Deciphering a Prompt to Build Strong Argumentative Writing

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SWBAT comprehend literary nonfiction proficiently by deciphering ACT level writing prompts.

Big Idea

Students must be able to read a prompt well to write well.

Warm Up/Mini Lesson

15 minutes

In my state, every 11th grade student will take the ACT test.  While that is a daunting task, it fits nicely with Common Core and the focus on argumentative writing and reading.  While my students are only sophomores, practicing these argumentative skills is a great way to prepare them for the test and for life.  Being able to make a great argument for a lower price for a car, a house or even a raise is a life skill (RI.9-10.10).  

A few years ago, I found a list of ACT prompts that help with this assignment.  Part of being a good writer is understanding exactly what a prompt is asking a writer to do.  I explain to students that every prompt has four components:  Situation (event causing you to write), Purpose (the reason-narrate, persuade, inform), Audience (the person/people to whom you are writing)  and Mode (the form your writing needs to take-email, letter, essay, story, poem, etc). I explain to students if the prompt doesn't have all four of those components, it is their job to figure out what they are.  They can't have a complete piece of writing without understanding all four components.  

I put the first prompt from the list of ACT prompts on the white board and we decide what each component in the prompt is.

A school board is concerned that the state’s requirements for core courses in mathematics, English, science, and social studies may prevent students from taking important elective courses like music, other languages, and vocational education. The school board would like to encourage more high school students to take elective courses and is considering two proposals. One proposal is to lengthen the school day to provide students with the opportunity to take elective courses. The other proposal is to offer elective courses in the summer (SITUATION). Write a letter to the school board in which you argue for lengthening the school day or for offering elective courses during the summer (PURPOSE). Explain why you think your choice will encourage more students to take elective courses. Begin your letter (MODE): “Dear School Board:” (AUDIENCE)

Source:, 2009



Student Work Time--Evaluating Prompts

20 minutes

Now, I tell students to continue working through the prompts, labeling each section of each prompt.  They can simply label them using abbreviations.  As I walk around the room, I want to see students fully understanding what the prompt is asking them to do. 

Pick your prompt

15 minutes

Students are going to choose from the prompts listed, which one they want to write.  I tell students to take their time and choose carefully.  First, I tell students to explain to their shoulder partner which prompt they are choosing and why.  Then, I visit each student's desk and ask them what prompt they are choosing and why.  Every opportunity I have to ask students to verbalize their thoughts and organize them, the better (SL.9-10.1).  Plus, having this quick, 20-30 second conversations helps me identify which students still aren't sure what the prompt is asking them to do.  

I tell students we will begin writing tomorrow.