June 17th, 2015
Welcome to the second post in our Summer Blogstitute series. We are happy to welcome Jennifer Fletcher to our author lineup. Jennifer is the author of the new book Teaching Arguments and in this post she talks about writing reading-based argument prompts that engage students and help showcase their best thinking. Be sure to leave a comment or a question for a chance to win free books at the end of the Blogstitute! And you can also follow along on Twitter using #blogstitute15.
How to Write a Reading-Based Argument Prompt
by Jennifer Fletcher
Read the passage carefully. For many years now, writing prompts in English Language Arts classes across the country have opened with this key direction. Gone are the days when a typical essay assignment asked students to respond to a topic rather than engage with a text. The writing tasks students are most likely to encounter today acknowledge that the ability to read critically and closely is at least as important as the ability to write clean academic prose.
But creating a successful reading-based writing prompt isn’t easy. What kinds of texts should we use for the reading passage? How long should the passage be? Should we choose an excerpt from a published work or write the passage ourselves? What directions should we give? The answers to these questions can vary depending on the purpose and format of the assessment—such as whether the essay will be timed or a process piece, is part of a thematic unit or a standalone task, or will be used as a diagnostic or summative tool.
My friend and colleague Robby Ching, a professor at Sacramento State University, developed the following guidelines to help teachers create reading-based prompts:
- Find an engaging topic that relates to the experiences of all students—males and females, ethnic groups, English learners.
- Write a prompt that makes a debatable claim and offers evidence as support. For on-demand essays, limit the reading passage to 100–200 words. Try to start with an argument you’ve found in print and then modify it as needed. Blogs, letters to the editor, and op-ed pieces are good candidates for argument prompt writing. Acknowledge the original author if the passage is only slightly altered.
- Evaluate the prompt and have colleagues evaluate it. Sometimes a prompt looks great on paper but utterly fails to generate the kind of thinking and writing we want our students to produce. The only way to know whether a prompt is successful is to field-test it. (2009)
In my work as a member of the California State University English Placement Test (EPT) Development Committee, I help to write the reading-based argument prompts that measure students’ readiness for college English. I’ve struggled firsthand with the challenge of creating writing tasks that spark students’ interest and best thinking.
Take, for instance, one of the first prompts I wrote for the EPT. The test development committee rejected this one almost on sight. See if you can tell why this prompt didn’t make the cut:
Directions: You will have forty-five minutes to plan and write an essay on the topic assigned below. Before you begin writing, read the passage carefully and plan what you will say. Your essay should be as well organized and as carefully written as you can make it.
“Americans are infatuated with the idea of ready-made communities. We seek instant belonging in master-planned developments calculated to create a sense of nostalgia and intimacy—tract houses with white picket fences, shopping malls with old-time town centers, and newly manufactured ‘main streets’ with theme music and lighting. But real community bonds and identities are not something that can be designed by developers; true communities are born over time through accident and shared hardship.” —William Doser
Explain Doser’s argument and discuss the ways in which you agree or disagree with his analysis. Support your position, providing reasons and examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.
(Note: I wrote the passage from the fictional “William Doser” myself, but we also use excerpts from published works for this exam.)
Because students entering our state university system in California must take the English Placement Test “cold” (that is, without any advance knowledge of the prompt), the topic has to be fair and accessible to all test-takers. The reading passage needs to be short to accommodate the forty-five-minute time limit but still contain enough reasoning and writerly moves to be a suitable candidate for analysis. We try to choose subjects that students care about, that relate to the experiences of all students, and that don’t privilege one group’s cultural knowledge over another’s.
My prompt on master-planned communities failed on multiple accounts. While I might be interested in issues of homeownership, urban planning, and community development, most teenagers aren’t. Students might be able to paraphrase this reading passage, but they’d probably have very little to say in response. The prompt doesn’t offer adolescents any tantalizing bait—or what rhetoricians might call exigence, a sense of urgent need that calls for a response.
