Dissecting the Prompt Teaching Strategy | Facing History & Ourselves
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Teaching Strategy

Dissecting the Prompt

Teach students how to decode an essay prompt with this four-step procedure.


At a Glance

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Teaching Strategy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




What Is Dissecting the Prompt?

The Dissecting the Prompt strategy is effective to use when introducing students to a new writing assignment. By having students annotate and discuss a writing prompt, this activity gives students the time they need to decode what the prompt is asking them to think and write about. You can also use this strategy to introduce an essential question for a lesson, unit, or course.


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Lesson Plans

How to Use the Dissecting the Prompt Strategy

Print out a prompt or essential question in a larger font and tape it to the center of a piece of paper.

Ask students, in pairs, to dissect the prompt. As they read the prompt, direct them to make the following notations:

  • Circle words you do not know or understand in the context of the prompt.
  • Star words that seem to be the central ideas of the prompt.
  • Underline all of the verbs that represent what you, the writer, are supposed to do.
  • Cross out any extra information that does not seem specifically relevant to the writing task.

Next, ask students to respond to and discuss the prompt using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Individually, students should try to answer the prompt or essential question simply based on their “gut reaction” or personal philosophy. If possible, ask students to try to support their current thinking with an example from history or their own life. After a few minutes, ask each pair to share their thinking with each other. Finally, ask students to share a few opinions or ideas with the larger group. Tell students that their initial responses will evolve as they encounter new ideas and evidence in class.

Before moving on, ask students to write the prompt or essential question in their notebooks. As they have new thoughts about the prompt throughout the unit, they can make notes to themselves.

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