You Can Teach Writing

Find a daily writing prompt in your course curriculum.

Using a daily writing prompt means using some informal writing prompt every day. It is not necessary, or desirable, to have the same type of informal writing prompt day after day.

Having students write informally every day is usually the only way to get teens and adults to write enough times to understand that writing can help them learn without depending on a teacher's help.

Moreover, few activities show students the value of writing to them personally as does informal writing on authentic, class-specific, writing topics.

The point of a daily prompt is not just that students write, but that students write about content they are learning that day.

Here's your informal prompt for today.

Before we get to the heavy-duty content, let me ask you a question:

What do you understand by the term daily writing prompt? Please answer in no more than three complete sentences. You have 60 seconds to write.

What you just did (You did do it, didn't you?) was respond to an informal writing prompt that's part of the day's lesson on this web page. The function of the prompt is to get you to activate your knowledge of the writing topic prior to instruction.

I might (and probably would) have you respond to several informal writing prompts in each day's writing class, so your daily writing prompt might actually be daily prompts related to whatever I'm teaching that day.

Informal writing is thinking in progress.

Informal writing isn't sloppy writing but tentative writing. Informal writing takes a snapshot of the writer's thinking at the moment it was written.

The snapshot captures what my mother used to call, "What I think about something to which I've never given a minute's thought." The writing is presented with the understanding that the thinking is open to change.

Let me put it another way: Informal writing is like a note on the back of a napkin. The napkin writer doesn't go through the entire writing process before deciding what to write; the writer just scribbles the first thing that comes to mind.

Informal prompts omit parts of the writing process.

Teachers don't have time to have students go through the entire expository nonfiction writing process everyday, so they use informal writing prompts to give their students daily writing practice in fundamental skills required in the writing process.

The daily writing prompt doesn't take the place of going through the entire writing process any more than practicing free throws takes the place of playing a practice game of basketball. Both targeted skills practice and whole-process practice are necessary.

Time students' responses to daily writing prompts.


I'm a big believer in having students write against the clock. So much of expository writing today is first draft writing that students who can't produce clean first drafts fast are at a serious handicap in the workplace.

Time responses to daily writing prompt by the clock.

Aim for prompts that can be answered in as little as 30 seconds but no more than two minutes.

It's fairly easy to get student buy-in on a writing task of no more than two minutes, and you can use several one- or two-minute writing prompts to get students to explore some writing topic that's abstract or that has to be learned as a sequence of steps.

Expect daily writing practice, not professional output. 

You may have noticed that teens and adults taking required writing classes are not yet professional writers. They are, to put it charitably, pre-professionals.

Not-yet-professionals, whether they be in sports, music,  computer coding, or writing, need to practice daily to learn a skill. As an expository writing teacher, you must provide that writing practice. 

Knowing they are observing a nonprofessional, the public does not expect to be thrilled by a brilliant practice session. They expect the clarinet to squeak, the free throws to be missed, and the computer code to be bloated.

You must not expect to be thrilled by the quality of your students' practice writing

Not-yet-professional writers Josh and Caitlin aren't being paid to entertain you. Live with it.

Vary daily writing prompts to fit needs.

Any topic from your curriculum can be made into an informal writing prompt, so opportunities abound for you to exercise your creativity and make your daily writing prompt into a:

  • learning tool for students
  • formative assessment tool for students
  • formative assessment tool for you
  • classroom management tool for you.

There's no requirement that your daily prompts be as unvarying as daily multivitamins. Vary your prompts to accomplish your objectives.

Vary writing topics. Rather than always make your daily writing prompt be about one thing, use daily writing to help students master whatever you're teaching that day or week or even to insert a bit of fun into an otherwise dull day.

Vary writing purposes.  Informal writing prompts can be used to

  • activate knowledge
  • check for understanding
  • provide drill
  • arouse curiosity.

The same prompts can also be deployed to engage students whose attention has wandered.

