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Understanding Writing Prompts

First Step to Essay Success

Writing prompts or essay prompts are school assignments that direct students to write about a particular topic in a particular way. With today’s great focus on writing education, writing prompts have become sophisticated teaching tools, designed to elicit specific writing responses from students. Because writing prompts are so integral to how writing is taught and tested, learning to how to understand the writing prompt is the first step to writing success.

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. Yet isn’t understanding writing prompts simply a matter of reading comprehension? No. All too often, good students receive a poor writing grade because they misunderstood the essay writing prompt. In order to successfully respond to a writing prompt, students must learn to analyze the prompt as a critical part of the writing process.

Questions to Ask
In the prewriting phase of the writing process, students need to examine the essay prompt and ask themselves these questions:

  • What form of writing does the writing prompt require?
  • What are the purpose(s) of the assignment?
  • What information do I need to complete the task?
  • What kind of details or arguments does the writing prompt 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 prompt.

What 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. But often on tests, 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:

Type of Essay


Writing Prompt Keywords

Explain, define, classify, analyze, compare/contrast, cause/effect


Describe, tell about your experience


Convince, give your opinion, choose a point of view, what is your position on this issue, argue for or against

Writing Prompts on Standardized Tests

Teachers also use writing prompts to help students prepare for standardized tests. Writing prompts are found on all standardized tests, from state writing assessments to national tests like ACT and SAT. Always 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” via the Internet, and students thrive under the individual attention to their writing. Writing becomes something they enjoy, instead of a chore. Learn more about our unique online writing programs for elementary, middle school, and high school students.

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