Ten Thoughts on Visual Writing Ideas

Note: This is an older post. I now prefer the term “ideas” to “prompts,” because of the element of choice. Also, the visual ideas have gotten better. Check out the Resources page for some writing ideas you can download.

Idea #1
Photo prompts don’t have to be tied down to language arts. I have asked students to observe a picture of a natural phenomenon and ask inquiry questions. I have given students a context and asked them to develop math questions (who knew a child would wonder how much it would cost to fill up a pyramid with Jell-O?) The following was a very strange math prompt that got students thinking about days, months, years, ratios, etc.

Idea #2
Photo prompts allow for a bridge between the concrete and the abstract. If you look at the prompt to the left, the students have to study the visual in order to make sense out of the abstract.

Idea #3
The most successful prompts are thought-provoking in both the visual and the questioning. I have asked questions like, “Are companies more powerful than nations” and students offer great answers. But push a kid to look at Facebook as a nation and the concept of globalization changes:

Sometimes the best photo prompts are driven by the picture. Some of my favorite ones involved simply, “Tell the story” or “create a question.”

Idea #5
Let kids develop their own photo prompts. Students were really into the idea of the one-sentence story accompanied by the picture (as seen below). While it might seem like a shallow writing piece, it got them thinking about the notion of character, theme and conflict that are central to a story.

Idea #6
In an effort to make things applicable to the “real world” we fail to engage in the fantastical, the whimsical, the playful and the ridiculous. So, when we go over persuasive techniques, I don’t mind asking my students to convince me to buy canned unicorn meat:

Idea #7
Be intentional. I’m beginning to see that most creativity comes from the desire of intentionality. Not every picture works. Not every question pushes students to think deeper.  However, I’ve noticed that when I’m unintentional, I go for the same questions all the time. Thus, for functional text, I always do, “Choose an activity you love to do and describe how to do it.” However, when asking them to take an opposite approach to a familiar story, students had a new audience for the functional text:

Idea #8
Photo prompts can be a chance to reinforce difficult vocabulary and grammar with ELL students. The following sentence seems pretty easy, but the sentence structure is long and the verb tense is difficult. It is not the visual that gives it away, though. That’s not the idea. The point is to provide one longer, difficult sentence that students wrestle with linguistically.

Idea #9
It’s a journey. Some of the prompts fail miserably. I really thought this one would work and it simply didn’t pan out at all. The students wanted to talk about the real “Arab Spring” and were edgy about attacking the implied totalitarianism of their childhood heroes and heroines.

Idea #10
Ultimately, it’s all about relevance. However, relevance isn’t simply about going with what kids are interested in. It’s not about stacking it full of pop culture. It’s about choosing questions that connect to the students’ lives and to their world. It’s about adding context to math and pushing students philosophically and even adding a healthy dose of technology criticism. Regardless of the picture, students want to discuss, “Are we too connected?”

If you enjoyed this post and your curious about this topic, feel free to consider the following:


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

9 responses

  1. I team teach, and am the Math and Science half. I would have never thought of using a writing prompt for math…thank you for this awesome idea! I can't wait to try this activity in class.

  2. This is so great! I love the ideas on here, especially creating a photo prompt. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Michelle,
    David Cox does some great visual and video prompts for math. Same with Dan Meyer. Sometimes my photo prompts were simply, "Explain why this is a bad problem" and using really bad visual word problems from the book. I'd love to hear how the prompts work out for you.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  4. These are, without a doubt, some of the coolest writing prompts I have ever seen.

  5. Thanks for sharing this idea. I plan to share it with pre-service teachers and teachers in my graduate education course, Integrating Technology and Literacy.

  6. Dear John,
    Thanks for the kind words.

    Dear Judy,
    Very cool. I'm honored by that.

  7. I believe these forms of prompts could be well used at postgrad level. Thanks for this interesting idea. I have been looking at ways to expand our online distance teachers skills in posing starter discussion questions. This is a great way to go…

  8. Your photo prompts are great…is it OK to use them in my middle-school class? I usually do a free write on Friday, but I'm finding them boring, and I think some of these would be much more fun, but I want your permission…

  9. Dear Andrew,
    That would be cool! Let me know how it works.

    Dear k nida,
    Of course you can share them! I only use Creative Commons pictures, so everything from the question to the visual is free to use.

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