluctant because they hate being told exactly what to write about? Maybe they really hate aliens and think they are gross and today they have to write about aliens. Then tomorrow (because you have a space theme going for the month) they have to write about aliens again. Pretty soon they are going to be putting out some pretty dismal work or refusing to write altogether.
What Is A Writing Curriculum
More than likely your school has not provided you with a writing curriculum. Or maybe the writing curriculum is so horrible and hard to follow that you don’t even bother trying. This is where I often see writing prompts inserted instead. They are quick, easy to use, and very affordable when compared to a writing curriculum.
A writing curriculum is a series of written lessons to follow for teaching writing. It can also include all the components needed such as mentor texts and master copies. Writing curriculums seem to be pretty rare these days. In my experience schools neglect purchasing a separate writing program because there is often one included within the reading program they purchased.
Differences Between Writing Curriculum and Writing Prompts
Now that we understand more about what writing prompts are and when to use them let’s talk about writing curriculums.
A writing prompt is not the same as a writing curriculum. You can use writing prompts within your curriculum though. I do this in my own curriculum.
Lessons Are Connected In A Curriculum
In my opinion a writing curriculum connects lessons as you go so that writing is continued more than one day. For instance, if students are asked to write about their favorite book they are working on that same piece of writing across multiple days. Usually with a writing prompt they tell about their favorite book, maybe give 2 reasons they like it, and end with a conclusion - all in the same day. Maybe the teacher even provides the “formula” or specific sentence starters for each sentence.
A writing curriculum in comparison would have students write about their favorite book but the first day they choose the book and learn about introductions. The next few days they are learning about how to structure their reasons. Perhaps they are exploring mentor texts for ideas on how other authors craft reasons. Last, they are spending a day or two on how to wrap up their writing with conclusions. Again maybe they are looking at mentor text examples and trying a few different ways to write a conclusion.
Notice the difference? A writing curriculum breaks down the process into multiple steps for students. It should teach students WHY they are writing these pieces and HOW to incorporate them in their own writing. The best writing curriculums offer students a chance to practice these skills and apply it across different pieces of writing.
Writing Curriculums Should Teach the Writing Craft
Writing prompts alone do not teach the craft of writing. Even students as young as kindergarten should be exposed to the craft of writing. This means looking and listening to stories and learning about how the author puts words on pages. How did they choose this word over that one? How do I know the character is sad in the story? What does the author do to keep me wanting to read?
Learning to examine different authors and understand how and why they are writing can help students improve their own writing. When we are using writing prompts daily we are not using lessons that teach the writing craft.
Usually a mistake I see many colleagues making is that they are teaching their students to write from a formula and then say their students are amazing writers. They might be good writers that can write in complete sentences and follow a formula. But can they write a good story that makes others want to read it?
Students Have Opportunities to Practice
Within a good writing curriculum, students should be given multiple opportunities to practice a skill. Just like with your math curriculum, students should have exposure and practice on the same skill or topic. I don’t believe writing prompts give students this opportunity.
I teach the writing process within the format of my writing curriculum. Students are exposed to the procedure all year long as they draft and write their pieces. If I was using writing prompts instead, my students would not be as familiar with the writing process. Just giving them a prompt isn’t helping them sift through their ideas to create a draft.
My writing curriculum teaches one genre at a time. Many writing prompts may be asking students to unknowingly write in a genre (like opinion writing) but it is not teaching about the genre. A good writing curriculum should allow students to come away knowing the characteristics of a specific genre. Your writing curriculum should also spend time within one style of genre before moving onto the next. This provides students with the opportunity to write more than one piece in that genre.
Summing It All Up
Writing prompts definitely have a place in the primary classroom. However, I don’t think they should be used as a replacement for teaching writing in a curriculum. Having students write daily on the same types of writing prompts is taking away opportunities for students to learn the craft of writing, practice different writing skills (not related to how to write a sentence), and have the freedom of choice on what to write about.
Teaching these ideas should be done in a writing curriculum that explores how authors put words onto pages that get readers enjoying their writing. If you don’t have a decent writing curriculum (or maybe not even a curriculum at all), you will want to read my next post to learn how to plan out your mini lessons so you can start teaching the craft of writing and moving away from relying on using writing prompts.
If you are wanting more information about my writing curriculum referenced in this post, it will be released on Teachers Pay Teachers by August this year. Make sure to follow my store to be notified immediately when it posts to get it at 50% off for the first 48 hours. Click here to become a follower of my TpT store.