2 ELA writing prompts sets out June 22

I have two PenPrompts Collections of writing prompts for teens and adults ready to launch on the first Saturday of summer, June 22, 2019. The delivery mechanisms are being tested this week.

Prompts in each PenPrompts Collection are embedded in self-contained writing lessons giving students all the information they need to begin work without bugging their teacher for help.

"Ready, Set, Write!" is written on cover of composition book My newest PenPrompts Collection, Ready, Set, Write!, is a set of 20 writing prompts designed to help not-yet-competent teenage and adult learners master expository writing as they write about ELA topics.

Person directs words that cause another to cringeThe second edition of Bullying Begins as Words, a revised and expanded collection of ELA writing prompts about how word choices impact behavior, contains 15 prompts for not-yet-competent, competent, and proficient teenage and adult learners.

Each student lesson in PenPrompts Collections is accompanied by material to help teachers decide if the prompt is appropriate for their students and to help teachers use the prompt well.

PenPrompts Collections are delivered as digital downloads. Each comes with a copy of the PenPrompts Collections Handbook, which serves as a reference for all PenPrompts Collections.

I’ll post more information about  each of the new collections as soon as the bugs are worked out of the delivery mechanisms. .(My Momma didn’t raise me to be a technician!)

Informal writing prompt: fix the message

This message from Microsoft appeared on my computer screen prior to a software update: “You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.”

Since it took me four tries before I got the the download to install, I wondered what message Microsoft was trying to convey.

Like me, you would probably have been surprised if you had learned you needed to perform unnecessary actions to complete a software installation.

Let’s turn this bit of bewilderment into a two-part informal writing prompt about precise language that is suitable for use in English class or in a business/computer/technology class.

Part 1. Show students the sentence quoted above and have them explain in 1–3 sentences why they do or do not think the sentence is well-written.

Part 2. Direct students to write a more precise message to the computer user based on their knowledge of how computer updates work.

Factual accuracy is a writing requirement

An article in my local school district’s newsletter written by a fifth grade ELA class about a presentation by a retired teacher from the district contained this startling fact:

“Haiti is an island located in the Pacific Ocean, east of Florida.”

Haiti shown in Atlantic Ocean east of US

Haiti shares an Atlantic Ocean island with the Dominican Republic.

Whatever else a writing teacher does, he or she should not allow students to get away with such blatant factual errors. Accuracy in writing should extend to more than correct placement of commas.



Vague writing: a formal ELA writing prompt

Photo of novel The Hotel New Hampshire and quote from it.

Turn this quote into a writing prompt


While reading John Irving’s 1981 bestselling novel The Hotel New Hampshire for GreatPenformances, I ran a statement teens and adult students in English and composition classes should consider. Irving says, “When you write vaguely, you are always vulnerable.”

I think it’s safe to say that Irving isn’t talking just about a student writer getting a bad grade on an English class assignment.

Have your students consider Irving’s assertion, taking into consideration:

  • What does Irving mean when he says a writer is vulnerable?
  • To whom or to what is a writer vulnerable?
  • Does being vague always pose a problem for writers or is vagueness only a problem in certain situations?
  • If vagueness makes writers vulnerable, how does it accomplish that?

Have students write a formal document in which they either agree or disagree with what they understand Irving means.

Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students.

In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.

[An earlier version of this post appeared in the June 2008 issue of Writing Points ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni.]

Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students. In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.

Let’s Teach Some Students Some Writing

Several bloggers have posted pieces lately about the need stop teaching writing the way we’ve gotten into the habit of teaching it. In her take on the problem, “Let’s Stop Teaching Writing,” Paula Stacey sketches her 30-year journey through the trenches to a better way of teaching writing:

My proposal is modest, cheap, and deceptively simple: Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions. Questions and answers. Nothing fancy. Much like home cooking, however, this kind of questioning takes time, it requires practice and honing, and the kitchen is a mess afterwards. But it is worth the trouble and the mess, for in this back and forth, this conference between teacher and student, real thinking and the work of real writing occur.

Stacey’s thoughtful and well-written piece got me thinking about why the education establishment seems to have such difficulty finding ways to teach writing. Ignoring the superficially easy reasons (testing, teacher education, etc.),  I think a big part of the reason is our own fault.

Writing teachers talk about the issues of teaching students to write as if “a student” and “writing”were clearly defined entities. When I hear the best way of  “teaching students to write,” I interpret that in terms of my students and my writing classes. And every other writing teacher does the same thing.

That personalization is our downfall.  When we’re offered a new idea to try, we need to know the situation in which it was discovered so we can decide whether or how we could apply it to our situations.

A third grader, a high school junior, and a budding novelist in a MFA program may all be students who need to develop writing skills. However, their cognitive development, educational needs, and intended out-of-school applications of writing are very different.

