Tag Archives: writing prompts

Best practices in teaching writing #5

Quote: When you grade papers focus on a small number of serious problems.

Restricting your grading focuses students’ attention.

Grading is a necessary evil. As with other evil things, if you can’t avoid grading entirely, it’s best not to do it much.

I’ve written here about various approaches to putting a grade on work: See, for example, Better late than early; Lick the grading problem, Lollipop; and Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck.

The other potentially evil aspect of grading—and one to which we writing teachers are prone—is saying too much.

We tend to want to say something about every error we see, and all too often we see nothing but errors.

Control your negativity.

A far better approach is to strictly limit our comments.

I recommend you limit error identification to:

  • a short list of serious errors (I use the Connors and Lunsford list of 20 items), and
  • further restrict error-spotting on an individual’s paper to that person’s Individual Mastery Plan items, and
  • stop flagging errors when you’ve found enough to cap that person’s grade.

If I say four instances of any errors from a person’s IMP are too many for a student to get a grade higher than a C on that particular paper, there’s no value in continuing to flag after the first four. Marking 37 errors  rather than four will only discourage a student, and it won’t add a penny to my paycheck.

Stress positive behaviors.

I also recommend you confine yourself to writing no more than two comments on other aspects of writing:

  • one comment on something the student did well or did right;
  • one comment about something other than IMP issues that would boost the student’s grade.

If need be, you can praise students for such things as turning in work on time or  persevering when it doesn’t look like hard work is paying off. Such acts are really important: We notice if students don’t do them, so why not notice that they do?

When possible, suggest something a student can do to boost a grade within a relatively short period of time. Following directions, for example, will probably pay off on the next assignment. Using linking devices will probably not produce improvement until the student has done it deliberately a few times.

Don’t scare students.

Please, don’t write, “See me.”

That’s frightening.

If something in a student’s paper totally bewilders you, I suggest you talk to the student about it rather than writing a comment.


You might try asking the student if she/he has a couple of minutes after class to explain something you weren’t sure you understood. Students are normally happy to explain things that their teachers don’t understand.

When you ask a question face-to-face, you position yourself as a reader rather than as a grader. A two-minute conversation can do wonders for students’ mental image of themselves as writers whose ideas matter.

And that’s something grades don’t do well.



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Best practices in teaching writing #4

Quote: develop good writing prompts that you can reuse year after year.

Develop enough formal writing prompts to give you a choice.

Preparing formal writing prompts may not require more effort from you than preparing informal ones, but responding to them requires a greater investment of time by students. For that reason, you ought to make sure your formal prompts are on some of the most significant topics in your curriculum.

If Susie is going to need to spend five hours on an essay, it ought to concern a topic that’s worth five hours of study.

What’s worth five hours of study? Probably it is a topic to which you devote at least a week of class time.

In all likelihood, a topic that’s worth a week of study in your English class in 2017 will also be worth a week of study in your English class in 2018.

It makes sense, then, to prepare formal writing prompts that you could, at least in theory, use year after year.

You won’t want to use all the same prompts year after year.  Besides the risk that students will recycle work by those in previous years, there’s the more serious danger of boring yourself.

Bored students are bad enough.

Bored teachers are stultifying.

The solution is to prepare writing prompts that have a high degree of likelihood of fitting into your course next year as well as this year.

After you have a full year’s worth of formal prompts, begin creating replacements for a certain number of those prompts every year.

Tip: Don’t discard a prompt unless it was a total disaster:  Tweak prompts that produced disappointing results their first time out, preferably right after you read students’ responses to the prompt.

If you have 25 formal prompts for a year and create replacements for five of those a year, by your sixth year of teaching you would have 50 formal prompts on major topics in your curriculum.  Having all those choices will help keep boredom at bay.

Even more importantly, you’ll have developed skill at writing formal prompts and at spotting current events hooks to use with them.

Those skills will help prevent burnout and boredom in later years.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #3

Quote: Give explicit directions so you don't have to keep re-explaining.

Explicit directions are good, but they’re even better written down.

No matter how clearly you phrase information, no matter how carefully you choose your illustrations,  no matter how well you prepare, you are not going to get through to every student on your first attempt.

