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How to Dissect a Writing Prompt

Using Google Maps is a life-saver. However, we’ve all had the experience of misreading or miswriting our destination. If we don’t have the correct or precise destination in mind, we can wind up hopelessly lost. For example, in my town we love trees. You had better carefully input “Pine Tree Street,” not “Pine Tree Court,” “Pine Tree Avenue,” or “Pine Tree Lane.” Otherwise you might be knocking on the wrong door.

The same attention to detail is necessary when reading a writing prompt and planning your writing destination. Learning how to dissect the Writing Prompt is the first step in writing an effective essay that will get you where you’re headed. Knowing exactly what the writing assignment requires in terms of the audience, role of the writer, topic and its context, purpose of the essay, essay format, resource text, and key writing direction words are all necessary components of this task.

Following is a step-by-step procedure for dissecting a writing prompt. These directions are carefully designed to work with the Common Core State Standards Writing 1 (arguments) and 2 (inform or explain) standards with brief explanations why each step is important. Don’t leave out a step or you might wind up on Pine Tree Blvd. in Australia.

Let’s use the following as our writing prompt example:

Creating a town culture and identity is important to the success of any town. Towns that have clear cultures and identities don’t just evolve-they are carefully planned. Town planners help craft the ongoing vision of a town. Town planners know first-hand the truth of the old adage-“You can’t please all the people all of the time.” Effective planning involves saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others. For example, many towns have enacted ordinances limiting the number of fast food restaurants. Take on the role of a town planner in a newspaper editorial to persuade businesses and residents that your town needs such restrictions, referring to the reading resource: Pine Town Business Ordinances.

How to Dissect the Writing Prompt

1. WHO

Underline any words which identify the audience or the role of the writer.

Good writing is a dialogue between author and audience. Writing is not a one-way task. First, find out who your audience will be. The audience may or may not be clearly stated. Don’t assume that you are writing just to your teacher or grader. Consider your audience’s level of expertise and degree of familiarity with the subject. This will help frame your word choice, which terms need to be defined, your audience’s point of view, and how much prior knowledge you need to tap into to create a coherent dialogue. In the writing prompt example, you should underline “businesses” and “residents,” because these are the two audience members in the writing task.

Look for words that help define your role as the writer. Are you to be an information provider, a thought-provoker, a teacher, a persuader, or ? Are you to remain objective and even-handed to treat all sides of an issue fairly? Or are you to be subjective with your primary task to convince or change your audience’s mind to your position? The answers to these questions will determine your writing voice. Your writing voice is your personal attitude toward the subject of the writing and your audience; it’s the way you come across. Of course, the writing voice must be consistent throughout your writing response so as not to confuse your readers. You never want to send mixed messages to your audience. In the writing prompt example, you should underline “town planner,” because this is your assigned role in writing assignment.

2. WHAT

Circle any words which identify the topic, context, or purpose of the writing task.

As you read the writing prompt, search for words or phrases that clearly state the topic of the writing. The topic is the main subject about which you are to write, not the detail that explains the subject. For example, in this portion of the writing prompt example: “Many towns have enacted ordinances limiting the number of fast food restaurants” the topic would be “laws” and “fast food restaurants,” not “towns” or “number.” Stick to the main ideas, not the details that are parts of the whole or too general.

The context refers to the necessary background or situation that explains the significance of the topic. In the writing prompt example, the words “culture,” “identity,” and “planned” should be circled because they indicate the necessary context to understand why the topic is important. If your circled topic seems trivial, re-read the writing prompt to ensure that you’ve circled the correct topic.

The purpose of the writing task is the main focus of your writing task. As a writer, you are limited to this focus. You may not want this to be your focus, not you are stuck with this assignment. Keep the focus narrow and don’t “read into” the purpose of the writing task what is not stated. In the writing prompt example, the words “persuade,” and “restrictions” should be circled.

3. HOW

Bracket any words which identify the writing format or the resources to use.

The format of the writing task simply means how the writing response is to be shared with your audience. It is the form in which the writing task is to be composed. Again, the writer is limited to this form; there is no choice here. Often the writing format is assumed to be an essay. In the writing prompt example, the writing format is a newspaper editorial. Now, this assumes that the writer knows what an editorial is and is not. Prior knowledge is a harsh master; if you don’t know the characteristics of the format, you are in some trouble. Using the rest of the language of the writing prompt and the clue word “newspaper” will at least get the writer in the right ballpark of the writing format. Bracket the words “newspaper editorial.”

If a reading resource is stated, you should bracket that resource. In the writing prompt example, “Pine Town Business Ordinances” is that resource.

4. DO

Box any words which identify key writing direction words.

Often there is some overlap here. In the writing prompt example, “Persuade” should have been circled in the second WHAT step. Go ahead and box over the circle to emphasize exactly what you are to do as the writer. Knowing the academic language of key writing direction words is critically important. Following are the most often used writing direction words.

Writing directions words for essays designed as argument…

1. Analyze means to break apart the subject and explain each part.

2. Persuade means to convince the reader of your argument or claim.

3. Justify means to give reasons, based upon established rules, to support your arguments.

4. Evaluate means to make a judgment about the good and bad points of the subject.

Writing directions words for essays designed to inform or explain…

5. Describe means to show the characteristics of the subject to the reader through visual details.

6. Explain means to make something clear or easy to understand.

7. Discuss means to talk about all sides of the subject.

8. Compare means to show how things are the same, and contrast means to show how things are different. If the writing prompt only mentions compare, you must still do both tasks.

