Teachers often ask us, “How do I motivate my students to write?” One solution is to create engaging prompts.
What makes a writing prompt engaging?
The best prompts are clear and relevant. If the topic or task is not relevant to students, they will be less motivated to persist through the steps of the writing process and do their best work.
As an example, suppose your class is working on a persuasive writing unit. Consider the following prompts. Which is most effective? Why?
Write a two- to three-page essay about a change you would like to see at school.
Discussion: This prompt presents a clear topic and page length, but not much else. It forces students to make educated guesses about key parts of the writing situation, such as the purpose and audience. Without clear expectations, students may not know what to include in the essay. The stakes of the assignment seem mostly academic, inviting little motivation to write other than for a grade.
What bothers you about your school? Write a two- to three-page persuasive essay about a change you would like to see at school. Provide reasons to support your opinion, explain why the reasons matter, and show how the outcome would benefit the school.
Discussion: This option improves upon the first. The opening question speaks directly to students and grabs attention. The type of writing—persuasive essay—is clearly stated. And the prompt outlines key expectations for the essay. However, the stakes remain mostly academic.
What change do you want at your school? Imagine that you plan to attend the next school board meeting to voice your opinion. Write a 2-3 page persuasive speech to the board members about a change you would like to see at school. In your essay, you should explain the situation, provide reasons why the change is needed, show why the reasons matter, and give a call to action. Make sure to respond to potential objections the board might have about your stance.
Discussion: This version situates the writing task in a real-world context. It includes an authentic audience (school board), role (student seeking change), and purpose (to convince the board to make a change). Such a scenario makes the writing stakes much higher than in prompts 1 and 2. Prompt 3 also indicates several expectations for the written speech, helping students understand what they will need to include to succeed.
How can I create better prompts?
When creating new writing prompts, consider taking the following actions:
1. Create real-world context.
When students see the value of writing outside of a classroom context, they strive for something greater than a grade. Identifying an authentic purpose and audience will help you create a realistic scenario for your prompt.
2. Offer a problem to solve.
Problem-based scenarios invite students to respond to issues and controversies impacting the world. Note the difference in these tasks.
- Topic-focused: Write an informative report about the surface of Mars.
- Problem-focused: NASA reportedly wants to send people to Mars by 2030. Pretend you are one of the first settlers on Mars. What conditions will you face on the planet? How will you respond? Log a series of journal entries describing the struggles and successes of your first three days living on Mars.
A topic-focused prompt leads to an “all about” report on Mars. A problem-based prompt invites students to learn about Mars and apply what they learned to manage a complicated situation.
3. Communicate key parts of the writing situation.
Students make better choices when they understand and respond to key parts of the writing situation: purpose, audience, subject, and type. Teach students about the PAST strategy, and make sure each part is identifiable in the prompts you create.
- Purpose: Why am I writing? (To inform? To persuade? To entertain?)
- Audience: Who are my readers?
- Subject: What will I write about?
- Type (medium): What form will the writing take?
In addition to the PAST parts, you might also define the writer’s role—student, musician, job applicant, scientist, etc.
4. Offer choice.
Choice empowers students through options, giving them a measure of control over their own learning. You can offer choice by letting students pick their own writing topics, or for more focused assignments, you can offer several topic options rather than a single, strict requirement.
You can also offer choice through medium—students working on a unit on argumentation could choose to write a standard argument essay, develop an editorial for publication, film a public-service announcement, or host a debate. Offering choice demonstrates respect for students’ personal learning styles.
5. Set clear expectations for success.
Make sure the prompt gives clear instructions about page length, format, and other requirements. For formal assignments, include a grading rubric to help students self-evaluate.