Instead of getting yourself tied in knots over your failure—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with you—prepare in advance for failures.

When you prepare writing prompts,  include in writing stripped-down directions about how to do the main task(s) the writing entails. You can also put the directions in some other formats (audio clips or video), but always put it in writing.

If you include in each writing prompt written information that teaches students how to do one writing task, by the time students have had a dozen writing prompts, they should have a miniature handbook on writing embedded in the prompts.

Encourage students to treat your writing prompts as instructional materials by referring students to directions you included in prior prompts.

Of course, not all students will read the prompts carefully or keep them after turning in the assignment, but if your prompts include genuinely helpful tips, many will hang on to the prompts to use again.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing, #2

Quote: Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty.

Time is too valuable to squander on writing with just one purpose.

To make wise use of your time — and your students’ time — craft writing prompts that do more than make students write.

Prepare writing prompts that teach students something about how to write rather than just directing them to write.

Have students write about course content or about topics related to course content.

(Please, if you teach English, don’t limit yourself to literary topics. Many students find language topics more relevant.)

If you’re really a creative teacher, you can not only make your prompts

  • teach something about writing, and
  • teach or apply some non-writing course content,

but also politely force students to seek connections between the writing topic and something that matters to them.

I strongly recommend developing writing prompts that are, in effect, self-contained writing lessons complete with help getting started on the assignment and resources to consult if students get stuck.

It’s much more efficient for students to use their own material as they learn how to do a writing task than to do exercises isolated from their own writing.

To learn more about crafting formal writing prompts, visit the formal writing prompts section of my new website, PenPrompts.com.  If you sign up for the PenPrompts newsletter, you get a copy of my formal writing prompts template free.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices for teaching writing: #1

Quote: Teach one lesson multiple times in mutliple ways.

Best practices work for students and their teachers.


The best practices for teaching writing focus on teaching essentials thoroughly.

If your lesson content isn’t essential, why are you wasting time on it?

Teaching the essentials thoroughly usually  means teaching a few lessons multiple times in multiple ways over a period of months.

When your goal is developing writing skill, you must teach the essential concepts, patterns, and skills until students write competently.

Competence takes time.

Students need time to try out what they understood you to say to see how it works in their writing—which is vastly different from seeing how a concept works on publisher-created materials.

If students don’t learn to write competently, you may have presented but you didn’t teach.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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PenPrompts: Required course remedy

Teaching required courses at either the high school or college level is often a thankless job.

The classes are usually large.

Student interest is usually modest, as in “I hate [subject goes here].”

Often the course content is prescribed to fit the administration’s desire to make the required course serve the rest of the institution.

At the high school level, required courses are often assigned to the less experienced teachers, as if teaching required courses demands less practice than teaching electives.

At the college level, required courses often are taught by adjuncts who lack resources — time, supportive colleagues, professional development, office space — to teach as well as they’d like.

All those negatives were on my mind when I decided to create a new website, PenPrompts.

Partially open laptop with surprint "Lift the lid on learning"

The stripe reminds me of an Oxford-cloth button down shirt; very preppy.

PenPrompts is now live.

Many readers of this blog knew me when I operated a website called you-can-teach-writing.com, a website for people who teach writing to teens and adults. PenPrompts recycles a small part of that content for a different audience.

PenPrompts is designed for teachers who are looking for help teaching  high school or college required courses.  On the PenPrompts site, I call these folks liberal arts teachers, which isn’t entirely accurate but serves to distinguish them from teachers of career-specific courses.

Liberal arts teachers’ general education courses are supposed to teach “every student” about something, such as art, rather than to teach a few students to be something, such as an artist.

Regardless of what subjects these liberal arts teachers teach, their central task is to help students develop the knowledge and skills for thinking critically and for continuing to learn after their exit from formal education. They use their subject as a tool for accomplishing that task.

If they help a few students discover they are interested in the course subject as a career or avocation, that’s a like getting a free upgrade to the Ritz-Carlton from Motel 6.

PenPrompts’ mission is to help those teachers do their job.

PenPrompts mission is goal achievement

The PenPrompts mission is goal achievement.

