Set the right balance in formal writing prompts

See-saw shows weight of total challenge changes its acceptability
The total challenge posed by a writing prompt lets students respond well — or not.

When preparing formal writing prompts, whether you’re creating them to use as learning assessments or as content teaching tools, it’s important to strike the right balance between how challenging the course content in them is and how challenging the required writing is.

If you’ve taught for more than 27 minutes, you know some content in your courses is a lot harder for students to understand than other content. Similarly, some kinds of writing tasks are harder for students to do than others.

By writing tasks, I’m not talking about surface features such as grammar and punctuation, but about whether a particular topic can be both thought about and written about following basic thesis-and-support pattern, which you might  call by the misleading term “five paragraph essay”. A topic that can be both thought about and written about using the thesis-and-support pattern is the easiest type of writing. Writing that requires modifying that basic pattern in order to plan a response using one of the vastly more complex presentation formats, argument or narrative, is much more difficult.

Getting the balance right matters

When using writing as a teaching and/or learning assessment tool, you want to avoid overburdening students with writing challenges that require such concentrated thinking that there are few little gray cells left over for dealing with the challenges of your course content.

However, being cognizant that students must learn to write prose several notches above Fun with Dick and Jane, you want to encourage students to master at least the most common types of informative/explanatory texts, such as comparisons, cause and effect, and how-tos, so you’re not embarrassed to admit they are your students. (On YCTWriting.com, I plot informative/explanatory texts on a continuum between argument and narrative. You will find it on this expository essay page.)

Visual representations of balance in prompts

Try to imagine that all the difficulties a student could tolerate in one assignment—both writing difficulties and course content difficulties— should fit in a single container. In the graphic below, writing challenges are indicated by pink boxes, course content challenges by green ones.

boxes indicate sizes of writing and content difficulties
The bigger the box, the greater the challenge.

Acceptable proportions of writing and content challenge

There are three ways of packing those three different sizes of two types of challenges in a single container. You can have a moderately difficult writing challenge and a moderately difficult course content challenge, like this:

medium sized pink and green boxes together rate a thumbs up
Moderately difficult writing and content challenges are a good combination.

Students can usually cope with an assignment that combines an easy writing challenge and difficult course content, like this:

together a small pink box and large green box earn a thumbs up
An easy writing challenge can be combined with difficult course content challenge.

They can usually also cope with a difficult writing challenge if it’s accompanied by an easy course content challenge, like this:

Small green box atop large pink box earn a thumbs up for good balance
Easy course content plus difficult writing challenge is a good balance.

What does not work is a writing prompt that poses both difficult writing challenges and difficult course content challenges. That combination earns a thumbs down.

equal-sized pink and green boxes earn a thumbs up
Too-heavy boxes representing writing and content difficulties earn a thumbs down

Plan all your formal writing prompts so their writing difficulty to content difficulty ratio earns a thumbs up.

(A version of this post appeared previously on the PenPrompts.com blog; the web host ate the graphics, so I moved the content here.)

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

Word choices influence perceptions

I frequently use quotes from fiction to trigger nonfiction writing prompts. Using quotes from fiction helps me reach both those  students who think they don’t need to learn anything outside English class if they’re going to be writers, and those others who think fiction is just made-up stuff that’s irrelevant to their lives.

Today I have a formal writing prompt for you that uses a quotation from a Tom Wolfe novel as its starting point. (FYI, my review of the novel will be posted on my blog GreatPenformances.wordpress.com on October 27, 2020.)

The prompt: Payroll situations or people?

Charlie peeps out from the O in TomIn Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, Charlie Crocker’s extensive commercial enterprise is in deep financial trouble. Charlie finally sees the need to reduce expenses.

Although “The Wiz,” Charlie’s numbers-cruncher, tells him, “The food division is the engine that drives the whole corporation,” Charlie demands the food division payroll be cut by 20%.

The Wiz protests, “That’s 2,000 people.”

Wolfe writes,” The word people, as opposed to words they had been using, payroll and employment situations, jarred Charlie for a moment.… ‘That is a lot.'”

Here’s your writing assignment:

Find other examples elsewhere in print (fiction and/or nonfiction) in which changing the noun used to refer to something changes how readers perceive it. The “something” could be a person, a group of people, an object, activity, or action. For each example you identify, determine why changing just one word changes people’s attitude at least momentarily.

