When should you give a specific assignment and when should children be able to “free write” about whatever they want? I think both are very valuable depending on the purpose of your lesson. Can you justify your assignment with one of the following reasons? If not, maybe you need to re-think the assignment or give your kids a break from being told what to write about.
Reason 1: To give children experience writing in different genres.
Be explicit as to why you are giving the assignment, and explain why they will need this type of writing in school or in life. Here are the genres I introduce in Growing Writers level 1:
Fiction writing (not a common core standard but is great for creative thinking and problem-solving!)
Reason 2: To get some children out of a rut because they always write about the same thing in almost exactly the same words.
This isn’t a specific prompt about a specific topic, but it is a little redirecting and limiting of choice. So, if Tyler writes about video games every day, today he will need to use his imagination or write about some facts.
Reason 3: To use the writing as the basis for a class discussion.
Writing is a great way to allow for “think time” before a discussion. Children, like adults, are not always prepared with ideas when a discussion is on the spot. Some children don’t speak up in a class discussion. Whether the topic is “What did you learn on our field trip?” or a sensitive one such as “Do you feel safe in school? Why or why not?”, having children write first will ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. You can also have annonymity for sensitive topics and use the information to start a discussion without using any names. In kindergarten and first grade this writing may include more pictures than words.
Reason 4: To teach a specific skill.
My second graders are learning how to write a more detailed personal narrative. Since detail is so important, I’m limiting them to very small chunks of time in this writing assignment: 3 events that happen before they get to school in the morning. When one event is simply brushing your teeth or eating breakfast, you have to include detail. If I didn’t give them a prompt which narrowed their story to a short amount of time, it would be a lot harder to teach the skill.
Reason 5: To have fun.
Specific prompts can be fun once in awhile. Last year we enjoyed the prompt: “What would be the most amazing sandwich you could make?” Everyone got to share their answers and they were funny. The caveat here, is that the fun is short-lived if prompts like this are given constantly. After awhile they become boring and lead to lack of true ownership in writing.
Other than these purposes, my feeling is – let kids have some time to just WRITE.
To truly be a writer you must learn the skill of generating your own ideas. Children learn to do this by first being exposed to different genres and practicing them. Children who have learned to generate their own ideas tend to be very invested in what they are writing. Why should we deny them the enjoyment of writing about whatever they want?
Prompts can definitely be a tool for teaching, discussion, or fun. However, if kids are constantly getting specific prompts, they will see writing as something they do in school to please a teacher, rather than loving writing as a form of self-expression.
Can you think of reasons I left out? Do you have a balance between free writing and assignments?