Why Do Teachers Look For Writing Prompts?  (And What They Should Be Looking For Instead)

In doing a little keyword research for my Teachers Pay Teachers products and the guest blog posts that I write in hopes that people will find and buy those products, I have found that an often searched for term is “writing prompts.”  I continue to be almost shocked that people just look for writing prompts, without any tie to content or units of study or texts.  I don’t think, though, that they are simply looking for someone to give them a “Write about what you did this summer” type of question.

I think that when they are looking for prompts, they really want something else.

teachers look writing prompts

This is what I think teachers want when they look for writing prompts—and how I can help them with what they really need.

1. Teachers want a topic that will engage their students.  The number one key to an easy teaching experience is to engage students.  Engaged students are not behavior problems, they don’t whine and complain, and they don’t ask to go to the bathroom for the fifth time in an hour.  Engaged students create their best work and put their utmost effort into what they are doing—simply because they are interested.  When teachers search for writing prompts, my guess is that what they want is a trick for engaging their students.

But instead of looking for a prompt that will solve all of their engagement problems, teachers will need more complicated solutions.  They’ll need to make the content relevant to kids, and they’ll need to show them why it matters.  They’ll need to ask big questions, and they’ll need to walk that thin line between challenging students enough but not making them so frustrated that they give up.  I have found that the best way to get students engaged and keep them engaged is to design my classes around a big essential question.  You can check out my thematic unit bundle here.   

2. They want something that will bring their students’ writing to the next level.  I often think back to the early days in my career as a teacher when I had no clue how on earth you teach someone to write.  A friend who was teaching a writing course gave me some of the best advice that I have heard since: she told me that what she really did was to teach students to think.

When students learn how to analyze data and evidence and to think critically, they will naturally write better.  They can memorize all the vocabulary words in the world, but if their ideas are simplistic and obvious, their writing won’t be any better—just more confusing.  Finding that perfect prompt won’t get your students to write better.  Teachers who want their students to improve their writing will have to teach them to think critically.  You can check out my critical thinking resources here and here

3. They want ideas for when they have five or ten or forty-five minutes of unplanned time in class.  Getting students to spend a few minutes writing when the rest of the lesson is over is a great idea.  But giving them a random question like “Would you rather run out of food or water in the desert?” doesn’t really accomplish anything.  And in my experience, students can smell busy work a mile a way.

Having fun writing exercises that truly relate to the bigger themes of the lesson do help students to stay engaged until the bell, get in a little extra writing, and actually improve their writing skills.  You can check out my creative writing exercises here.

4. They want some guidance on what students should be writing.  When I think back to my early days of teaching, I was constantly referring to AP and SAT essay prompts.  I just wanted to make sure that my students were doing the kind of writing that would be expected of them—I wanted to make sure that we were on the right track.  Now, I’ll still check those prompts whenever they come out, just to make sure that I am up to date on the most recent changes.

But rather than just finding a list of prompts to give students, teachers need to also make sure that they are actually teaching their students to write the kinds of essays that are required.  If students are learning how to create quality pieces of argument writing, narrative writing, and informational writing, as well as how to sometimes base that writing on research, then they are getting what they need—both for testing and for college.  You can check out my argument writing and narrative writing units here and here.

Teaching writing can be so overwhelming.  I understand the desire for a quick fix that will make it all go away.  But once teachers realize what they really need to get their students excited about writing, thinking critically, writing all the time, and learning about the different forms of writing, they’ll see that teaching writing isn’t quite as mysterious as it seemed.

Oh, and if you still just want some interesting prompts, you can check out all of my prompts here.

What questions do you have about teaching writing?  Why do you think that teachers search for writing prompts?

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