Designing Inclusive Writing Prompts

By Lisa Parzefall

The goal of this feature article is to shift the reader’s attention to the complexity of creating inclusive writing prompts for ESL students. By inclusive, I mean allowing all students to answer the prompt no matter their age, gender, race, or native language. Writing is a crucial part of testing and, thus, assessing a student’s language ability and skills. But how can we adequately and fairly test students’ skills if they might not fully comprehend, or be able to answer the prompt? Most certainly, in order to assess students fairly, the given task needs to be clear. However, prompts might vary from teacher to teacher, depending on how they interpret “inclusive” or “accessible.” Let’s look at the following example: “Write a 2-3 page paper, explaining the causes of malnutrition.” While one teacher might think that this prompt shows promise because it is short, concise, and does not bear any “difficult” words (although malnutrition could be a word unknown to many language learners), another teacher might see that there are many unanswered questions. What format is the student supposed to follow? Is this a typical “cause-effect paper,” or can this also appear as an argumentative paper? Is the student supposed to do research to find out more about the causes of malnutrition or write about what they already know? Depending on the level of the student, they might have many more questions, all of which are justified. In fact, we can assume that L2 writers have little to no experience with academic writing before they enter our classrooms—even in their native language(s) (Schneider, 2018). Therefore, we need to examine our own prompts and ensure that they are indeed inclusive.

Ask yourself if you have provided your students with a framework that will help them understand your expectations around reasons, knowledge, and the final product. Not all of these questions have to be answered in written form; having a discussion in the classroom and welcoming questions is a good way of avoiding confusion. However, don’t assume that students themselves will come forward with questions; their cultural background might not encourage questions in the classroom or they might simply be too shy to ask them, which brings up another important point: Do not assume knowledge (or the lack thereof). Often, we include terms in our prompts without thinking about it too much. However, words like “thesis,” “topic sentence,” “reflection,” and “analysis” might not always be clear to the students. Working through such concepts in the classroom before assigning a prompt and reviewing them together when the assignment is given would be ideal.  Lastly, consider the length of your prompt. While some teachers might prefer a short, precise prompt, others might prefer providing the students with step-by-step instructions. Although there is no perfect length, ask yourself if you have provided the students with enough information so your expectations can be fulfilled without overwhelming the students with information.

Now it seems that writing the perfect prompt is almost impossible; however, writing the perfect prompt is not necessarily the goal. The goal is to write an inclusive prompt that provides students with the instructions they need to meet your expectations; only then is it fair to assess students.

Lisa Parzefall teaches first-year writing and ESL classes at DePaul University.

Reid, Joy, and Barbara Kroll. “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students.” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 4, no. 1, 1995, pp. 17-41.

Schneider, Jason. “Learning How to Support Multilingual Writers.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language,  Composition and, Culture, vol. 18, no. 2, 2018, pp. 345-374.
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