Here is a nice teaching summary of the WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO strategy for dissecting writing prompts for display and reference and some writing prompts for dissection. Dissecting the Writing Prompt 

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core Standard persuasive), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

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Elements of Plot

Teaching the elements of plot can be a challenging task. Knowing story structure is critically important to comprehension development. Without story schema, independent reading is hodge-podge and non-sensical. Using a common story builds upon prior knowledge, especially when using the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies. Fairy tales are ideal for this purpose.

Here’s my fractured fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The two-age story includes all plot elements (character-setting-problem/situation-internal and external conflict-complications-climax-falling action-resolution), as well as examples of  foreshadowing, direct and indirect characterization, and a twist. Ideal for middle and high schoolers, maybe for some upper elementary, but it’s quite twisted, so use some judgment here. Altering the rhetorical stance or changing up the ending is a great writing application to follow this lesson.

Attached is the story, ready for your plot diagram. Also attached is a matching quiz of the plot elements found in the story. Goldilocks Story  Goldilocks Quiz

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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How Many Essay Comments and What Kind

Teacher response to student writing often falls into two extremes:

1. The holistic rubric devotees who simply parrot standardized writing test grading by assigning numerical scores for “catch-all” writing categories or

2. The red-ink zealots who mark every single error and writing issue with their secret codes, a.k.a. diacritical proofreading marks and extensive writing comments.

The first approach of the holistic rubric hardly merits comment. Students merely look at the total score and continue the same errors or writing issues on the subsequent draft and next writing assignment. Intuitively, the second approach would seem to produce some benefit; however, the writing research is clear that student response to extensive marks and comments on rough drafts is minimal and the transfer of learning from such comments on final drafts to the next writing assignment is almost non-existent.

A middle ground can achieve more results. However, we have to make a distinction between rough drafts and final drafts. Researchers have found that marks on final drafts have little effect on student’s application to subsequent writing tasks (Dudenhyer 1976; Beach 1979; Thompson 1981; Harris 1978). But, conscientious teachers should make comments on rough drafts and writing research does support this practice. But how many essay comments make sense? And what kind of essay comments produce the produce the most revision and application to future writing tasks?

How Many Essay Comments

Many teachers take pride in the number of essay marks and comments they make on a paper. Some colleagues buy red pens by the truckload and spend significant time at their task. However, writing research has some disheartening news for these teachers. No significant difference in the quality of student writing was found between those teachers who marked all mistakes as compared to those teachers who made only minimal (Arnold 1964). Also, writing extensive comments does not improve student’s writing (Harris 1978; Lamberg 1980). Additionally, most students are able to respond effectively to no more than five comments per composition (Shuman 1979).

Clearly, more is not necessarily better. Knowing the student’s individual needs from frequent writing will help teachers prioritize which marks and comments will most help that student’s writing.

What Kind of Comments

Students tend to revise errors more so than issues of style, argument, structure, and content. The reason is simple: it’s easier to revise errors. Research shows that teachers tend to follow the same pattern as students: they mark and comment on errors much more often than on matters of style, argument, structure, and content (Connors and Lunsford 1988). So, teachers should keep in mind a balance between errors and writing issues when making essay comments. When a minimal credit is awarded for writing revisions, students tend to gravitate toward fixing the errors, rather than tackling the tougher chore of the writing issues. Awarding more points for writing revision and holding students accountable for addressing all marks and comments will motivate more and more meaningful revisions.

Teachers tend to mark errors with some form of diacritical mark, such as “cs” for a comma splice, and write brief comments, such as “awkward” for style or content. However, Hairston (1981) found that students tended to revise more when explanations were provided, rather than simple error identification. So, comments work better than simple diacritical marks.

So, which comments are most important to include? Clearly, issues of coherence and unity merit comments. So would issues of organization, content, and evidence. Hairston also suggested focusing comments on those issues which readers found to reflect lack of writing expertise. For example, nonstandard verb forms such as brung instead of brought are considered more egregious status indicators than a who-whom mistake. Good teachers can certainly make informed judgments about which comments to include and which comments to avoid.

So, to summarize how many essay comments and what kind, writing research would suggest the following:

  • Comment on rough drafts, not final drafts.
  • Limit the amount of comments and individualize those to the needs of the student writer.
  • Balance the types of comments between writing errors and issues of style, argument, structure, and evidence.
  • Hold students accountable for each mark or comment.
  • Comments are better than diacritical marks alone.
  • Comments should explain what is wrong or explain the writing issue.

For those teachers interested in saving time and doing a more thorough job of essay response and grading, check out the The Pennington Manual of StyleThis style manual serves as a wonderful writer’s reference guide with all of the writing tips from the author’s comprehensive essay writing curriculum:  Teaching Essay Strategies. The style manual (included in the Common Core aligned Teaching Essay Strategies, also includes a download of the 438 writing, grammar, mechanics, and spelling comments teachers use most often in essay response and grading. Placed in the Autocorrects function of Microsoft Word® 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013 (XP, Vista,  Windows 7, 8, and 10), teachers can access each comment with a simple mouse click to insert into online student essays or print/e-mail for paper submissions. Each comment identifies the error or writing issue, defines terms, and gives examples so that student writers are empowered to correct/revise on their own. This approach to essay comments produces significantly more accountability and transfer to subsequent writing.

Comments include…

  • Essay Organization and Development
  • Coherence
  • Word Choice
  • Sentence Variety
  • Writing Style
  • Format and Citations
  • Parts of Speech
  • Grammatical Forms
  • Usage
  • Sentence Structure
  • Types of Sentences
  • Mechanics
  • Conventional Spelling Rules
Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies

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