One of the major goals of elementary education is to teach students to read and write. The primary grades have an enormous focus on language arts, and rightfully so, because these skills are important. There are always going to be students who love to write and those who protest that they "Can't think of anything". Daily writing journals are great, but I'm sure you've seen that one student's journal where every entry is "I like dogs. I like school. I like my teacher. I like ice cream." So how can educators help all students write with more variety, creativity, and tap into their boundless imaginations?
Personally, I like using writing prompts, particularly visual writing prompts. Having an image gives me something to study, details to look at, and a setting/character to now describe in words. That helps me start writing, even if I'm just restating what is in the picture.
I've used visual writing prompts mostly with K-2nd grade students, just out of circumstance. What I've noticed is that some students are like me; they'll describe the scene in words to start. Then they'll keep going. Sometimes it takes a little extra attention from me, the teacher, ("Why is that character wearing that? What might happen now? Will they stay here or go somewhere else?") but I can usually see the creative wheels start turning. Next time I come by they'll have several sentences and I've even had requests to take their journal home to finish their story.
For the visual writing prompts I try to pick real photographs that are full of action, or make the viewer question the situation. Images of random people, historical events, or surrealist photoshopped landscapes can be used to capture the student's imagination. I preface the writing activity with a few guidelines: Your story must have a character, it must have a setting, and there must be something happening/action. Then I make sure the image is visible from the creative writing station and help as needed. Afterwards, especially if the picture was very odd, I allow students to share their stories and see what different directions the students went.
Again, visual writing prompts won't work for every student.
Auditory writing prompts intrigue me. I haven't had the opportunity to use an auditory writing prompt with young students yet, but when I tried it with my fellow graduate students they gave very positive feedback. I choose an instrumental song that was fairly indistinguishable from any particular time period. I set the same guidelines of character, setting, and action and started the music. Watching my classmates, I saw that they didn't start writing immediately. Most took about 30 seconds before putting pen to paper, but then they were off! The scribbling continued after the music died out and my warning of "1 more minute" was met with faster writing as they tried to finish their stories. After they shared their stories many said that the music gave them a distinct idea - a wedding, a spy mission, a car chase, an accomplishment - and once they had that idea they basically tuned out the rest of the song, being enraptured in detailing the moment the audio had provided. I was amazed at the variety of stories and will definitely try auditory writing prompts with my own class someday soon.
Forewarning that finding instrumental music that isn't clearly "Mission Impossible", "Wild West", "Yoga", "Chanting Monks", "Christmas", or "Celtic" is difficult. Using themed audio isn't necessarily bad - and it could have some great writing results - but the variety might suffer.
Note about writing ability: There are students who have difficulty with the fine motor skills of writing or are just not at that stage of writing proficiency yet. They should absolutely have the same opportunity to be given the writing prompt and express themselves as creative writers. This could be accomplished through the help of an aide or teacher who writes the story as they dictate. If possible, after the story is recorded, the student could rewrite the words in their own hand.
The whole point is to help your students communicate, through writing, what is in their imagination. Maybe an image lights that spark, or a song, or something else. I'd love to see if I can use a kinesthetic or tactile prompt, perhaps dance or mystery item bags. I'm sure my students will come up with some great ideas during our class meetings.
Let me know if you've used any unique writing prompts and your experiences with them in the comments below.
Happy teaching and traveling,