Giving a specific writing prompt to the entire class can be a great way to start—or end—a language arts lesson, but it has some flaws as well. I’ve found that the main one is time management. While some students get right to work and complete the assignment quickly, others need more time to gather their thoughts before beginning. Or heck—they just write slower. Ideally, writers should be allowed to work at their own pace, as long as they are producing the best work possible for them. Of course, this isn’t always possible. Certain events, such as tests that compulsively require the use of number 2 pencils, have precise time limits that must be obeyed or the space/time continuum will collapse. Also, as much as I’d like my students to write all day long, language arts does, on occasion, have to end. Chicken nuggets must be eaten, small cartons of milk must be imbibed, and every so often I have to teach them about those number things.
In the case of journal prompts, I like to give everyone the same amount of time to work but offer them slightly tweaked assignments based on their ability level. I’ll write the prompt, and then put two boxes beneath it (usually written in different colored chalk). The first box is for modification, the second box is for enrichment.
Here’s a recent prompt (from the classic “What did you do over summer vacation?” genre): “Write a paragraph about one specific, memorable event that happened over the holiday break.”
In my modifications box, I usually chunk the assignment so those students who might have trouble can get to work faster and better utilize their time. For this prompt I wrote: “1. List three exciting things you did over the break. 2. Which of these can you picture clearest in your mind? 3. Write about it, starting with a grabber beginning.”
In this case, I didn’t really change the assignment, but I offered suggestions as to the best/quickest way to begin. The bonus part about this modification box is that many students who don’t require modifications might still find it useful. It’s basically a reminder about how to brainstorm, but it’s specific to this prompt.
As for the enrichment box, I sometimes add a reflection component, such as: “Write a second paragraph explaining why this event is memorable. What did you take or learn from it that you will remember in years to come?” The other enrichment option that works is a perspective switch: “Write about a memorable activity but not from your perspective—choose someone else who was there.”
Do I do these modifications for every journal prompt? Absolutely not. Sometimes the prompt doesn’t lend itself to modification. Sometimes I ask the students who finish first to illustrate their writing because…they really like to draw. Sometimes I didn’t have enough coffee that morning and can’t think of any bright ideas. But occasionally it’s good to have a modification box and an extension box, just to make sure that all students are getting the most out of journal time!