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How to Dissect a Writing Prompt

Dissect a Writing Prompt

How to Dissect an Essay 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.


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, but 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.

After dissecting the writing prompt with WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO, CHANGE the WHAT into a QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED. The answer to this question will be your thesis statement. Check out this article to learn how to teach thesis statements.

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.


The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE, 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.

Check out the teaching summary of the WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO strategy for dissecting writing prompts for display and practice.

Get the Dissecting a Writing Prompt Practice FREE Resource:

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Free Resources to Teach the Writing Process and Writer’s Workshop

Teaching Essays


The Writing Process and Writers Workshop are not simply processes by which students explore and refine their writing on their own. The teacher plays an active role in teaching and modeling the writing strategies that students need to acquire to become coherent writers. Both explicit and implicit instruction have their appropriate roles within writing instruction. Creating  and maintaining an experimental community of writers is no easy task for the writing instructor. However, the pay-offs are certainly worth the effort.

The diverse classroom provides unique challenges for both students and writing instructor. By its very nature, much of writing instruction is differentiated instruction. Classroom management and creation of a workable writing climate are essentials to successful learning.

Following are articles, free resources, and teaching tips regarding how to facilitate the Writing Process and Writers Workshop from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

The TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE consists of three essential writing resources: How to Teach Essays, Essay Skills Worksheets, and Eight Writing Process Essays.

How Much and What to Mark on Essays

Many teachers take pride in red-inking student essays: the more ink the better. Some “grade” essays without comments by using holistic or analytical rubrics, but do not mark papers. For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Work smarter, not harder, while focusing on efficiency and outcomes.

How to Teach Writing Skills

Two time-proven solutions to these problems take little time, but do necessitate some instruction and practice: sentence revisions and literary response. Writing teachers (and writing research) have found these tools to be especially helpful for developing writers.

By sentence revision, I mean the word choice and structure of our language (the grammar, usage, and syntax). It’s the how something is written (and re-written). Think sentence variety, sentence combining, grammar and proper usage in the writing context. The skills of sentence revision are primarily taught.

By literary response, I mean writing style: primarily the style of literary mentors, who not only have something to say, but know how to say it in both expository and narrative writing. Think mentor texts and rhetorical stance (voice, audience, purpose, and form). The skills of writing style are primarily caught.

How to Write Effective Essay Comments

Conscientious teachers know that merely completing a holistic rubric and totaling the score for a grade is not effective essay response or writing assessment. Teachers may choose to grade and/or respond with essay comments after the rough draft and/or after the final draft. Using the types of comments that match the teacher’s instructional objectives is essential. Additionally, keeping in mind the key components of written discourse can balance responses between form and content. Finally, most writing instructors include closing comments to emphasize and summarize their responses. Here’s how to write truly effective essay comments.

How to Save Time Grading Essays

Good teachers learn to work smarter not harder. We also learn how to prioritize our time, especially in terms of managing the paper load. Most of us would agree that we need to focus more of our time on planning and teaching, rather than on correcting. Here’s one resource to help you save time grading essays, while doing a better job providing essay response.

The Difference between Facts and Claims

This article discusses the important differences between a fact and a claim. Plus, learn how knowing the differences should affect your teaching the argumentative essay.

Using Evidence in Writing

Teaching students to use appropriate evidence in argumentative essays is a difficult task. Students generally understand how to use textual evidence in direct and indirect quotations, but are less adept at creating reasons apart from the text itself. Teach your students the eight types of essay evidence with the memorable FE SCALE CC strategies.

How Much and What to Mark on Essays

For those who still assign writing process essays and/or essay exams and believe that students can and do benefit from comments, the question of How Much and What to Mark on Essays is relevant. Working smarter, not harder and focusing on efficiency and outcomes over pedagogical purity are worthy mantras for effective writing instruction.

How to Dissect a Writing Prompt

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.

How Many Essay Comments and What Kind

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.

Computer-Scored Essays

Teachers recognize the value of essay compositions as vital tools for learning, self-expression, and assessment. However, essays just take too much time to read, respond to, and evaluate. As a result, computer-scoring of student writing is being actively marketed to K-12 schools and universities. But teacher organizations, such as the NCTE and CCCC adamantly oppose machine-scored writing. Is there a middle ground that uses technological efficiency and maintains teacher judgment?

Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences

With Writer’s Workshop, teachers typically organize a one-hour workshop so that at least half of the time is devoted to writing, peer conferences, and writer-teacher mini-conferences. Properly managed, the writer-teacher mini-conference can be a key ingredient to the success of developing writers. Here are some tips to make the most out of Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences and some great attachments, links, and free downloads as well.

Differentiating Instruction in Writer’s Workshop

Critics of Writer’s Workshop often complain that Writer’s Workshop can be inefficient and/or a class management nightmare. Some teachers have tried Writer’s Workshop, but have given up because the workshop is interest-based, not standards-based or because it is student-centered, not teacher-centered. Neither of those criticisms concerns me greatly. However, I do feel that the traditional model of Writer’s Workshop is not as conducive to differentiated instruction as it could be. Specifically, tweaking the mini-lesson will allow teachers to better differentiate instruction within Writer’s Workshop.

Analytical Rubrics

Teachers use two types of rubrics to assess student writing: holistic and analytic. Of the two rubrics, the analytical rubric offers both teachers and students much more to work with to improve student writing. Here are five reasons why using analytical rubrics makes sense.

What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics?

It’s a relatively easy task to criticize any measure of writing assessment. This is my chore in What’s Wrong with Holistic Rubrics. We should use holistic rubrics for many writing assessments. However, we shouldn’t use holistic rubrics to teach writing. Holistic rubrics are, by design, summative assessments. Summative assessment is limited to evaluation, and evaluation is not instruction.

20 Tips to Teach Writing through Music

Students have internalized the structure, syntax, and rules of music far more than that of any writing genre. This prior knowledge is simply too valuable for the writing teacher to ignore. Analyzing the songwriting composition process will enable students to apply the relevant strategies to their own writing of narratives, poetry, essays, and reports (and maybe even songs).

How to Teach a Science of Writing Program

Teachers want to apply the Science of Writing in their writing instruction. No one wants to throw away explicit grammar, spelling, and writing strategies instruction or the writing process. In a previous article, I have made the case that a balanced writing program makes sense. Learn the six steps to take to develop a balanced and effective writing program.

Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate

Using the craft of songwriting as a guide, the writing teacher can develop a productive writing climate. Combining resources, collaboration, and competition with an atmosphere of social networking can improve student motivation, commitment, and end product.

Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing.

Ten Tips for Coaching Basketball and Writing

Learning to apply the coaching techniques of an effective basketball coach will significantly improve your ability as a writing coach for your students. Learn the ten tips to change from “the sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”

How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt

Writing effective writing prompts that will engage writers and produce the best written responses can be challenging. This article shares the best tips for writing good writing prompts that will allow room for creative interpretation and analysis. The article also defines the common writing direction words that inform and persuade.

How to Teach the Writing Domains (Genres)

Teaching the writing domains (genres) and rhetorical stance are two essential lessons for developing young writers.

Process vs. On Demand Writing

The advent of timed writings on high stakes tests, such as the new SAT 1, high school exit exams, and standards-based writing assessments, has placed teachers in the difficult position of choosing among three instructional approaches to help students learn to write and succeed on these tests: process writing, on demand writing, or a mix of the two. All three approaches share the same challenge: little time is allocated for writing instruction.

Ten Tips to Teach On-Demand Writing

On-demand writing assessments are here to stay. Teachers do a disservice to their students by not preparing them for the on-demand writing tasks that they will face throughout their academic and vocational careers. Here are ten practical tips to teach timed, on-demand writing to ensure success for your students.

Eight Great Tips for Teaching Writing Fluency

Similar to reading fluency, writing fluency is the ability to write effortlessly without interruption. Writing fluency is developed through concentrated practice; however, some practices are more effective than others. This article shares the best writing fluency strategies.

How to Teach a Write Aloud

Research shows that the best writers have learned how to creatively multi-task, problem-solve, and interact with the anticipated reader. This is a skill that can be effectively taught by using the Write Aloud strategy.

Twelve Tips to Teach the Reading-Writing Connection

Educators often talk about the reading-writing connection. Teaching reading and writing strategies concurrently allows teachers to “kill two birds with one stone.” The following twelve techniques to teach the reading-writing connection will enhance students’ facility in both disciplines.

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog

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Pennington Publishing’s mission is to provide the finest in assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources for grades 4‒high school teachers. Mark Pennington is the author of many printable and digital programs. Please check out Pennington Publishing for assessment-based resources created for teachers by a fellow teacher.

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