Found: An informal writing prompt

To grow students into competent writers requires drudgery, and I don’t mean drudgery just for students. You and I have to give students daily writing practice, which means we have to come up with topics for students to write about every day.

Being a naturally lazy person, I collect short pieces of writing to use as writing prompts. My special favorites are examples of bad writing because

  • It’s easier to find examples of bad writing than to find short pieces of good writing (I told you I’m lazy), and
  • From their responses to other people’s writing mistakes, students understand why they need conquer their own bad writing habits.

Here’s a photograph of a sign on the door of a room used for group activities in an apartment building:

Informal writing prompts: English to algebra

Word problems are real problems for many students.  Introducing students to algebra by having them write math problems as English language sentences may help students learn to “read” algebra problems.

Sign: Informal Writing PromptsBy the time they reach seventh grade, students should have no difficulty with the math in this set of informal writing prompts, but they may be totally freaked out by being asked to write math problems in English sentences. As with other write-to-learn activities, your focus should be having students learn rather than having them get “a correct answer.”

I recommend that you display the informal prompts one at a time to students and read each one while students follow along. Since fewer than 40 percent of today’s students grades 8 through 12 can read at grade level, they need all the reading help you can give.

Informal prompt #1.

Here’s what to say: Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5. Write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the smallest number to produce the largest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write.  (The answer is: Multiply 2 by 5.)

Oral follow up: Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Informal prompt #2.

Use the numbers 2, 10 and 5, write one sentence that tells someone what to do to the largest number to produce the smallest number. Begin your sentence with the word that describes the mathematical operation. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: Divide 10 by 2.)

Oral follow up:  Show me using addition what it means to multiply 2 by 5. (Answer: 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10)

Oral follow up: Show me using subtraction what it means to divide 10 by 5. (Answer: 10 – 5 then 5 – 5. There are two units of five in ten.)

Informal prompt #3.

Now for some detective work. Look at the sentences you already wrote. In a short sentence, tell me what word or words other than the numbers themselves appear in every sentences you wrote earlier. You have 15 seconds to write. (Answer: The word by is in both sentences.)

Informal prompt #4.

Looking again at the three sentences you have already written, how can you identify the number that is the multiplier or divisor in each of the sentences? Explain in one or two sentences. You have 30 seconds to write. (Answer: The word after by is the multiplier or divisor.)


(Many students will guess that the word that comes after by is the multiplier or divisor but that doesn’t mean they are consciously aware that one of the meanings of the word by is “use the number that follows me as a multiplier or divisor depending on the sense of the sentence.” You need to help students recognize “the sense of the sentence.” Students have to use logic to figure out whether the sense of the sentence calls for multiplication of division. If they don’t grasp that idea through the written and oral discussion, they may get it using manipulatives.)

Ask students in which of their first two sentences is the word following the preposition by a multiplier. Ask how they know that word is a multiplier.

Ask students how they know the word they wrote after the preposition by in the second sentence is a divisor.

Next, have students do something hands-on, such as drawing a diagram or using manipulatives, to show:

  • multiplying 3 by 4
  • dividing 12 by 3
  • dividing 12 by 6

If you teach older teens or adult students, to let them save face tell them to show how they’d teach those mathematical computations to a neighbor’s kid or to their own child.

Finally, give students five or six equations and have them write them as English sentences, specifying the operation to be performed, like this:

25/5 = 5 (Answer: 25 divided by five equals five)
6 x 3 = 18 (Answer: Six multiplied by three equals 18.)

If this activity doesn’t result in a  light bulb moment for your students, wait two weeks and try it again with different numbers. Sometimes you need to present an essential concept multiple times before your presentation coincides with the students’  readiness to grasp that information. That’s one of the hard facts of life in the teaching profession.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Teach metaphors using informal writing

Being able to unpack metaphors is essential to reading anything more complicated than Dick and Jane books. Bright students who are exposed to literature from an early age pick up that skill. Others, equally bright, who grow up in homes without reading material other than the backs of cereal boxes need to be taught.

That teaching is your job.

Instead of giving a reading assignment about metaphors or lecturing about metaphors, I suggest you use the sink-or-swim approach: Give students an example of a metaphor and have them write an analysis of it in class before you even mention the word metaphor.