In a nonfiction text, explain how word choices influence people’s perceptions. Use examples from your research to support your analysis.

Format your response as a digital document, providing hyperlinks to your examples. Please confine your responses to no more than [750] words. The deadline for this assignment is [date].

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Turn minds over to teach argument

A bookseller in a Christopher Morley novel says, “It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour glass, to let the particles run the other way.”

hourglass with all sand in bottom
The sand has settled into inactivity.

Turning the mental hour glass upside down is a good activity to have your students engage in before you turn them loose to write arguments.

What argument means

An argument is—and has been since the days of Aristotle and Plato—a respectful debate. Before they voice any disagreement, each party must attempt to understand:

    • the opposition’s position, including how they define their terms,
    • the opposition’s evidence for its position,
    • the opposition’s logic from the opposition’s standpoint.

To get students to the place where they can argue, you first have to get them to thoroughly understand the position against which they are arguing. Students will only do that if forced to. Students are rather like normal people in that regard.

hourglass with sand in top half
This has the sand moving again.

Here’s how you can force students to turn their minds upside down.

Force a change of perspective

Make a list of a five to 10 controversial topics. Try to include topics ranging from hot-button issues in your school, your community, state and national politics, and international issues such as climate change, immigration, and disease control.

Have students each select one of the topics on which they have an opinion. Have them write a statement of what they believe about that topic and their evidence for their position. Five hundred words will be plenty for this.

After they’ve turned those paper in, give them a tough assignment. Have each student write a paper defending the opposing point of view, giving the best evidence they can find from the most reputable sources.

If you wish, you might follow the formal writing assignment with a two- or three-minute informal writing prompt—one whose responses you won’t grade—that asks students to reflect on what they learned from doing the assignment that they can use in other situations. If you or I did the assignments ourselves, we’d have to admit that we have very little knowledge of at least one topic on which we have strong opinions.

Having once had the experience of looking at a topic from another viewpoint gives students some appreciation of what they must do in writing genuine arguments.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Is virtual reality in your head?

cover of Crichton novel that suggested the writing promptWhile reading Michael Crichton’s novel 1994 Disclosure for my blog of reviews of the 20th century’s bestselling fiction, I ran across a sentence that I wrote in my notebook of things to think about.

Here’s  the sentence:

“We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

The term virtual reality was first used in 1982 in a science fiction novel, so Crichton’s use of the term just over a decade later to describe people’s thought processes was really very insightful.

4 icons each representing virtual reality
Each icon reveals a different aspect of Virtual Reality.

Our students probably have more experience with virtual reality than Crichton had in 1994 and have probably given the topic far less thought. I’m going to suggest a writing prompt that will force students to think about both the meaning of the term virtual reality and about human behavior.

Each icon at the left represents some aspect of the concept of virtual reality. Thinking about why the artist chose particular elements to draw may help students define virtual reality.

You may need to use informal writing to force students to examine each icon carefully enough to note the similarities and differences.

(Note: All four icons are available from thenounproject.com.)

Formal writing prompt about virtual reality

In his 1994 novel Disclosure,  which is set in a company that is building a virtual reality application, Michael Crichton says this: “We all live everyday in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

Here’s the writing assignment:

Explain how a person’s ideas function like a technology-generated virtual reality environment. Illustrate how that process works by referring to three or more individuals whose ideas lead/led them to behave in ways that are/were significantly different from the behavior of people around them. Include an example drawn from at least two of these three categories:

  • A living individual
  • An person born in the 20th century who is no longer living.
  • A character from a literary work.

Try to avoid having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “good” or having all your examples be of individuals whose behavior most people would probably consider “bad.” (Too many similar examples are boring.)

One last note for teachers

Many students don’t complete assignments because they take too long getting started. For that reason, you might want to prepare the way for this assignment by having students write informally on several different days before you give this assignment about people whose behavior was significantly different from those around them.

You could start by having students think about a living individual whose behavior diverges from that of people around him/her. News stories provide plenty, ranging from Nikolas Cruz to Greta Thunberg.

For historical figures, students might find it easiest to think about prominent people in various fields: Thomas Edison, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Punctuation matters: an informal writing prompt

row of question marksPunctuation is one of the least interesting parts of English language arts to teach or to learn. If we can’t make it interesting, we ought to at least make sure students understand why it matters.

