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The Problem With Complex Writing Prompts

Ariel Sacks

The Common Core State Standards and the state assessments designed to measure them are demanding increased critical reading and analytical writing from students, and I've noticed a shift from teachers and products designed to help teachers: that is, the tendency to focus on developing or adopting more complex writing prompts. While I understand the intention here—to push students to produce more rigorous writing—I'm concerned that focusing on prompts represents an attempt to take a shortcut to get there, often leaving students lost and frustrated. Teachers end up doing pedagogical gymnastics to help students get through it; but for students, not much sticks. (I doubt there is a teacher out there who hasn't found themselves in the above scenario at some point.)

Sure, it's important to prepare students for the types of questions they will encounter on standardized assessments, but we need not and should not base the bulk of our writing instruction around these types of questions. One of the reasons that teaching writing by using increasingly complex, teacher-created prompts falls short is that in doing so, we tend to leave students' actual thoughts and voices out of the process.

To become strong writers who can meet challenging standards, students need plenty of experience thinking for themselves, asking questions, connecting ideas, and developing something they truly want to communicate. Then comes the work of putting their complex thoughts into words. This is what real writers do. It's plenty challenging and also empowering. So instead of me writing sophisticated questions, I work to create situations that will spark student thinking and allow them to generate their own ideas and questions. I want them to come to the writing process with a strong sense of purpose and both interest and patience to build out the complexity of their ideas.

There are many ways to connect students with their own thinking and lead them naturally to writing. One of my go-to methods is to get students talking first. (I get a lot of my own writing ideas through conversations.) My students read and annotate texts with minimal interruption and questioning from me, and then I facilitate student-driven discussion. Students, not me, decide what in the text to talk about. I prompt them to find evidence for their assertions and build on their classmates' thinking, and I take notes. Consistently, I'm amazed by what students are able to discover in the text. We end the sessions with students generating questions for further investigation, which lead to essay topics. Each student chooses something of real interest before committing to the work of making the argument.

Given some freedom within a supportive framework, students can move themselves toward complex writing tasks, well-oriented to meet the challenge. Later, armed with authentic analytical writing experience, students are in a good position to learn to answer complicated questions they did not create. Teachers can focus explicitly on teaching the skill of "attacking a prompt," without the pedagogical gymnastics.

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th and 9th grade English/language arts in New York City. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student-Centered Approach (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, where she writes the blog On the Shoulders of Giants.

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