Successful reading-based argument prompts stimulate analytic thought and engagement. They show what writers are capable of achieving when they genuinely care about an issue. The reading passages in these prompts make provocative claims that invite critique but cannot be easily dismissed. Some prompts do this by offering a reasonable description of a problem capped offed by a modest proposal worthy of Jonathan Swift. Others might make compelling claims based on faulty assumptions. The trick in prompt writing is not to tip the scales too heavily in one direction.
The good prompts also don’t script the response for students. An overly structured prompt—say, one that has three major divisions or examples—can discourage students from generating their own content or inventing their own organizational structure. Students might think a five-paragraph essay is called for if they see three main points in the directions, thereby missing their opportunity to showcase their own creativity. We want prompts that give students different directions they can go.
Here’s another EPT prompt that looked more promising but didn’t work very well during our field test. This one never made it on the placement exam either.
“The United States’s addiction to nonrenewable fossil fuels has grown unsustainable. Thus, a simple solution is needed to significantly reduce consumption and put America on the road to responsible energy use: drivers of large gas-guzzling vehicles such as SUVs, luxury sedans, and trucks should be required to pay significantly more at the pump than drivers of economical vehicles—initially, 100% more. While still allowing people to choose what kind of vehicle they drive, this approach would rapidly curb our country’s dangerous consumption habits. Furthermore, the funds generated by this price increase could be invested in environmental programs, increasing sustainability and reducing climate change in the process.”
Students were asked to explain the argument the writer makes in this passage and discuss the ways in which they agree or disagree with the writer’s analysis and conclusion. Unfortunately, the prompt didn’t show what the student writers could do. Most of the students who responded to this prompt in the field test didn’t have the economic, environmental, or legislative knowledge needed to analyze the writer’s reasoning and conclusion. When a prompt calls for background knowledge students don’t have, they often substitute an easier topic for the more difficult one. In this case, instead of engaging the writer’s claims about sustainability and differential gas prices as a means of decreasing fossil fuel consumption, many students defaulted to a topic-based opinion instead of a text-based argument, simply responding with comments such as “It’s a free country” or “You can’t take my truck away.” In other words, they weren’t demonstrating their ability to read the passage carefully.
So what does a successful reading-based argument prompt look like? Educational Testing Services, the company that develops the English Placement Test for the California State University, offers a useful description (adapted from “Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful EPT Topics”  and used with permission):
- It clearly presents an idea that invites analysis.
- It presents a line of reasoning—e., a claim supported by evidence.
- It doesn’t simply repeat assertions.
- It doesn’t suggest a “right” answer.
- It doesn’t trigger emotional trauma or excessively personal responses.
- It asks students to develop and support a response based on close critical reading of a passage.
- It refers to familiar situations or problems students are likely to have experienced or studied.
- It presents a topic about which students are likely to have opinions.
- It elicits different points of view and different approaches to organization and development.
While I can’t share current examples of successful prompts from our placement test (it’s only the “fails” that are not confidential), I can say that some of our most successful topics are the ones you’d expect would appeal to teenagers: social media, schools and curricula, technology, sports, gender, and the transition to adulthood.
One of the benefits of argumentation, notes writing scholar Annette T. Rottentberg, is that it “teaches students to read and listen with more than ordinary care” (1994, v). When we ask students to “read the passage carefully” in preparation for writing an argument essay, we are asking them to do more than just be sure they follow all the directions. We are asking them to read with an awareness of reasoning, evidence, context, and point of view; to understand not only what the text says but also what it does; to uncover and analyze a writer’s assumptions; to evaluate a writer’s conclusions—to read, in other words, with an extraordinary degree of care.
Ching, Roberta. 2009. “Creating an EPT-Type Prompt.” California State University English Placement Test Development Committee. December 4.
Educational Testing Services. 2015. “Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful EPT Topics.” May 28.
Rottenberg, Annette T. 1994. The Structure of Argument. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
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