Blogstitute: How to Write a Reading-Based Argument Prompt

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

teaching-argumentsRead 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:

  1. Find an engaging topic that relates to the experiences of all students—males and females, ethnic groups, English learners.
  2. 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.
  3. 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” [2015] 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.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Anne  |  June 17th, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your insight on this topic. I did a lot of digging on the web to find good fit prompts for my students last year. Writing my own prompts can be a bit overwhelming, but your description will make it less intimidating!

  • 2. Laura  |  June 17th, 2015 at 9:27 am

    I regularly do not write argument, text based questions for my students. However, I do use them frequently in ELA instruction. I really liked the guidelines put forth in this blog. It will definitely help me to critique, and use only the prompts that will fulfill my desired outcomes for my students. Also, they will help me to modify those questions. I find that too many of the questions in our reading series that claim to be “open response”, actually have a structured answer. This does not allow students to use their point of view, and their ideas in their writing. Great information!!!

  • 3. Kerry  |  June 17th, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I often find articles for my students to read and respond to- sometimes written and sometime orally. Your insight definitely helps to simplify the process of finding or writing prompts that are relevant to students and easily argued with evidence. Thanks!

  • 4. Julie Bauer  |  June 17th, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Thank you for giving me great direction to pause and re-evaluate my writing prompt approach!

  • 5. Teresa  |  June 18th, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for providing great tips to help teachers write better prompts. It has been my experience that some of the prompts I made and thought were good ended up not being good. These tips should help in the future.

  • 6. Sarah  |  June 19th, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    This is some great information! As students (and teachers) are asked to evolve under the Common Core and the attached assessments, it become more important for us to adapt some of our assessments, not only to prepare students for new state tests but also to increase rigor without sacrificing what is in the beSt interest of our students. It can be challenging to create writing prompts that produce the desired result. You can never predict how students will interpret your requests! It is nice to have a professionally prepared list of requirements for doing so. I am interested in reading your book to see what more I can learn!

  • 7. Cara  |  June 19th, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Writing quality prompts is not easy, and the suggestions provided are good ones. I find it particularly hard to write (and find) text-based prompts that allow for different points of view. I will save these suggestions and use them with colleagues as we try to develop prompts that will engage students.

  • 8. Maria Wadensten  |  June 19th, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    This is so interesting! It might not be so hard to find appealing prompts for teenagers.

  • 9. Kelly Mogk  |  June 21st, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned about creating meaningful writing prompts through prompt design. I have definitely struggled in the past with making sure that the prompt stems from something accessible to all students. I love the list of successful characteristics for writing prompts. I also try to include time to read and discuss texts often, so that when my students sit down to write they will already be familiar with good techniques for arguing a text.

  • 10. adrienne  |  June 21st, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    This is good. However,, I would also like some excellent resources for use with 4th graders. Our new state test for the upcoming year, will require the students to use these skills as well, long before they become teenagers. Suggestions?

  • 11. Julie Clay  |  June 22nd, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Thank you for such a detailed and insightful post. My English department colleagues have discussed how to include more time for writing on demand in our classes, and constructing prompts has certainly been a challenge. It seems there is often a discrepancy between the demands students face in the classroom as opposed to on high stakes tests. This information motivates me to continue planning, and I will share this link with my colleagues.

  • 12. Dan  |  June 27th, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Writing prompts is one of the most challenging aspects of our job, but this post really helps to crystalize what is important when constructing them. I struggle with keeping things open for interpretation, but also clear in terms of what I am looking for. I think I have too often fallen into the “give them 3 things” category and then become disappointed when I get 5 paragraph essays. Need to make some adjustments going forward.

  • 13. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 30th, 2015 at 6:14 am

    Thank you for the above list to remind us what we should be looking for when critiquing appropriate assessment questions. Currently I teach 2nd grade but these guidelines can easily span the K-12 grade level.

  • 14. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 30th, 2015 at 6:17 am

    Thank you for including the above list of points to reference when critiquing what makes a good and fair assessment question. I currently teach 2nd grade, but this list easily spans K-12. I have a colleague who sat on our state’s MCAS review board a few years back and her insight was incredibly helpful. I look through the texts, programs and resources we are supplied with in our district and find that many of the prompts wouldn’t make the cut for the type of rigor or fairness necessary.

  • 15. Elisa Waingort  |  July 3rd, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks for writing this post. I find that writing prompts is not an easy task. I can see that this would be a challenge for many teachers. In addition, to the guidelines that you provide in your post, how would you suggest teachers proceed to create effective prompts? What structures might work for teachers who may or may not have time fo field test their prompts. Thanks in advance for your response.

  • 16. Diane Anderson  |  July 5th, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    I was intrigued by the second guideline, which suggested a passage of 100-200 words. That seems reasonable, but I have seen much longer passages on standardized tests, even in upper elementary grades.

  • 17. Cheryl  |  July 30th, 2015 at 9:15 am

    I appreciated your post when I first read it several weeks ago. Now I have a new job assignment and the relevancy of your post has just become that much more important! I am grateful to have this information to go back to, and look forward to taking a closer look at the book. Thanks!

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