Below are step-by-step directions to show you how to set up a short lesson using informal writing to keep students engaged.

Informal writing prompt 1

Here’s what you tell students:

Dolores is older than she looks.

I’m going to show you a quote from a novel by Stephen King. You may not know Stephen King’s name, but you probably have seen films based on King’s books, such as The Shawshank Redemption, It, Pet Sematary, and Misery.

The name of the novel the quote comes from is Dolores Claiborne. In the book, Dolores is under suspicion for the murder of her employer, an elderly woman who left her fortune to Dolores. The entire book is what Dolores tells investigators.  Here is something Dolores says near the end of the book:

“…most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

In no more than three sentences, explain what Dolores means. You have two minutes to write.

Class discussion of part 1

After students have written their explanations, they will be ready for class discussion about what they wrote. Ask/get students to say:

  • What bills does Dolores mean? (duck bills, dollar bills, advertising posters, drafts of proposed legislation, the Buffalo Bills…)
  • How did you decide which kind of bill Dolores meant?
  • What do choices have to do with bills?
  • What do bills and choices have to do with being human?

Allow up to 5 minutes for this discussion

Informal writing prompt 2

Here’s what you say:

Now that you’ve discussed Dolores’s comment, write one sentence that says in different words what she meant. You have 30 seconds to write.

Allow 1-2 minutes for oral sharing.

Informal writing prompt  3

Here’s what you say:

Why do you suppose Stephen King has Dolores phrase her comment in terms of making choices and paying bills? Please respond in no more than three sentences. You have one minute to write.

Segue to teach about metaphors

Here’s what you must cover:

  • Metaphors are comparisons that imply that this thing is like that thing.
  • Metaphors are different from similes.
  • Similes are comparisons that say clearly this is like that.
  • Metaphors depend on the connotation of words—their emotional and cultural connections—to convey their meaning.

After you’ve presented that information, have students go back to the Dolores Claiborne quote again and do a final informal writing.

Informal writing prompt 4

This final prompt requires students to pull information from the earlier writing and discussion.

Here’s what you say

(NOTE: If necessary, adjust the terms in the first sentence to correspond with the terms your students used in their oral comments.)

As you’ve discussed today, Dolores says being human means taking responsibility for your choices, but she uses metaphors for the terms responsibility and choice/choosing. As I explained, metaphors depend on their connotations—the emotions and cultural connections that those words set up.

In no more than four sentences, explain:

  • How do the connotations of the term make a choice differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?
  • How do the connotations of the term pay the bill differ from the connotation of the term take responsibility?

You have two minutes to write.

What’s next?

You may want to spend some more class time discussing students’ responses to the question about connotations of the terms. Personally, I’d probably collect the informal writing so I could see each student’s work and move to a different activity for the rest of the period. Students require multiple exposures to the concept of metaphor before they can recognize a metaphor, let alone unravel it’s meaning. Multiple mini-lessons over weeks are more effective than one lesson, even if the lesson is splendid.

Miscellaneous suggestions

I recommend that you use whatever technology you have so that students can see the writing prompts. I highly recommend that you read the actual prompt aloud while you display it for students. That’s for the kid who has trouble with distance vision and the one who has trouble reading.

Time the writing. If possible, use a timer with an audible tick. You want to get students in the habit of working against the clock. The poorest writers are the slowest off the starting block and waste the most time. The audible tick helps to make them aware they are wasting time.

Collect informal writing at the end of the activity or class. Review it. It’s your feedback on how well you taught.


Dolores Claiborne was the bestselling novel in America in 1992; it was made into a film three years later. My review of Dolores Claiborne is scheduled for March 14, 2020 at GreatPenformances. Spoiler alert: I give it an A.

When will your students use analogies?

Analogies are an extremely powerful device for explaining complex or foreign ideas.

People who work in STEM fields, social sciences, and business use them extensively.  Too often, however, analogies don’t get adequate attention in English class.

To help students discover the power of analogies, I suggest a formal writing prompt that asks students to predict how they might use analogies.

Start by having students view one of these short videos explaining how analogies work. Both sites are oriented toward law students, but the explanations are easy to understand:

FYI:  Only part of the video at is available without signing up for an account, but the accessible portion is adequate for this assignment.

