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Louise Spear-Swerling

Components of Effective Writing Instruction

January 2006

Good written expression draws upon a wide array of underlying component abilities. Developing these abilities is a lengthy and challenging process for many children, not only those with learning disabilities. However, learning disabilities may impact writing in numerous ways and may make tasks involving written expression particularly arduous. For instance, children with reading disabilities often have serious difficulties with spelling that adversely affect writing; disabilities involving oral language, such as vocabulary weaknesses, may affect written as well as oral expression. Writing disabilities also can exist in the absence of any other type of learning disability. Effective teaching of written expression requires accurate assessment of underlying component abilities and a comprehensive program of instruction that addresses all of the abilities needed for good writing.

Effective Kindergarten through Grade Four Instruction

Writing instruction in the beginning and middle elementary grades should attend to three broad areas: basic mechanics and conventions of writing (e.g., handwriting, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure); content aspects of writing that involve conveying meaning (e.g., vocabulary, elaboration of detail, and the quality, clarity, and organization of ideas); and, especially beyond grade two, higher-level cognitive processes involving planning and revision of writing. Explicit, systematic teaching of specific writing skills---such as correct letter formation, capitalization of proper nouns, elimination of sentence fragments, and use of descriptive words---is very important, as are opportunities to practice and apply learned skills in writing sentences and paragraphs. Because good writing involves learning and coordinating so many different abilities, and because struggling writers often have weaknesses in multiple areas, it can be helpful to begin by focusing on a few specific skills that will impact the writing of a particular child the most. For example, a youngster whose writing is virtually unreadable due to extremely poor spelling and lack of spacing between words might benefit most initially by learning to spell a set of common words and to space between words. When those skills have been learned, instruction can move on to the next set of skills. From the earliest grades, instruction in basic writing skills should occur in the context of a more comprehensive writing program that encourages children to express their thoughts in writing and to write for enjoyment.

Once children have acquired at least a few basic mechanics and some ability to express their thoughts in writing, they can be introduced to the idea that good writing involves a process of planning, revising, and generating multiple drafts of important pieces of work. Approaches to the writing process vary, but many approaches describe an initial prewriting stage, during which children develop ideas and plan content; a composing stage, in which a draft is written; a revision stage, which involves making improvements in content, such as clarifying ideas or elaborating relevant details; and an editing stage, which involves correcting errors in mechanics such as spelling and punctuation. Even at the elementary level, these steps may be repeated several times in the production of an important piece of writing. Constructive feedback from teachers and peers is crucial in the acquisition of processes of planning, revising, and editing written work.

The use of the writing process is complementary to, not a substitute for, direct instruction in specific writing conventions and content aspects of writing. However, it is vital for children in general---and youngsters with learning disabilities in particular---to understand that good writing involves considerable planning and rewriting. Struggling writers sometimes view the need to rewrite as a sign of failure, but to the contrary, repeated revision is a hallmark of good, not poor, writing.

A variety of strategies, such as those for proofreading and organizing content, can be especially valuable in helping children learn how to plan and revise their writing. For instance, children might be taught a strategy for organizing a story using the narrative text structure elements of a setting, characters, problem, series of events, and resolution. A typical proofreading strategy might involve having children reread a draft several times, each time focusing on one specific category of possible errors, such as mistakes in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Although content aspects of writing are always important, the content demands of writing in the early grades are relatively low and unconstrained, frequently involving free writing in journals or creative writing. Early intervention with struggling writers during these years is critical, so that children develop the foundation of writing skills they will need for the much more complex writing demands of the later grades.

