Effective Writing Prompts: Getting Beyond the Dark and Stormy Night

Help struggling writers with strategies to reach different learning styles and reduce anxiety.

By Elijah Ammen


School boy writing

It was a dark and stormy night when I realized that my writing prompts were not engaging students and achieving the results I wanted. The problem was that the half of my kids that pounced on the prompt were not the half that needed to be engaged. They were the ones who did whatever was assigned to them because they were self-motivated to do well. While they were getting writing practice, the lower-achieving section of my classes were becoming increasingly frustrated with their lack of ideas and inability to compound on a subject. 

Now, there are plenty of excellent writing worksheets that can help your learners, and there are numerous articles on creative writing, descriptive writing, and connecting writing to student interests. However, I want to share a few different ways you can try to reach the struggling authors who need more voice and choice in order to practice their writing.

Visual Prompts

Many children have trouble expressing themselves in words because their strength is not verbal-linguistic intelligence. In order to stimulate creativity, you need to provide them with material that caters to their learning style. Visual prompts are one of the best ways to do that, since many people are visual learners.

Storybird is one resource I absolutely love. Artists post royalty-free art on the site, and your classes can create their own books with the artists’ work as illustrations. The art is superb and story-driven, but with enough ambiguity to allow creativity. In addition, the books are available to purchase once made—which could be a competitive incentive you could provide to the class.

Visual prompts are also essential to journalism, blogging, and advertising. Learners can practice writing informational texts that are used in the workplace—which highschoolers especially appreciate because they can see the real-world value. This article has some excellent questions for classes as they go on a gallery walk of photos from newspapers and magazines.

Prompt Consistent Journaling

Journals are a delicate dance of freedom and regulation. You don’t want to over-structure free writing, but opining about the attractiveness of your significant other is not exactly rigorous content. The most important factor of journaling is consistency—if you only use it as a time-filler when your lessons run short, then students will see right through it.

One strategy is using Days of the Week Journaling—each day has a corresponding theme (e.g. Memory Monday, Thesis Thursday, Formal Friday—if you’re into cheesy alliterations). Even though pupils don’t know the exact prompt, they are mentally prepared to write a response about a personal experience on Memory Monday, a persuasive argument on Thesis Thursday, and a cover letter on Formal Friday. By framing your expectations, you take out some of the fear and stress about spontaneous writing.

Two other strategies are making journals and logging dream journals. These are both short-term projects that could set up your writers to continue journaling out of class. Artistic children usually enjoy creating and decorating books, like in this lesson, and a dream journal could be used for one week and tied into science classes or a story that use dreams as a plot device.

Student-Generated Prompts

Finally, middle and highschoolers are capable of creating their own prompts. This shows higher-level thinking and promotes personal investment. This lesson has a well-structured procedure for individuals to rotate creating writing prompts for the rest of the class. In addition, student-generated pre-writes like Life Maps allow learners to visualize the major events of their life using interview questions, before they write their autobiography.

Lesson Planet Resources

Journalism Gallery Walk

This NY Time blog has excellent resources for journalistic photos, as well as questions to generate comments during a gallery walk. This would be a great entry event for a nonfiction unit, as well as addressing English standards of communicating with images.

Creating Journals

An easy investment strategy is creating and decorating simple journals. This is useful if there isn't funding for notebooks, or if you are just looking for a small way to build student investment.

Dream Journals

This resource explores the interdisciplinary connections of dream journals. Classes can study sleep cycles and REM sleep while keeping their journals. The lesson also delves into Freudian interpretation, which would work with older, more mature classes.

Student-Generated Prompts

If you enjoy clear procedures, then this is your resource. This plan outlines the exact steps for pupils to rotate creating a writing prompt for the rest of the class. It would be a useful procedure to communicate with your class so that there is no confusion.

Creating a Life Map

This plan helps scaffold an autobiography by asking questions and using a Life Map as a graphic organizer before writing. This helps learners informally outline their work so they have a clearer idea of what they want to focus on.