After students have viewed a video clip, give students five minutes in class to brainstorm situations in which they have either (1) had someone use an analogy to help them understand something, or (2) used analogies themselves to explain something. (Hint: Require brainstorming in full sentences; collect the responses to use as formative assessment.)

Give students this formal prompt either as homework or, better yet, have them respond to it at your next class meeting:

Think about the job you have or the one you’d like to have. Identify between two and five situations in which you might need to explain something—a product or a process, for example— to a customer who is unfamiliar with it.  (If in your job you deal with patients, students, or clients rather than customers, use the appropriate term for your situation.)

In an I/E text, discuss two or three such situations in which you could use an analogy to help the person understand your explanation. If you have actually used an analogy in such a situation, you may use the story as one of your examples.

Please keep your response to no more than 650 words.

Visual informal writing prompt: figure of speech

Door mat with right bottom half of design and the ME of welcome worn off.

Many people, including some of your students, probably have difficulty distinguishing between terms that are used literally and those that are used figuratively.

An image such as the photograph above of a welcome mat missing two of its letters and about a quarter of its decorative design offers a way to open a discussion of figurative language.

Ask students to write in 15-30 seconds, depending on their ages, what they literally see.

That image, of course, literally shows that people have worn out a welcome mat.

Next have students write in 60-90 seconds, what they think caused part of the doormat image to disappear.

Students should have no difficulty explaining that repeated use—people coming in and going out—wore off the image.

To get them to understand the figurative use off “wore out a welcome,” you have to make them think about the word welcome by another short, informal writing prompt, like this:

If I told you that my neighbors had worn out their welcome, would you think I meant they had worn the design off the welcome at at their home, or would you think I meant something else? In no more than four sentences explain what you think I meant and how you arrived at your answer.

After students have written their responses, you could have them look up the meanings of welcome in a good dictionary to see if they support or contradict the students’ analysis.

After that, you’re ready to introduce that phrase “figure of speech.”

Activate knowledge to spark the cognitive process

If you want your students to learn what you want them to learn, it’s smart to activate their knowledge base before you begin delivering content.

Activating the knowledge base is educator jargon for prompting students to think about the topic you want them to learn before you introduce the topic.

Activating students’ knowledge base is to teaching methods what dangling a worm in the water is to fishing: You call attention to your bait in the expectation the fish will latch on to it.

Bait your hook with attractive activators

You have many options with which to bait your lesson hook. My personal favorite is informal writing prompts because they force every student to rise to the bait. If you choose informal writing:

1. You could prompt students to reveal facts they know about the topic. 

All the "facts" students know may not be correct, which provides secondary bait. It’s also possible that students know nothing on the topic, which might prompt curiosity to fill that knowledge gap.

2. You could bait your lesson hook with an informal prompt to reveal experiences students have had that are relevant to the lesson you’re going to cast before them.

3. If you expect students already have some information, correct or not, on the lesson topic, you could bait them to reveal their attitudes toward the topic.

4. You could bait your hook with an invitation to students to reveal their assumptions about your lesson topic.

Land students in the cognitive processes

Once students have risen to the bait, all you have to do is pull them in.

I say "all you have to do," but there’s nothing easy about pulling students in. It requires determination, strategic knowledge, skills developed through long practice, hard work, and a bit of luck thrown in.

The important thing is that you do land students smack in the cognitive process.

Get their "little grey cells" functioning.

Get their neurons passing messages.

Get students thinking, for as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham says in his book Why Do Students Hate School?:

Quote: Whatever students think about is what they will remember.

Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.

Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two  if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.

I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.

Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds.

[Students write.]

Step 3. Give correct answers.  Students grade themselves.

Step 4.  In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader.  You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.

I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.

One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.

The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.

FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk.  A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.

Comments? questions?

Unleash critical thinking in six informal writing prompts

Sign "all pets must be kept on leash"
My village has leash laws.

Students must learn to look at their writing as an editor would. In other words, they must learn to read their writing as if they were an outsider without knowledge of, or prejudice about, the subject.