Stacey’s approach to teaching writing appears ideally suited to the elementary school student. It engages them in writing about what’s going on in their classroom, which is why they all have something to write about and why they were willing to write.

At the high school level, having students write about course content is still the best way to teach writing, as well as being a boon to the teaching of other course content. However,  I’m not sure that Stacey’s approach is manageable for the typical high school teacher with a huge class load and multiple preps. Also I think students need to master some pattern for nonfiction writing that they can adapt to college or workplace writing they need to do. 

Stacey’s question-and-answer approach would probably be great with writers in an MFA program. They are eager to reflect on their experience and to experiment with writing.

Educators  would do themselves (and students) a favor if they scrapped the broad terms “students” and “writing”  for descriptors that indicate at least age/grade level (as a proxy for cognitive development levels) and the writing genre.

The person with no experience in teaching writing might still assume the same strategies and techniques could be used to teach third graders to write poems and high school seniors to write research papers,  but at least educators wouldn’t be confusing each other. We know, even if the state education department doesn’t, that any teaching idea applied to every student in every situation is a bad teaching idea.

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

Hands-on learning is not just for kids

I attended a local school board meeting a few weeks ago at which a team of teachers gave a presentation about a survey they had conducted on bullying. The report was to have been presented months earlier, but the team had difficulties collating and analyzing the data.

One of the teachers said the team had not realized they needed to ask all participants the same questions in order to be able to compare answers given by different groups of stakeholders.

I came home wondering why such a small survey in a restricted setting was so difficult.

And don’t most people know about what happens when you compare apples to oranges? Basic survey design is a skill that the NCTE/IRA standards say students should develop before high school graduation.

Why did these women trained in education have so much difficulty handling what to me are routine information analysis tasks?

The first reason is that they studied to become teachers and I didn’t. Teacher education coursework at the bachelor’s and master’s degree level typically doesn’t include instruction in how to do original research, whereas my undergraduate psychology program required a course in statistics and a senior research project.

Two young men working in office side-by--side, one on phone

But I probably would not know much more about research than the teacher team if it weren’t for my work experiences.

In college, I was a reader for a visually handicapped student with whom I took several courses. Instead of reading her the statistics book with its diagrams and formulas, I took her to the chemistry lab where there were chalkboards on three walls. I taught her the material, writing everything on the board in letters big enough for her to read. Tutoring her, I learned how to think in terms of usable data.

Much later at Syracuse University, I was graduate assistant for William E. Casey Jr., who is now vice president for special projects at the Wall Street Journal. Students in one of his newspaper classes conducted phone interviews for a political polls using questions developed by professional journalists. I helped key in the results. From that experience, I learned not only about wording questions, but also about how to organize a survey project.

I needed that knowledge when I and a colleague were assigned to develop election polling for The Journal, in Martinsburg, WV. She and I developed the questions, designed the sample, trained interviewers, and wrote the news stories while continuing our regular work and meeting our daily deadlines. My colleague was Marcia Langhenry, now with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was a team player before the term became a buzz word.

My work experiences—from cleaning rat cages to developing instructional packages for the pharmaceutical industry—are where I got my real education, the knowledge and skills I use every week. (They are also where I began developing a network of professional contacts outside academia.)

Perhaps preservice teachers need more hands-on experiences early in their academic careers to give them a context for their classroom experiences.

Perhaps in-service teachers need hands-on professional development opportunities in the form of sabbaticals working in jobs other than education.

I even go so far as to recommend ELA teachers find summer work as a way to find out what actual skills entry-level employees must have.

Photo credit: Business contact! by Wagg66

ELA lessons from senior pranks

Teaching responsible use of social media is a hot topic that threatens to obscure some non-digital behavior issues. Two  stories in New York state newspapers this week illustrate the kind of behaviors I mean.

Custodians arrived at Clifton-Fine Central School June 1 to find a squawking rooster loose in the building. One reported to the superintendent that the school had been broken into; she called the state police.

Troopers found no school property was damaged, nothing was stolen and no one, including the rooster, was injured. Each of the five students was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, but the school didn’t suspend them or impose additional penalties.

Photo: mpcourier.com

At Massena High School, two seniors played more colorful prank.  Dressed head to toe in green Spandex costumes to which one added a pink tutu and the other added black running shorts,  they padded through the hallways and visited classes.

Administrators said they did not recognize the pair as students because their faces were covered: They could have been terrorists.

Massena High suspended each student for five days.

Incidents such as these offer a good opportunity to show students real-world examples of why English teachers harp about the importance of knowing the audience.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to students in either case that the school administration wouldn’t be spending as much time anticipating senior pranks as the students were. Breaking that self-absorption is an essential part of educating students.

It’s not too early for writing teachers to start thinking about ways draw connections next year between the history,  literature, and current events students study and student behavior.