Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What is a Writing Prompt?

You are standing in front of your class, the students watch you, waiting to hear what the next essay will be. They are eager and ready to write. You, however, struggle as you try to explain the next essay pattern to them. You feel like you are asking the right questions, giving the right definitions, but what’s missing? Why is the assignment not clicking? As a writing instructor, it is important that you have clear essay prompts for your students. A writing prompt is a statement that will focus the essay topic and then ask questions. A good writing prompt will help the students understand the type of essay assigned and what topic they are to focus on in their writing. In this lesson, we will discuss how to write effective essay prompts by identifying the type of essay required through key words and questions.

How to Write a Writing Prompt

When writing an essay prompt, it is important to remember that these are essay questions. That means you want to be sure that your students will have to provide a detailed answer and that answer may vary. In other words, you do not want to write questions that could result in yes or no answers. Next, an effective essay prompt should identify the type of essay you want your student to write. You can do this by including signal words to guide your students towards a certain pattern. For instance, when writing a narrative essay prompt, you would want signal words that indicate a personal experience. Take this example: What is a moment in your life that challenged or changed a belief you have? In this example, your students would know that this was a personal essay because of the signal words, ‘your life.’ For other types of essays there are many different key words you could include. With a descriptive essay, you could use ‘describe.’ In a persuasive essay, you would want to use words like ‘convince,’ ‘persuade,’ or ‘argue.’ You could ask your students to compare or contrast. These key words would direct your students to write a certain pattern. Third, your essay prompt should encourage critical thinking, which means analysis and evaluation. You want your students to not just restate facts, but to develop an opinion based on their analysis and evaluation of these facts. To do this, develop questions that ask your students to summarize a topic but then explain its meaning. For example, if you were discussing historical events in your course, you would not want to present a simple question that asks the students to retell an event. Rather, you would ask something like, ‘What events led up to the start of the Civil War? Why are these events important?’ By asking about the importance, you are asking your students to explain and evaluate the events. In addition to critical thinking skills, you want to write a question that lets the students demonstrate their reasoning. Make sure that the students have to show their thought process and reasoning through examples, personal stories, and evidence. Finally, ask questions that let your students share personal experiences with you. Skills like critical thinking, analysis, and reasoning are all life skills. By sharing a personal experience, your students will be able to see how these skills are important to them.

Example Writing Prompt

Now, let’s take a minute to visit Pat the professor and see his process to develop an effective essay prompt. In Pat’s class the students have finished reading Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. He now wants to test his students, not just on their reading, but on their response to the play. The first step Pat takes is making sure the questions he has brainstormed would require a full response, not something simple like, ‘Does Lady Macbeth slowly lose her mind?’ This is a yes or no question and they should be avoided. Next, Pat decides what type of essay he wants his students to write. There are several different patterns that Pat can use for this essay but for now he wants his students to argue a theme. This is a persuasive essay, so his key word will be ‘prove.’ Following this, Pat begins to write his question to create an argument and to encourage analysis of the theme. He begins the question with a statement to focus the topic: ‘William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth tells the story of Macbeth and his desire to become king.’ In this statement, he lets students know they will be discussing the play. The second portion will ask his question. Pat continues with, ‘Throughout the play, there are several different themes developed. What do you think is the strongest theme of the play? Prove your statement with examples and evidence from the play.’ By first reviewing the topic and then asking a question that requires analysis and evidence, Pat has presented an effective essay prompt to his class.

Lesson Summary

An essay prompt is a statement that will focus the topic and then ask questions. There are several steps to take to write an effective essay prompt. First, be sure that the question you are asking requires more than a yes or no answer. Second, use key words to signal your students what type of essay you want them to write. Third, be sure to ask questions that require critical thinking through reasoning and analysis. Finally, when needed, have your students share personal experiences with you. By sharing their own stories, the students can see the relevance of critical thinking and reasoning in their own lives. By taking these steps, you can write more effective essay prompts and help guide your students more clearly in their writing.

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