Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.31.18Formative Versus Summative Writing Prompts-Some Examples

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                   Letting writing be a tool to form thoughts as much as to demonstrate them.


We’ve been doing a lot of work lately on three types of writing–Formative, Summative and Developmental. 

I wrote recently about the differences among them here for example.  And here Ashley LaGrassa wrote about how using more formative prompts allowed her students to engage more comfortable in challenging work.

Today I want to share further thoughts abut how Formative Writing is different from Summative Writing.  Simply put Formative Writing prompts ask students to use writing to develop initial ideas while Summative Writing prompts ask students to demonstrate or defend final ideas.

One of the results of the general perception that reading is a skill-driven endeavor [As I discuss here, I think it’s much more knowledge-driven than many schools have recognized] is that we often ask students to write ‘standards’–i.e. assessment–aligned questions over and over. One result is that students are asked to defend their thinking before they’ve really had time to develop it.

I believe more Formative prompts are necessary to engage students more in the work and to help them develop ideas that are worth defending. Ironically we think more Formative prompts make students better in the long run at Summative writing.

As my team and I have come to see the importance of using three types of writing, a major aspect of the English Language Arts curriculum we are writing has been to include a better and more strategic balance of all three types of writing.

In order to help teachers reflect on some of the differences between Formative and Summative prompts, my team and I put together this comparison table.  On the left are Formative prompts. On the right are Summative prompts.  Both are worthy, we think, but we want teachers to be especially attentive to the Formative prompts as they are more likely to be missing from classrooms.


Formative Prompts


Summative Prompts


ELA What might be the figs be symbolic of in this chapter? Why do they keep appearing?


Explain how Esperanza’s doll functions as a symbol throughout the book and what Munoz-Ryan was attempting to accomplish with this symbol.


Math Why might solving this system of equations be more difficult than the last example?


Solve the system of equations below and explain how you arrived at your answer.


Science Do you expect neurons to have a high or low surface area to volume ratio? Why?


Explain the how neurons function. Be sure to reference specific details about their cellular design.


History What strikes you about Olmec civilization, especially anything that might appear in later Meso-American cultures?


How did the Inca’s cultural achievements help the empire become an advanced civilization? Include two pieces of evidence to support your argument.




How might Paddington be feeling in this moment? Why?


Based on this story, what are two character traits that describe Paddington? Support your answer with details from the text.


Arts What might the artist be attempting to convey with his choice of colors here? Explain Picasso’s theory of color during his Blue Period and the impact it had on the art world.


One thing you probably notice is the ‘openness’ of the Formative prompts. They use words like ‘might.’  They ask questions for which it is hard to be wrong as long as you are diligent and thoughtful: “What strikes you….”

The idea is to help students develop the ability (and desire) to think in writing, to begin writing before they fully know what they think and to use the process of writing as a means to arrive at insight- a bit like Joan Didion, who said, “I write … to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

2 Responses to “Formative Versus Summative Writing Prompts-Some Examples”

  1. Lucy Pitcher
    July 8, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    After attending one of your workshops in the UK (Ivybridge), the discussions on formative vs summative writing (and how we can use them in a Front the Writing task) really opened my eyes to how I was using questioning.
    I often start with closed questions (therefore getting the students to use the easier skills of describing or explaining) and then move through to open questions and the harder skills of analysing, evaluating and synthesising. I thought that starting with “easier” questions would help students to work through to the harder tasks.
    However, looking at your examples made me realise it’s much better to ask students to use these harder thinking skills when there is less risk (in a formative task- using modal verbs like “might” or “could”) and then saving the easier and more closed skills for the summative task.
    I tried this in my Year 10 lesson (right after your workshop) and it worked BRILLIANTLY! So- Thank you!

    • Doug Lemov
      July 10, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      Thanks for your note, Lucy. 1) It was great to have you with us at the Ivybridge workshop. 2) Kudos to you for trying it out right away 3) I’m so happy to know the change was positive. lease keep in touch! -Doug

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