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How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt

Dissect a Writing Prompt

How to Dissect an Essay Writing Prompt

Writing an effective essay prompt requires equal shares of art and science. The prompt must allow room for creative interpretation and analysis. However, the prompt must also provide organization and boundaries for the writers’ responses. Finally, the prompt should provide ample room for post-writing criticism to help students improve their writing.

Writing Prompt Guidelines

1. The prompt should be brief. Wordiness only serves to confuse the writer.

2. The prompt should be focused. A prompt that rambles in an attempt to explain or motivate is counter-productive.

3. The prompt should require only the prior knowledge that has been emphasized in class instruction. Isolate the variables of personal experience to best assess the outcomes of instruction.

4. The prompt should be age appropriate. Know the developmental capabilities and interests of your students and translate these into the writing prompt.

5. The prompt should avoid issues which students or parents would find objectionable. Save the PG-13 issues for older students. Don’t let the subject interfere with the writing task.

6. The prompt should not be so personal that the privacy of the writer is jeopardized. A writing prompt should not inhibit the writer from answering honestly and comfortably.

7. The prompt should not embarrass the gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background of the writer. Stay sensitive to these variables within your classroom. Words have different meanings according to one’s perspective.

8. The prompt should allow students of varying abilities to respond effectively. An ideal prompt allows all students to experience success in their writing.

9. The prompt should be interesting enough to motivate the writer. A prompt that does not provoke thought will reap a thoughtless response.

10. The prompt should allow “room to breathe” for divergent thinkers. Expect the unexpected in student responses, and design prompts to allow for a variety of responses.

11. The prompt should enable the writer to respond with a thesis that states the purpose of the writing and/or the author’s point of view (claim or argument). If you can’t turn the writing prompt into a thesis statement without effort, your students will never accomplish this task.

12. The prompt should not artificially force the writer into a certain thesis. A one-sided prompt that demands a certain thesis will not produce original thought.

13. The prompt can provide a writing situation to set the writing directions in context. However, the writing situation should not overwhelm or confuse the writing instructions.

14. The prompt should have clear writing instructions. Writers are the best judges as to whether the prompt has clear instructions. Avoid vocabulary and terms that will confuse the students. Don’t use writing direction words, such as “analyze”, if your students do not understand them.

15. The prompt should be one that will afford your writers plenty of evidence with which to prove or elaborate upon their topic sentences. Picking narrow or obscure writing subjects will not allow your writers to weigh easily accessible evidence. They will also be tempted to plagiarize or invent when little evidence is available.

16. The prompt should be able to be boiled down into a question to be answered. That answer will be the thesis statement.

Writing directions words for essays designed to inform the reader…

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

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

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

4. 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.

Writing directions words for essays designed to convince the reader…

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

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

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

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


Teaching Essays


The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE includes the three printable and digital resources students need to master the CCSS W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational/explanatory essays. Each no-prep resource allows students to work at their own paces via mastery learning. How to Teach Essays includes 42 skill-based essay strategy worksheets (fillable PDFs and 62 Google slides), beginning with simple 3-word paragraphs and proceeding step-by-step to complex multi-paragraph essays. One skill builds upon another. The Essay Skills Worksheets include 97 worksheets (printables and 97 Google slides) to help teachers differentiate writing instruction with both remedial and advanced writing skills. The Eight Writing Process Essays (printables and 170 Google slides) each feature an on-demand diagnostic essay assessment, writing prompt with connected reading, brainstorming, graphic organizer, response, revision, and editing activities. Plus, each essay includes a detailed analytical (not holistic) rubric for assessment-based learning.

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