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Understanding Writing Assignments: Reading Practices


This resource provides student-writers with a toolkit to help them better understand writing assignments and writing prompts at the university level. It begins with a clear overview of strategies to help with writing assignments. It also includes a number of annotated assignment sheets. 

Contributors:Erin Brock
Last Edited: 2014-12-12 10:36:00

Part of understanding what the assignment asks is to practice careful reading skills to ensure that you know what each part of the prompt says. Below are some suggestions for careful reading that should help you to understand assignment prompts from any course.

Read the Prompt More Than Once

Read through the assignment prompt at least twice. The first time, mark any words or phrases that you don’t understand, then attempt to use context clues or use other resources to figure out what they mean. Once you figure out those missing pieces, read the prompt again. This time, mark the key ideas with a different color of pen. This will allow you to make sure that you understand all of the parts of the assignment, and that you focus on the important aspects of the prompt.

Notice the Important or Key Phrases

Finding the key goal for an assignment is often the first and most difficult step when reading an assignment prompt. One way to begin is to find all of the verbs in the prompt, because the verbs will give you directions.

Some commonly used verbs used or tasks in assignment prompts are:

Genre of Assignment




These terms can be used for any genre.











Write, with attention to detail.

Produce something original or new.

With a text or idea in mind, write.


These terms ask you to examine and analyze the topic, using your own words.










Examine topic methodically.

Write about the similarities of two ideas.

Write about the differences of two ideas.

Deeply think about a topic.

Think about the topic and your own experiences.

Decide and discuss the value of the topic.

Estimate the nature or quality of topic.

Inspect in great detail.



These words ask you to take a stance on a topic, and then explain why.








Take a stance and explain why you are right.

Pick a side and offer evidence for it.

Try to convince the audience your side is right.

Provide evidence to convince the audience.

Give details to illustrate your argument.

Write with specific facts to prove your claim.



These words ask you to explain a topic or idea further, with many details.










Talk about topic and different opinions in detail.

Provide lots of details about the topic.

Tell the story of the topic.

Consider different ideas about the topic.

Write about the important parts of the topic.

Explain or make clear by using examples.

Discuss the topic alongside another experience.

Provide the important parts of the topic.

Explain the meaning of topic.


*Genres adapted from Genre, Style and Writing (Purdue OWL). 

Each of these terms can mean something slightly different, depending on the context of the course and the assignment. Again, ask your instructor if you are not sure what the assignment asks you to do.

Questions to Ask Yourself 

As you read (or re-read) the prompt, it is always good to write down questions, concerns, or thoughts that you have about the assignment so that you don’t forget them later.

There are also some questions that you should ask after you have finished reading the prompt, to check for comprehension.

• What am I being asked to do?

• Who is my audience?

• What sources or ideas do I need to include?

• How can I schedule my writing time (including research time, if applicable) around my own schedule?

• What concepts do I need to hone in on to understand?


 For more information on this topic, click here 

After You Read the Prompt

Sometimes, after you read an assignment prompt, you have a lot of ideas in your head—and sometimes, not very many at all. So, it can be beneficial to engage in some pre-writing activities that can help you come up with some initial ideas about your essay.

You could…

• Write a list of everything you know about the topic

• Compose as many questions as you can about the topic and begin to try and answer them

• Search online for information about the topic

More suggestions can be found by clicking here: [LINK TO PREWRITING RESOURCE ON OWL]

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