The solution I propose to help these teachers fill their supporting role well  is instructor-crafted expository writing prompts that:

  1. Ask students to explain something in writing, and
  2. Include all the information students need to start and to finish writing, having meet all the requirements.

In preparing PenPrompts, I envision its users as classroom veterans — most visitors to my old site had 15 or more years’ teaching experience — who are unhappy with the results they are getting but remain convinced that students need to have a basic understanding of their discipline.

I’ve tried to provide teachers with the least information they need to know to craft and deploy writing prompts.

I haven’t figured out how to get submissions to the newsletter signup to populate the subscriber list automatically, but the contact form works, so if you visit the site you can say hello.


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Spell Out Expectations for Writers

When I was in the newspaper business, I often heard reporters ask an editor, “What do you want in this story?” Usually the answer was, “Just write the story, and we’ll fix it later.”


When the story came in, editors would yell at reporters to go back to get more information or to get different information, which made both reporters and their sources angry. The result was frustration all around.

If adults on the job react angrily to vague directions, imagine how frustrating it is to Caitlin and Joshua when they don’t know what the teacher expects them to do in their writing assignments.

For learning disabled students and others who struggle with writing, directions for a writing assignment must be clear. The directions need to spell out:

  • what is to be done
  • how it’s to be done
  • when it’s to be done
  • the standards by which it will be evaluated

Don’t assume students will know. Spell it out—in language they can understand.

Photo credit: Folded Paper uploaded by kmg


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Bullying writing prompts collection available

Bullying Begins as Words

Bullying is a behavior problem, but it occurs within a communications situation. My latest e-book, Bullying Begins as Words, uses that fact to pull students into exploring verbal and nonverbal aspects of communication.

The nonfiction writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words allow teens, college students, and adult students to examine those communications choices that can change communications situations,  including unpleasant ones like bullying incidents, for the better.

The prompts in Bullying Begins as Words are more than excuses for writing. They are associated with topics other than writing that are found in nearly every English program from middle school through college. The prompts are designed to be used with any textbook or no textbook.

English-communications topics addressed in the prompts include:

  • Metaphors
  • Connotation/denotation
  • Character development in literature
  • Developing awareness of an audience’s needs and preferences

Although there are only a dozen prompts in the collection, they take up 40 of the 62 pages of the book. Each student prompt includes everything students need to understand the assignment and get started on it.

The teacher materials  accompanying each prompt point out parts of the assignment that are likely to pose difficulty for students. The teacher materials also show each prompt fits with Common Core State Standards and the “revised Bloom’s taxonomy.”

Bullying Begins as Words is designed to provide English and communications teachers with writing prompts on genuine English and communications topics.The writing prompts are not designed to comfort victims of bullying, intervene in bullying situations, or prevent bullying.

If the writing prompts in Bullying Begins as Words reduce bullying, they will do it by increasing students’ awareness of the messages they send by their verbal and nonverbal communications choices.

[Link  to Bullying Begins as Words removed 2014-04-24. The book is is not currently available.

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Formative assessment of graphic awareness

Assessment is an essential part of teaching.  Unfortunately, schools focus on summative assessments that, even if appropriate, don’t provide either student or teacher with information about to get to their educational goals.

For  “how are we doing?” help, you need formative assessment.

Our tendency as teachers is to use formative assessment to see how well students learned what we taught. However, formative assessment can also be used in determining what you need to teach. Students may know more than you think—or they may know something quite different from what you think they know.

I find the best formative assessment tool for my nonfiction writing classes is informal writing in response to a writing prompt. Misunderstandings about the meaning of common English class terms are a routine problem.  I use informal writing to uncover such problems.

Another potentially serious source of misunderstandings are graphics.

I started thinking about the problems inherent in graphic representations when reading Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles. Early in the novel, Jack Holman  attempts to teach an illiterate Chinese man how a steam engine operates. Jack’s first attempt is frustrated by Po-han’s lack of numerical literacy. Since Po-han does not understand numbers, he thinks the larger the type size on a dial the greater the amount of pressure in the engine.

I teach students to use graphic elements such as heading size as reading comprehension tools. It had not occurred to me how important it is be sure students are correctly reading graphics that are supposed to help them understand course content.

