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Seven Deadly Words

By Ruth Culham


“I don’t know what to write about.”  Sigh.  The air goes out of the writer’s world when this is how he or she feels.  Helping a student through this writing barrier is critical to the writer’s esteem…after all, if you think you have nothing to write about, then you must not realize how much the world is interested in you, your experiences, and your unique way of expressing what you think and feel. The logic of turning to a prompt is one solution to this issue.  If you give students the idea, then they don’t have to think of one.  But, if you give them the idea, they don’t have to think of one. See the problem?  Prompts can be both the cure and the disease itself.  To prompt, or not to prompt; that is the question.  Here’s the thinking behind the answer I’ve come up after struggling with this issue for years and years.

To Prompt:

  • Helps students know where to begin
  • Provides a method to dial-in on specific, topical information
  • Gives all students a chance to reveal what they have learned about something in particular

Not to Prompt:

  • Allows students to choose a topic of interest
  • Encourages motivation to write about things that matter
  • Ensures opportunity for deeper thinking, stretching, and understanding because students are engaged in their topic of choice

My solution turns out to be the 50/50 rule.  About half the time you want to lead students into writing that you want/need them to write about:  answer a question on a test, a response to literature, an issue in science or social studies that has been the subject of instruction.  And let’s not forget text prep.  Almost every teacher wants students to practice writing in the same format as will be expected of them on a summative writing assessment.

The other half of the time, students should choose their own topics based on what fascinates and intrigues them.  Ideas for writing that spring from their own curiosity, questions, and imaginations are powerful motivators to write and stick with it through the entire writing process.  Students write better, more, and with greater confidence when they are deeply engaged with their topics.  As teachers, we have to teach students how to manage what they write about in both situations¾prompted and not prompted.


Two Books to Inspire Student Choice

Different writing situations call for different starting points. Although it can be tempting to start students off in the same way every time, it’s very important for their growth as writers that they learn to find topics and ideas that matter to them, too.  Strive for balance.

Using a mentor text can be the perfect trigger for writing.  Here are two examples:  One is a brilliant picture book published recently and the other is a treasured oldie.

The Whisperer

Pam Zagarenski

HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015

Excited to read a special book from her teacher, a little girl runs home but unbeknownst to her, the words fall from the pages as she goes.  Heartbroken that she can’t read the story, she hears a whisper, “You can imagine the words…the stories….There are never any rules…imagining just is.”  As she looks more closely at the pages, she develops opening sentences for each set of illustrations.  Students will enjoy reacting to her ideas and creating their own.


The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Chris Van Allsburg

Houghton Mifflin, 1984

Available in picture book form and small chart size, this book of surreal black and white pictures is bound to inspire students to create imaginative (and sometimes a little creepy) stories from the simple title or caption each piece of art from the portfolio.


Bottom Line About Prompts

Ask yourself, Would I find this interesting topic to write about and tackle in a new way?  If the answer is Yes, you will likely enjoy the result from your students since they’ll enter the writing of narrative, informational, or opinion/argument with energy and enthusiasm.  But if the answer is No, do yourself and your class a favor and revise and rethink what you are asking them to do so you can avoid forever those seven deadly words.


Ruth CulhamRuth Culham, EdD, launched a writing revolution with the publication of her book 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide, Grades 3 and Up, followed by 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for the Primary Grades and Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School, winner of the 2011 Teacher’s Choice award. Her groundbreaking work with the writing traits is the culmination of 40 years of research, practice, and passion. Most recently, Ruth has published the bestselling The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing and Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture. Ruth has also penned What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Writing for all school leaders and literacy coaches. See Ruth at the KSRA Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania this October!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Ruth, I love your 50/50 rule and will share with others. To prompt or not to prompt is a good discussion to have with colleagues. I loved the points you made for both. The seven deadly words – “I don’t know what to write about” – is often heard in classrooms from kindergarten to middle school (and probably beyond that as well). A great post to kick off the school year and ask us to reflect on our practices. Thank you!


    September 28, 2017

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