Analyzing An Essay Prompt

When I was unpacking the Common Core State Standards to identify the skills being learned and the student outcomes, it occurred to me that the cognitive process that I was using was the same used to identify the tasks in a state test short answer or essay prompt. I decided to teach my students how to unpack a prompt in the same manner that I unpacked the standards.


Why Unpack the Prompt?

Many state test writing prompts contain multiple tasks. At the middle school level, short answer and extended responses have encompassed up to four tasks. There is nothing more frustrating than grading a state test and discovering that a student did a fabulous job of responding to three tasks, but overlooked one. This could result in a failing score for the writing portion of the test, which is not a true measure of a student’s writing ability.

In order to get my students invested in analyzing prompts, I explained that test-taking is a life skill and connected it to the college and career component of the Common Core. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, and postal workers must past a test or tests of some form to get a license or job. In a few years, my students will have to pass various tests: the ACT, the SAT, and the NYS driver’s permit test. Okay, throwing in the driver’s license test isn’t fair, but it is motivating. I challenge you to find a teen who doesn’t want to pass the driver’s license test.

Checklists allow students to evaluate their own writing. I can’t answer student questions while proctoring a test, so they must be able to do this. Now, when my students are confronted with a writing prompt, either teacher- or state-created, they unpack the prompt and create a checklist as seen to the right. Sometimes the prompt, like the NYSED extended response question, provides a bulleted list. If this is the case, I instruct them to turn the bullets into check boxes, to create a checklist. If a bulleted task list is not provided, they make their own.



Unpacking a Prompt

After reading the prompt, students highlight "who," "what," "where," "when," "why," and "how." Some prompts have more than one of these words; some don’t have any. If your students struggle with this, put it in chart form as shown at the right.  The visual helps to sort the information, so the students see a pattern. Next, circle key words that identify the purpose for writing, such as "explain," "describe," "compare," "contrast," "identify," "persuade," "define," "defend," "justify," "predict," or "summarize." Notice that these are verbs. I point this out to my students. Last we underline the topics or phrases that accompany each writing purpose. There are times when one writing purpose encompasses two tasks. These tasks are often the ones a student overlooks. This process teaches them to look for more than one task.

Because of copyright restrictions, I could not use a NYSED assessment prompt to model the process, so I used comparable passages and an essay prompt that I created based on two passages in the March 12, 2012, issue of Scope magazine. Feel free to access the text passages and other digital resources that complement this lesson on Scope's companion Web site The Dust Bowl: The Land, the People. The nonfiction article “Imagine” is paired with an excerpt, “Hope,” from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Download the "Dust Bowl Extended Response" handout that I created as part of my state test review. The image illustrates how we identified the information in the prompt and created a checklist.


State Test Prep Resources

For more on preparing students for state assessments, see some of my other posts on the topic:

How do you prepare your students for state assessments?

How Writing Prompts Build Writing Skills

Writing prompts or essay prompts are learning assignments that direct students to write about a particular topic in a particular way. As our educational understanding has developed, writing prompts came on the scene as a way to corral students’ natural curiosity for the world around them. They are designed to integrate a students imagination and creativity into guided writing practice. Using them regularly as part of a multi-faceted writing curriculum can boost the chances that students will not only improve as writers but feel connected to the writing process.

Analyzing the Writing Prompt
While writing well depends on many skills that take time to develop, one skill can be taught fairly quickly: how to understand a writing prompt. Do you think that making sense of them is simply a matter of reading comprehension?  Actually, all too often, good students receive a poor writing grade because they misunderstood the essay writing prompt. In order to successfully respond, students must learn to analyze the prompt before responding to it.

Questions to Ask
Just as they do in the prewriting phase of any writing task, students should ask questions about the assignment that help them narrow down their overall goal. When working with writing prompts, the following are helpful questions to pin down the answers to:

  • What form of writing does it require?
  • What is the purpose of the prompt?
  • What information do I need to complete the task?
  • What kind of details or arguments does it suggest and would these points make good paragraphs?
  • Who is the audience for the essay?
  • How does the audience’s expectations affect my writing style?

By asking and answering these questions, students can jump-start their essay outline and formulate their thesis. A good way to begin is to write a one-sentence response to each question. When students study the writing prompt closely and use it as the basis for prewriting, they’ll be on their way to writing an essay that fully addresses the goals prompt. This is wonderful practice for any type of long-form writing, as well.

The Importance of Writing Form

One of the key stumbling blocks of writing prompt interpretation is figuring out what form of writing is required. For example, is it an expository, narrative, or persuasive prompt? Sometimes prompts explicitly specify the form of writing to be used, or give strong hints with words like “persuade” for the persuasive writing form. Other times, the task of deciphering which form of writing to use is part of the challenge. The trick is to recognize the clues given in the prompt. Here are some key words to look for:

  • Expository Essay –how, what, explain, define, analyze, compare/contrast
  • Narrative Essay –tell, story, relate, imagine, describe
  • Persuasive Essay –convince, persuade, why, opinion, argue

Writing Prompts as Standardized Test Practice

Teachers also use prompts to help students prepare for standardized tests. They are found on all standardized tests, from state writing assessments to national tests like ACT and SAT. Age-appropriate writing prompts on standardized tests often focus on contemporary social issues. Keeping up with current events is good preparation, as is participating in discussion groups and reading both fiction and nonfiction books.

Time4Writing Builds Fundamental Skills 

At Time4Writing, we focus on teaching the fundamental skills required for good writing. Each student is paired with a certified teacher for one-on-one instruction. Our teachers draw from their classroom experience to help their students with all the nuts and bolts of building good essays, beginning with understanding the writing prompt. There is a free flow of conversation between students and the teacher, helping students thrive with individualized attention to their writing. Writing becomes something they enjoy, instead of a chore. Learn more about how Time4Writing’s certified teacher-led program works for homeschool, afterschool practice, or summer skill-building.

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