National Writing Project

Wise Eyes: Prompting for Meaningful Student Writing

Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Swain (National Writing Project, 2011)

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Every teacher who has tried to create the "perfect" writing prompt knows how hard it is to come up with a topic and set of directions that will put students on the right track. Similarly, teachers know well the mischief that occurs when students run into a "bad" prompt, especially in a test situation. Confounding the challenge is the fact that students have minds, hearts, and experiences of their own and can interpret instructions in all kinds of ways.

Prompts do play a key role in student performance. In order of appearance on the writing stage, prompts are often first. If they are dull, indecipherable, or daunting, students may not be able to come up with their best composing act. Whether prompts are part of a teacher's curriculum—assignments constructed to teach a particular something—or part of a test or evaluation, they are unavoidable.

In this monograph, we explore what it takes to frame a writing task that will motivate students and lead them to show off what they can really do. Our focus is on tasks that may not have the benefit of classroom support or scaffolding; for example, those intended to gauge the effectiveness of lessons, programs, or student accomplishments. That is, we want to understand how to design a writing prompt for situations when the teacher cannot otherwise elaborate on or repair the instructions.

The job of creating such a prompt is loaded with exasperating contradictions. How is it possible, for example, to provide clear, concise directions and at the same time give enough guidance so that students know what constitutes success? Is choice important? If so, how much and what kind? To what extent is it helpful to spell out audience and purpose? What do we mean by authenticity?

To address these perplexing issues and others, we have selected a variety of professionals—researchers, policymakers, and teachers—to weigh in on principles and practices that provide a basis for adopting, adapting, or designing effective prompts. In addition, we offer examples of promising prompts as well as those that limit students in some way.

© 2014 National Writing Project