Effective Writing Instruction Beyond Grade Four

Beyond grade four, normally-achieving youngsters generally have accurate and reasonably automatic handwriting skills, although further developments in speed may continue. The academic emphasis is increasingly on content aspects of writing, with content demands growing much more sophisticated, and good written expression becomes important to success in many different subjects. For example, children may write to convey new information they have learned in areas such as history or science, to explain and justify an opinion on a social issue in a health class, or to analyze themes in a novel they have read in an English class. However, even for normally-achieving students, many conventions of writing (e.g., consistency in verb tense and number, use of parallel language, punctuation and capitalization in a formal bibliography) are learned throughout the middle and secondary years. Attention to mechanics as well as content in writing instruction remains important into high school. Because students are expected to produce increasingly lengthy and complex pieces of work, the effective use of higher-level planning and revision processes in writing is essential. At middle and secondary grade levels, students have greater independence in using these processes and are less reliant on guidance from adults than at the elementary level. However, constructive feedback from teachers and peers remains important to growth in written expression.

Older children with writing disabilities often continue to struggle with lower-level skill impairments---such as labored handwriting, poor spelling, or difficulties with punctuation and sentence structure---that tend to adversely affect content. For example, a youngster with a reading disability may have a rich oral vocabulary but may use only simple words in writing due to lack of knowledge of how to spell multisyllabic words. Difficulties with handwriting or other mechanics may make writing so laborious that children lose motivation to write even when they have interesting ideas and an extensive knowledge base. Use of technology---including but not limited to word processing, spell-checking, and grammar-checking programs---can help to make the process of writing and especially revision less burdensome. However, to make optimal use of technology, students with writing disabilities require direct teaching of keyboarding and other computer skills.

A youngster whose writing difficulties revolve around handwriting will have different instructional needs than one whose problems primarily involve an impoverished vocabulary or limited knowledge of conventions. Thus, assessment of component strengths and weaknesses is essential to instructional planning. Writing instruction should include explicit teaching in weak component areas, coupled with the application of writing strategies involving planning, organizing, and revising content. Because older students frequently lack motivation to write as a consequence of years of failure, techniques for building motivation can be very helpful; these techniques include emphasizing the roles of effort and persistence in developing good writing, and, when possible, providing choices in writing tasks. With effective instruction and practice, youngsters with learning disabilities can develop the written expression skills they need for success in the upper grades.

Examples of Sources

Peer-reviewed journal articles:

Brooks, A., Vaughan, K., & Berninger, V. (1999). Tutorial interventions for writing disabilities: Comparison of transcription and text generation processes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 183-191.

Englert, C. S., Wu, X., & Zhao, Y. (2005). Cognitive tools for writing: Scaffolding the performance of students through technology. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20, 184-198.

Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Elementary School Journal, 101, 251-272.

Graham, S. (1997). Executive control in the revising of students with learning and writing difficulties. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 223-234.

Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Fink, B. (2000). Is handwriting causally related to learning to write? Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 620-633.

MacArthur , C. A., Ferretti, R. P., Okolo, C. M., & Cavalier, A. R. (2001). Technology applications for students with literacy problems: A critical review. The Elementary School Journal, 101, 273-378.

Troia, G., & Graham, S. (2002). The effectiveness of a highly explicit, teacher-directed strategy routine: Changing the writing performance of participants with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 290-305.

Other helpful sources:

Berninger, V. W., & Amtmann, D. (2003). Preventing written expression disabilities through early and continuing assessment and intervention for handwriting and/or spelling problems: Research into practice. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of Learning Disabilities (pp. 345-363). New York: Guilford.

Berninger, V., Stage, S., Smith, D., & Hildebrand, D. (2001). Assessment for reading and writing intervention: A three-tier model for prevention and remediation. In J. Andrews, D. Saklofske, & H. Janzen (Eds.), Handbook of psychoeducational assessment: Ability, achievement, and behavior in children (pp. 195-223). New York: Academic Press.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (2003). Students with learning disabilities and the process of writing: A meta-analysis of SRSD studies. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of Learning Disabilities (pp. 323-344). New York: Guilford.

Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (1996). Making the writing process work: Strategies for composition and self-regulation (2nd edition). Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Helpful links: