Prepare Students to Write Using Photo Prompts

Prepare Your Students

When teaching students how to write a short story based on a photo prompt, start by using the overhead projector or computer to show slides of artwork. Your choices can give students a feel for the very abstract type of photos often used on standardized tests for the photo prompt writing section. At first students may have trouble understanding what to write about. But as you point to specific details on the photos the students will focus and be able to create ideas for stories.

This is typically a really fun lesson as the students enjoy viewing art they have never seen before. Art is a wonderful tool to inspire writing. Help students learn how to awaken their creativity via viewing and discussing art.

Let Art Inspire Writing

Photo prompts on standardized tests require students to use their creative writing skills and their imagination. The photos used for the prompts are typically very abstract and vague. They do not provide a clear scenario for students to write about. Students must use the photo simply as a “prompt” for their creativity and focus on details of the photo as well as its tone or mood to create their own unique story.

Ask students to look at five pieces of art together as a class and talk about the details of the pictures, the theme of the pictures, the tone and colors of the pictures, and also the words that come to mind when viewing the pictures. Then have students sit in groups and write a two-paragraph introduction to a story. Working in groups helps students quell their anxiety and focus as they get underway. Tell students to use the following steps as they start to create their story:

Circle Details on the Photo

Students should focus their ideas by circling details on the photo that they want to use in the story. This keeps them organized as they write and reminds them to use all of the details they find interesting. Students should never actually refer to the photo in the story. They should avoid use of sentences like: “This photo shows…” They should simple use a detail from the photo as an inspiration for a scene or a character in the story.

Brainstorm a Word List

While viewing the photo, students should write a list of words that come to mind when. These words will then be used in the story they create. Help them to be creative and pick words that are unique and interesting. Have them look at the photo and allow their minds to make free associations and then write down the words that pop into their minds.

Analyze the Tone of the Photo

Ask various students questions such as:

  • Is the photo of a scene that inspires a bleak tone or is it joyful?
  • Does the photo make the student think of winter or spring?
  • What is the tone of the photo?

Focus on the Colors of the Photo

Direct your students' attention to the colors in the photo.

What do they make the students think of? Does one of the students see a color like, for example, the bright blue sky of California? Then perhaps he will set his story in California. Is there a bright red color that reminds another student of chile peppers? That student can set his story in New Mexico or at a party where salsa is being served. Be creative. Colors set mood and give a visual reminder of past events in one’s life. Colors are also fun to use as character names. If the photo has a deep purple color that reminds someone of the Iris flower, then perhaps that student will want to name one of his characters Iris.


To assess student work on this lesson, give students a grade for participation in the discussion as the class was viewing the artwork. Then as students work in groups to create a story introduction, circulate the room and give each group a grade for their writing skills and the focus they give to the assignment.