Developing an editorial attitude toward writing takes time and practice. Usually the easiest way to get students started toward editorial sensitivity is by having them look at another person’s writing.

This message below, which was posted to an online forum, would work well as a starting point for high school or college students and even for some middle schoolers.

what do you think about leash laws? my dog was attacked and is hospitalized because there are no laws in East Hampton

To get students to examine a text carefully, I like to use informal writing. In this case, I’d would use a series of six questions to force students to do more than superficial reading.

Begin by display the message so students can refer to it as they work and read the message aloud to them.

Ask students the following series of questions one at a time. Do not present all the questions at one time.

Students should answer each of the six questions in no more than three sentences written in no more than one minute. Time the writing.

(It’s best if you not only read each question but also display it for students. Not all students are quick to grasp oral directions.)

1. Read and answer the writer’s question. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

2. Identify the writing mechanics changes needed to put the passage into standard edited English. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

3. Identify one problem other than writing mechanics that you see in the passage. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

4. Identify a second problem other than writing mechanics that you see in the passage. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

5. Analyze why I asked you to answer the writer’s question before you looked at it closely. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

6. Explain why editing the item only for writing mechanics would not be enough to make the writer’s meaning clear. (Maximum: 3 sentences, 1 minute)

After students have answered all six prompts, have them discuss orally what they discovered.  Students should have noticed that:

  • Prejudice can blind an editor to problems in a piece of writing.
  • Correcting only mechanical errors can leave serious logical errors.

This activity can be done in 15 minutes. It won’t produce good editors, but it opens the door to an understanding of what editors do.

Actively teach active learning with online tutorial

 The University of Minnesota Center for Teaching and Learning contains many resources that can be adapted by teachers of upper middle school and high school students. A great one is a tutorial on active learning strategies.
screen capture shows first slide in tutorial on 12 active learning strategies
Besides using the slides for your own professional development, you could use the slides to teach students to use active learning and to enable them to study your  content.

How to use the tutorial

I’d probably present one strategy to students every second or third week. For the presentation, I’d show one example of a strategy applied to English language arts.

For example, the first slide about reflecting on experience with PowerPoint and finding a positive and negative example could easily be adapted to hundreds of informal ELA writing prompts, such as:

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with poetry. Come up with an example of a positive experience and a negative experience.

Take a moment to reflect on your experience with advertising. Come up with an example of an ad that you think works well one you think does not work well.

Take a moment to reflect on your reading about using commas. Come up with an example of a comma rule you think you understand well and and an example of a rule you don’t understand.

Rather than ask for oral responses, I’d use informal writing, which gets all students involved. I could present the strategy and have students write on any one of those prompts all in 10 minutes.

The rest of the first week I would use the same type of reflect-on-knowledge exercise for some aspect of that day’s work. That might take 2-3 minutes for informal writing. In a week, students would be able to use the strategy on demand.

Of course, the goal is to get students to use a strategy without prompting. That typically means forcing students to practice the strategy on material they select from options you set.

I might have students bring an “admit slip” each day for a week explaining how they used the reflect-on-experience strategy to help them activate knowledge prior to coming to my class.

The third week I might require an admit slip explaining how they used the strategy to help them activate knowledge for some other class.

Teaching this way gets students to apply the strategy enough times that they understand its value and limitations.

They may even use it on their own without prompting.

Questions? Alternative ways of using this material? Share your ideas.

This material previously appeared in Writing Points for April, 2011, © 2011 Linda G. Aragoni

What do you know, Joe?

Before you begin teaching, help students identify something in their experience to which they can connect the material you intend to present. In eduspeak, this is called activating the knowledge base. The knowledge could be facts, attitudes, experiences, or assumptions.

Informal writing provides a good way to get all students involved in activating their knowledge.

Page of the Hobbit showing Tolkien illustration

For example, before you introduce The Hobbit, you could have students write for 1-2 minutes on what they remember about the setting of Bridge to Terabithia to get them thinking about the importance of setting.

Or you might have  students write for 1 minute about what they found was the hardest grammar rule to apply in last night’s homework.

Having everyone write lets all students demonstrate to themselves that they know something relevant to what is to be taught. Studies show students who write prior to class discussion are more likely to participate in oral discussion.