The Impact of LBLD on Research Writing

By: Erin Broudo, M.S.Ed.

The Landmark School Outreach Program's mission is to empower students with language-based learning disabilities by offering their teachers an exemplary program of applied research and professional development.

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Research writing requires a student to master the art of multitasking, internal thinking, and constant revision of both thoughts and writing. First, there is the research component: selecting a topic that is neither too broad nor too narrow, learning enough about the topic to formulate a strong argument or thesis, locating sources and materials, and reading carefully and critically for pertinent supporting information or data. Then, there is the writing component: taking notes, organizing information in a way that makes sense, creating a structured outline, writing cohesive paragraphs, and editing for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Both of these components are guided by the thinking component: accessing background knowledge, self-questioning, choosing work strategies, weighing the merit of ideas and information, etc.

Even students without language-based learning disabilities (LBLD) find the research and writing process challenging.  Students with LBLD can find it overwhelming unless teachers scaffold the process for them while they practice each component frequently enough to gain independent skill.

What does it take to succeed?

When students move from elementary to middle school, an implicit shift takes place in the focus of teachers. In the elementary years, students are often taught strategies to read, perform basic math, and write simple compositions. Somewhere around fourth grade, the focus shifts from learning skills to applying skills in order to gain knowledge - content is stressed rather than strategies to access content. Students are expected to read, comprehend, take notes, demonstrate knowledge and skill on tests, quizzes, and essays, and complete long-term projects. While strategies for accomplishing these tasks may still be taught to some extent, they are often taught without the structured, explicit instruction and practice of the elementary years. Students are expected to learn, apply, and generalize the strategies in order to move on to a new phase in their education - and many do. However, students with LBLD often begin to falter at this stage, their lack of independent skill revealing a need for continued explicit instruction and guided practice.

As students transition to high school, increasing levels of independence are expected, and explicit instruction and guidance for long-term assignments and projects diminishes. When most high school students are assigned a research paper, for example, they receive a list of expectations for the assignment and a due date, but little else. The students are expected to parse the assignment into tasks, prioritize, manage their time, complete their work, and seek assistance as needed. The teacher’s focus, understandably, is on the end product: Does the student demonstrate his or her understanding of the topic and provide ample support for his or her ideas?

For many students with LBLD, the very process of research writing with its myriad steps and requirements may prevent them from accessing and organizing the information needed to meet the teacher’s goals. In other words, they may be unable to demonstrate understanding of the topic because they are unable to move through the steps of the research process in an effective manner.  Often, the process is so overwhelming that they put off the tasks and resist seeking the teacher’s assistance.

Meeting the Need

It is imperative that college-bound students learn the process of research writing in their middle and high school years. For many students, practice is enough to develop the skill. Students with LBLD, however, require models, explicit instruction, and guided practice in each step of the research writing process if they are to master the skill. This type of instruction and practice is known as skills- or strategy-based instruction, and is essential for most students with LBLD.

Assigning a research paper to many students with LBLD without teaching the steps and strategies is like expecting a novice soccer player to master complicated plays and maneuvers without first learning how to dribble or pass. Most athletes require explicit coaching to master the basic skills of their sport before they can move on to more complex techniques. Similarly, students with LBLD may not be able to simply “research a topic” or “write a research paper” without receiving direct instruction and guidance to master each basic skill needed for research writing. Therefore, while teaching research writing, a teacher’s focus needs to be on the process, rather than the end goal - on teaching the steps and strategies directly, rather than using the research paper as a vehicle to assess understanding of a topic. Additionally, students should receive consistent and clear feedback on the completion of each phase so that they do not waste time researching a faulty argument or begin writing before they have collected sufficient data.

Just as an athlete may experience intense feelings of failure or shame when unable to meet the coach’s expectations and perform on par with teammates, so to will a student who doesn’t “measure up.”  The student with LBLD who has trouble completing a research paper on time and in accordance with the teacher’s expectations may feel that he or she is a failure who “can’t write.” A good coach will offer the discouraged athlete support and provide instruction and practice on how to perform the difficult skills. So too, a good teacher will provide support, instruction, and practice as the struggling student masters each step of the research process. If the goal of education is to provide students with opportunities to succeed and achieve their individual potential, then students must be given the tools and strategies needed before being asked to complete complex academic tasks.

By teaching students the process of research writing, giving them concrete strategies and tools for each step, and guiding their practice until they can complete steps independently, educators can ensure that they have given their students an opportunity for a positive learning experience. Students learn how to write a research paper, rather than learning that they “can’t” write a research paper. In the end, teachers will find themselves grading papers that meet their expectations and know that they have helped their students develop competent independent learning skills and the confidence that develops along with them.

About the Author

Erin Broudo received her master's degree in special education from Simmons College. She taught literature and grammar/composition courses at Landmark School’s preparatory program for seven years, and she is currently a special education program coordinator at a public school. She continues to teach courses in writing and study skills for students during Landmark School’s summer program, and she is an instructor for Landmark Outreach Online.

Erin Broudo, M.S.Ed. (2017)