Below is an informal writing prompt to get students thinking about why punctuation matters. I recommend you use whatever technology is available to you so that you can read the prompt aloud while students follow along.

The informal prompt

Look at these two sentences about a sports competition  and think about when someone might say each of them:

  1. May the best man win.
  2. May the best man win?

Consider: Under what circumstances would someone use sentence one? Under what circumstances would someone use sentence two?

In no more than four sentences, explain the differences between the meaning of the first sentence and the meaning of the second sentence. You have 1 minute to write your explanation.

Notes on this informal activity

Unlike an oral question, informal writing gets every member of a class to do something with the information that’s before them.

Because this informal writing activity activity is brief, uncomplicated, and deals with sports, it’s fairly easy to get students’ attention for the two minutes it takes to read the prompt and write a response. The activity may even hold the attention of students whose acquaintance with sports gives them a more extensive list of reasons why someone would wonder whether it is possible for the best competitor to win a contest.

Reading aloud while students follow along is recommended because, for a variety of reasons,  many American teenage and adults students need help reading. Anything you can do to help them associate word forms with word sounds—even if its just a two-minute activity—is worth doing.

A formal prompt on word choices

A McDonald's in France
Service-au-volant. McCafé.  How do you say “Micky D’s” in French?

Since today’s a non-school day and Black Friday, rather than give you a long post, I’m just going to refer you to a formal writing prompt I posted earlier this week at PenPrompts. The prompt is how word choices even in the definitions of terms can influence people’s thinking.

The word students are assigned to work with is globalization.

If you teach journalism or an ELA unit on media, you may want to take a look at the prompt. And you might be able to get a social studies teacher to accept the assignment for credit there, too. Click here to see the prompt.

Jp Valery

Nobody minds. Or do they?

A formal writing prompt

As a writing prompt starter today, I have a quote from Jane Austen.  I was reminded of it while reading a John Grisham novel about a Klansman who bombed a Jewish lawyer’s office in 1967.

Sometimes the way my mind works is downright scary.

Introduction to the writing prompt

In her novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.” Think about that.

  • What does it mean to have “something that’s too good for you”?
  • What kinds of things might be said to be “too good for” another person?
  • What does the phrase “too good for you” imply about the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken to?

Identify situations in which person A had something that person B regarded as too good for person A. Choose three such situations including at least two of these three types:

  1. A situation in which you were personally involved
  2. A situation you saw in person or on a TV/movie screen
  3. A situation you read about in a piece of literature.

The writing prompt itself

In an informative/expository text, discuss whether Jane Austen is correct when she says, “Nobody minds having what is too good for them.”

Support your opinion by describing three situations chosen from the numbered list in the introduction in which the person who has “something too good for them” is either content or discontent with his/her situation. Be sure you include the correct titles of published works to which you refer.

Please limit your text to [number] words. Your assignment is due [date].

Suggestions for success

You have three options in responding to this prompt. You can:

  • Agree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Disagree totally with Austen’s comment
  • Say that circumstances determine whether she is right or wrong.

Be cautious if any of your examples that might be embarrassing to someone your readers are likely to know. Providing you tell your readers you changed the names, it’s OK to use fictitious names.

Suggestions for teachers

This prompt would tie in nicely with a discussion of figurative language.

Instead of hoping students read the complete prompt, you may want to give students the three questions in its introduction as informal writing prompts before you distribute the assignment. That way you can be sure the entire class read the introduction.

You may want to limit the students’ choices of situations to tie them more closely to your syllabus.

Applied creative writing

Outside the English classroom, there is little demand for people to write imaginative fiction. There is, however, a great demand for people who are imaginative enough to present dull, factual material in creative ways.

Photo of tree with twisted trunk
Not everything creative is imaginary. Sometimes facts are given a creative twist.

Students planning to be engineers, money market managers, or high school English teachers will need to be creative; they probably won’t be required to invent fictional worlds. Surprisingly, many students who recoil from writing fiction relish writing assignments that allow them to be creative without asking that they be imaginative.

Today I’m going to give you a formal writing prompt that requires students to write a literary character analysis using a rather unusual approach suggested by sports writers at a newspaper for which I worked who nicknamed one of the reporters, “Miss Center of the Universe.”

