How To Write An Essay Using A Prompt

How Writing Prompts Build Writing Skills

Writing prompts or essay prompts are learning assignments that direct students to write about a particular topic in a particular way. As our educational understanding has developed, writing prompts came on the scene as a way to corral students’ natural curiosity for the world around them. They are designed to integrate a students imagination and creativity into guided writing practice. Using them regularly as part of a multi-faceted writing curriculum can boost the chances that students will not only improve as writers but feel connected to the writing process.

Analyzing the Writing Prompt
While writing well depends on many skills that take time to develop, one skill can be taught fairly quickly: how to understand a writing prompt. Do you think that making sense of them is simply a matter of reading comprehension?  Actually, all too often, good students receive a poor writing grade because they misunderstood the essay writing prompt. In order to successfully respond, students must learn to analyze the prompt before responding to it.

Questions to Ask
Just as they do in the prewriting phase of any writing task, students should ask questions about the assignment that help them narrow down their overall goal. When working with writing prompts, the following are helpful questions to pin down the answers to:

  • What form of writing does it require?
  • What is the purpose of the prompt?
  • What information do I need to complete the task?
  • What kind of details or arguments does it suggest and would these points make good paragraphs?
  • Who is the audience for the essay?
  • How does the audience’s expectations affect my writing style?

By asking and answering these questions, students can jump-start their essay outline and formulate their thesis. A good way to begin is to write a one-sentence response to each question. When students study the writing prompt closely and use it as the basis for prewriting, they’ll be on their way to writing an essay that fully addresses the goals prompt. This is wonderful practice for any type of long-form writing, as well.

The Importance of Writing Form

One of the key stumbling blocks of writing prompt interpretation is figuring out what form of writing is required. For example, is it an expository, narrative, or persuasive prompt? Sometimes prompts explicitly specify the form of writing to be used, or give strong hints with words like “persuade” for the persuasive writing form. Other times, the task of deciphering which form of writing to use is part of the challenge. The trick is to recognize the clues given in the prompt. Here are some key words to look for:

  • Expository Essay –how, what, explain, define, analyze, compare/contrast
  • Narrative Essay –tell, story, relate, imagine, describe
  • Persuasive Essay –convince, persuade, why, opinion, argue

Writing Prompts as Standardized Test Practice

Teachers also use prompts to help students prepare for standardized tests. They are found on all standardized tests, from state writing assessments to national tests like ACT and SAT. Age-appropriate writing prompts on standardized tests often focus on contemporary social issues. Keeping up with current events is good preparation, as is participating in discussion groups and reading both fiction and nonfiction books.

Time4Writing Builds Fundamental Skills 

At Time4Writing, we focus on teaching the fundamental skills required for good writing. Each student is paired with a certified teacher for one-on-one instruction. Our teachers draw from their classroom experience to help their students with all the nuts and bolts of building good essays, beginning with understanding the writing prompt. There is a free flow of conversation between students and the teacher, helping students thrive with individualized attention to their writing. Writing becomes something they enjoy, instead of a chore. Learn more about how Time4Writing’s certified teacher-led program works for homeschool, afterschool practice, or summer skill-building.

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2.1: Understanding the Prompt

This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .

This resource covers responding to the writing prompt, beginning with understanding the prompt and what it is asking you to do.

Lesson 1: Response to the Prompt

To succeed at the GED essay, you need to respond to the prompt provided. This is one area in which taking a few minutes to plan your essay before you begin writing will be very helpful to you. This lesson provides tips for understanding the prompt, gathering ideas that relate to the prompt, and finding a main idea that responds to the prompt.

Understanding the Prompt

It is very important that you understand what you are being asked to write about. Because you only have 45 minutes for this part of the GED, you probably will not have time to revise your essay if you realize too late that you have misunderstood the prompt. The very first thing you should do during this portion of the test is think about the prompt to make sure you understand what you are being asked to write.

Take a few minutes to go through these steps:

Step 1 - Read the prompt carefully: This is not the time to skim-read. The prompts are generally not very long, but it’s important that you read slowly and carefully to make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Reading the prompt carefully will get you on track early in the writing process.

Step 2 - Underline key words: The prompt will contain key words that will reveal the prompt’s topic. The prompt will also communicate how you are expected to write about the topic. These key words might include action verbs that tell you what to do and nouns that tell you what topics to cover. Underlining these words will help you focus on them as you plan your essay.

Step 3 - Restate the prompt in your words: The best way to understand the prompt and commit it to memory is to repeat it in your own words. Pretend that you are explaining the prompt to yourself or another student. Restating the prompt in your words will help you think clearly about the prompt and absorb it.

The following is a sample GED essay topic from the American Council on Education. Practice the three steps for understanding the essay topic using this sample topic.

Sample Essay Topic

What is one important goal you would like to achieve in the next few years?

In your essay, identify that one goal and explain how you plan to achieve it. Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge to support your essay.

Step 1: Reading the prompt carefully

This sample essay topic is structured in three sentences. This is relatively typical of GED essay prompts. Take advantage of the fact that you do not have to read a lot by making sure that you read thoroughly. Most people find it useful to read the prompt a few times.

Step 2: Underlining key words
Essay topics contain important words that provide clues about what you should write about and how you should write. A few key words from the sample essay topic are underlined below.

What is one important goal you would like to achieve in the next few years?

In your essay, identify that one goal and explain how you plan to achieve it. Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge to support your essay.

Notice that the words goal and achieve are each repeated twice. Clearly, they are important key words within the essay prompt. The topic for the prompt is a goal that you would like to achieve.

Notice the words one and few. These are two very important key words. A common mistake would be to write about many goals, even though the prompt tells you to focus on only one goal. Another common mistake would be to discuss goals that you want to achieve across a lifetime, even though the prompt clearly tells you to focus on only the next few years of your life. The topic for the prompt is limited to one goal that you would like to achieve in the next few years.

Notice the action verbs identify and explain. These two words tell you how you should write about your topic. Make sure to do both. The essay prompt is asking you to identify and explain your topic.

Notice the words personal observations, experience, and knowledge. These are all subjects that you can talk about in your essay. The word personal is also extremely important here. You’re not being asked to do outside research or reading, but instead, to talk about observations, experience, and knowledge that are personal to you.

Step 3: Restating the prompt in your words
After reading the essay carefully a few times and thinking about the key words, how would you restate the prompt? Imagine that you are explaining it to someone else, perhaps someone who does not have the essay prompt in front of them. How would you explain it?

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