Keep Calm & Write On

How do you prepare your students for timed writing?  It’s a challenging task, and in this era of high-stakes testing, English teachers must strategize so their students will have success on these assessments.  With timed writing, students need to read and respond quickly to a prompt in a cogent essay or prose constructed response.

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A typical prompt on the SAT requires students to consider an abstract idea and then write a persuasive essay.  On the AP English Literature Exam, students read literature excerpts and write essays analyzing the texts.   For the upcoming PARCC assessments, students will read several texts and then synthesize their reading into a prose constructed response.
For teachers who have often been trained to encourage the use of the writing process, all of this can seem overwhelming.  But if students are going to do well, they must practice. I’ve developed a warm-up activity that gives students this practice!
First, I search online for retired prompts (prompts that have been used on previous exams), or I write prompts in the style of the exam.  Here are  links to some:

Then, at least once a week, I project a prompt at the beginning of class and set the timer for several minutes.  Normally, I start with five minutes, and as students increase their speed, I reduce the time to three minutes.  If you don’t have your own timer, here is a link to an online stopwatch:

During the timed practice, students read the prompt and complete a brainstorm with the ideas for how they would respond.  They can write a list, modified outline, web, or any other graphic organizer that helps them.  Next, they share their brainstorms on the document camera and the class listens as each student shares her process and thoughts.  I also model how I would respond to the prompt.

Besides giving them time to practice, they learn from one another and see each other’s process.  And although they don’t actually write the essay (and I don’t have to grade it), they get practice understanding what the prompt is asking (sometimes they annotate it), writing a thesis, planning evidence and organizing their ideas.  Additionally, it is a safe way for them to practice because they aren’t graded on their brainstorm; they’re just expected to participate and be willing to share.
Ultimately, the research shows that when students take a couple of minutes to plan, even on a timed writing assignment, they will achieve a higher score!  As SAT tutor and Harvard graduate Bradford Holmes says in a 2013 US News and World Report article, “This may seem counterintuitive at first, as you might expect to spend the entire period writing. Yet brainstorming and outlining a plan is actually the most important thing students can do to improve their essay scores.”



Kim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.

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One thought on “Keep Calm & Write On

  1. Pingback: Practice with prompts

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