Here’s the material students see:

Writing prompt on literary characterization

You’re probably familiar with the practice of people who have advanced academic degrees putting initials after their names to indicate how they want to be known: MD, PhD, DDS, FNP, CG, DMA, MIS. In this assignment, you’ll apply a similar process to a literary character.

    • Pick a fictional work you have read.
    • Identify the protagonist in that work.
    • Create a “credential” that summarizes how the protagonist wants to be regarded. The credential must be able to be initialized in 2-5 characters.

In an informative/expository text, discuss why you think that credential is an accurate representation of the protagonist’s self-concept. Consider:

    • What the character says of himself/herself that supports your analysis.
    • Incidents involving the character that support your analysis.
    • What other characters say about the protagonist that support your analysis.

Be sure you give readers a way to find the information to which you refer in the work you are discussing. Depending on the work you chose, that might be a chapter number, a page number in a particular edition of a book, etc.

Please keep your analysis to no more than 650 words.

Note to ELA teachers

You may want to modify the prompt to confine it to just literature read for your class, or to just novels, etc.

To help students get into this writing prompt, it may be helpful to have students pick characterizing phrases for how athletes or characters in movies or TV shows see themselves and build credentials from those phrases. For example, “World’s Best Dad” and “Just a Cop” would become WBD and JC.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

ELA writing prompt: Goal directed

This formal writing prompt is for use in an ELA course focused on teaching students to write. The prompt encourages students to draw upon their learning in their English courses and their other courses and upon their knowledge of current events.

Here’s the prompt

Many times in life, a short-term focus ignores long-term effects. Consider the implications of that statement by thinking about individuals who are (or were) goal-directed toward long-term payoffs.  In your analysis, include:

  • one literary character
  • one historical person
  • one living person.

In an informative-explanatory text, identify and describe the risks each person took in maintaining his/her long-term focus. What, if any negative consequences did each individual suffer as a result of adhering to a long-term goal? Identify via hyperlinks reliable information sources you consulted to support your assertions.

If you wish, in your final paragraph you may identify any relationship you see between the kinds of goals the individuals pursued and their success or failure at achieving their goals.

Please keep your text to under 650 words. Submit it as a digital text.

Extend the usefulness of this writing prompt

Writing a paragraph on a subject sometimes suggests to a student that there’s more to say on that subject. In that way, prompts that fall naturally into a three-point format, as this one does, are useful for getting students to identify a topic for a longer research paper. You might give students an informal writing prompt after they’ve done this assignment in which you ask them to:

  • identify the example they used which they think could be developed into a research paper, and
  • identify two or three subtopics that that paper might include.

Any time you can get students thinking about future uses of anything they are doing in your ELA class, milk the opportunity for all it’s worth.

Connotation, denotation: What’s the difference?

Before you begin teaching your ELA students the difference between denotation and connotation, I suggest you show them that they already know something about that difference even if they don’t know that they know it.

With this three-item set of informal writing prompts, you can lay the groundwork for teaching in under five minutes and give students some writing practice at the same time.

Guide to using informal prompts

When you use these or any other informal prompts, I recommend that you display the prompts so students can follow along as you read them aloud. Use a timer, preferably one with an audible tick, to provide a sense of urgency. Have students respond as soon as you’ve read them an individual prompt.

Collect and scan the students’ writing. It will give you valuable feedback about students’ mastery of content and writing skills.


Informal prompt #1

Think about the nouns dream and fantasy. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #2

Think about the nouns explorer and adventurer. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.

Informal prompt #3

Think about the nouns tinkerer and inventor. In no more than three sentences explain:

  • how the ideas represented by the two words are similar
  • how the ideas represented by the two words are different
  • whether one of the terms is more positive than the other

You have 90 seconds to write.


By the time students have finished responding to the three prompts, they will be primed to learn the terms connotation and denotation and to apply them to the comparisons they’ve analyzed.

After you’ve presented your material on connotation and denotation, you may wish to have students do a final 1-minute writing. Here’s the fourth informal prompt:

Optional: prompt #4

Look back over the responses you wrote to the three prompts at the start of class.  If one of your responses doesn’t look too good in light of what you learned today, write a new response to that prompt. You will have 1 minute to write.