Vary timing of writing prompt deployment. Don't always have your daily writing prompt at the same time. Try to make the timing of when you give the prompt fit your purpose in using it.

Here's what you need for daily prompts.

The writing topics you pick for informal writing don't matter as long as they are authentic to your course

For daily use, you need informal expository nonfiction writing prompts that:

  • don't require lengthy thought
  • can be answered in a very few sentences
  • focus on your lesson for that day
  • are worth writing about.

You can use informal prompts once or several times during a class to help you meet your annual writing objectives and to keep your students engaged.

Don't download daily writing prompts.

If you prepare your own daily writing prompt instead of downloading some from the Internet, you can not only have students write, but also:

  • Require writing in formats that reinforce your writing instruction.
  • Require writing on topics that reinforce what students are learning in their classes, especially yours.
  • Use student responses as formative assessments.

The effort that you required to prepare daily writing prompts on authentic writing topics is well worth those benefits, don't you agree?

Choose high tech or low tech.

One aspect of writing informally that makes it useful is its suitability to both high-tech and no-tech teaching situations. Teachers can choose technologies that fit the:

  • assignment and course learning objectives.
  • students' technology access.
  • students' technology skills.
  • school's technology tools.
  • school's technology policies.

Don't obsess over technology.


Rather than fretting about which technology is the coolest to use in the classroom, concentrate on the:

  • course objectives
  • wording of the prompts
  • sequence of the prompts

A pencil stub and scrap paper can be as effective as the latest high tech tool if the teacher has planned its use well.

pensil and paper is OK technology for daily writing prompt.

Don't grade daily writing prompts.

Even if grading students' responses to informal writing prompts were desirable, you haven't time enough to do it.  Don't even try.

Instead try some combination of these tactics:

  • Use class discussion to provide immediate feedback on responses.
  • Give whole-class oral feedback on responses the next class session.
  • Give positive oral comments to individual students as you move around the classroom monitoring and assisting students with work on formal writing prompts.
  • Develop a rota for writing short notes on a certain number of students' papers each week.

Give an A for responding to daily writing prompts.

I find it works to give an A for participation to students who write as requested every class period unless they have an excused absence. That encourages students to respond to each daily writing prompt.

Students may turn in trash a few times, but most discover it's just as easy to do what you ask as to think up new ways to be annoying.

You don't need to make participation count much toward the final grade: Simply writing informally in response to a daily writing prompt improves students' final grades providing the prompts are authentic to your course.

Remember informal writing is rough draft writing.


Don't discourage students from working with ideas by marking grammar, spelling, and other surface errors. Instead, tell students 15 or 30 seconds before the timer goes off to check their work for one of their IMP errors.

Give students time to check their daily writing prompt response for IMP errors.

If you can get students to check for one error before they turn in their work, you've gone a long way toward enabling students to eliminate the errors on the IMPs.

Not every student will have one of their "counts off" list items in every daily writing prompt. That's actually good. To make writing situations authentic, you have to allow time for situations to arise in which students need to address the errors you are targeting.

Without much effort on your part, your daily writing prompt can prepare students to write sensibly on demand with a minimum of stress. As a bonus, you'll see gains in comprehension of other course content as well.

Use daily writing practice for formative assessment.

Instead of grading students on their informal writing, give yourself formative assessment — feedback about what help you need to provide to students — based on their responses to each daily writing prompt.

Also, use the information you glean from students' informal writing to inform your feedback, particularly your oral comments to individual students.

Telling a student "you're doing a lot better at" some particular writing task, even if the effect of the improvement hasn't shown up yet in the student's formal writing, is particularly powerful feedback.

What to read next

If you're working through all 12 instructional strategies, the next one is fast, frequent feedback.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-08-22 and updated 2013-04-01 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

Linda says this about using a daily writing prompt.

Modeling good writing skills means verbally and visually making explicit the mental processes you are using to solve a writing problem. Say out loud what you are thinking. Write or draw to show how you capture your ideas.

Linda's name beneath her comment about modeling writing.