When I thought about it, I realized it’s not just illiterate coolies that can misunderstand graphic representations. Literate people can misunderstand a graphic that they interpret with a different set of associations than those held by the graphic’s designer.

Take, for example, the little magnifying glass icon. If you use the web regularly, you know clicking the magnifying glass icon will bring up a search box. You may assume that everyone will interpret the magnifying glass as you do. However, if you were to ask a group  of folks who are not regular web users to write a sentence or two telling what they would expect to happen if they clicked on a magnifying glass icon, you might  learn many people  assume that the magnifying glass icon will make the type bigger because that’s how they are accustomed to using a magnifying glass.

Another problematic icon in education is the pyramid representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Many people interpret that graphic as meaning they must spend much more time on the broadly based objectives than on the more narrowly based ones, which fits the graphic image but is a total misinterpretation of the taxonomy. (The graphic, incidentally, is not in the Bloom’s taxonomy, which presents the objectives an ordered list.)

If you use many graphics to communicate concepts and procedures, as I do, you can identify potential  graphic misunderstandings by using informal writing for formative assessment.  Simply have the learners write a sentence or two explaining what they think a particular graphic feature means. For example, you might ask, “What would you expect the relationship between these two items to be?”

Or ask, “How do you think the information represented by the yellow area of this graphic is likely to be related to the information represented by the blue area?

Such formative assessment writing prompts are not hard  to prepare, and don’t take long to administer, but the answers can go a long way toward improving teaching and learning.

[Removed links to information no longer available 04-03-2014.]

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Writing prompt that fits Common Core

Common Core State Standards for writing are causing a great deal of concern and confusion, much of which could be cleared up by reading the standards.

The standards focus on higher level learning. The standards call for students to graduate from high school with knowledge they can use and do use. It’s not enough that students can score well on some standardized test. They have to be able to take what they know and use it to learn what they don’t know, even when what they know and what they don’t know are in seemingly unrelated fields.

A student’s question in the essay help forum included a writing prompt that illustrates the kind of assignment that fits the Common Core State Standards. The prompt was an assignment for a college business class, but the writing prompt is about language use. The prompt is challenging but not impossible even for average students providing they’ve been taught writing strategies to get them started.

Here’s what the student posted:

I need essay help with researching a fairly obscure topic. I am a second year university student, attempting to write an essay for a business writing class. The assignment is:

“With particular attention to the implications of writing style choices (vocabulary, verb tense, etc), do research on writing as it relates to business ethics.

“Discuss the ethical implications of particular style choices for business. Refer to at least one example from your own experience (either as a business person or as a customer). If you cannot do this, say so in the paper and supply an extra example from your research) and at least one example from your research. Use the exercises and topics in class to develop your ideas and outline your paper. First person point of view is acceptable.

“Conclude by discussing the communications choices you would make in these or similar situations and how you would carry them out. Use as supporting material the research you have done into ethical style choices.”

Essentially, I am having the most difficulty finding any relevant information to analyze and discuss. The professor gave examples of possible topics (e.g. the use of conditional language in contracts) but, I still cannot find any information.

Are there any certain specific resources that may be especially useful? Broad queries using search engines or academic journal databases are not working.

Note that the writing prompt:

  • Provides context for the assignment.
  • Cannot be answered by cutting and pasting results of an Internet search.
  • Requires personal experience as well as researched evidence.
  • Gives answers to questions the students are likely to have, such as whether first person is acceptable .
  • Asks students to construct a guide to future behavior based on their research.

You can read a copy of my response in which I show the student how to guess a working thesis to use as a starting place for her research.

The student reported that she got an A+ on her paper. She also said, ” I feel pretty confident with my second essay of the term.”

I love when students say, “I can do this myself.”

If you as a writing teacher can embrace Common Core State Standards as an opportunity to break away from the straightjacket of the standardized test mentality, I think you may be pleasantly surprised by how they free you to do the kind of teaching you have always wanted to do.

[This post has been edited to include information provided by hyperlink in the original July 2012 post.   The essay help form was part of the website you-can-teach-writing.com, which I closed in December 2013. ]

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