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Mechanical Obstacles to Writing: What Can Teachers Do to Help Students with Learning Problems?


Many students with learning problems are frustrated in their attempts at written expression because of difficulty with the mechanical aspects of writing. Problems with spelling, punctuation, and handwriting may draw attention away from the writer’s focus on ideas. A teacher, therefore, needs effective ways of assisting students in overcoming the mechanical obstacles to writing. In this article, we examine 8 methods that teachers can use to help students deal with the spelling obstacle: collaboration, pre-cueing, word books, asking the teacher, invented spelling, peer collaboration, self-checking, and computer-assisted writing. Each of these methods is evaluated in terms of how they improve both the content and readability of the composition.

Educators agree that teaching the process of writing, from planning to final draft, is central to good writing instruction. However, many students with learning problems are frustrated in their attempts to engage in the writing process because of difficulty with the mechanical aspects of writing. Graham’s research revealed that production variables such as poor handwriting and spelling present serious barriers to fluency for many students with learning problems.

Frank Smith (1982) described the writing process as an ongoing tension between the writer’s two roles: the author and the secretary. The author thinks about the message, the organization of ideas, and the language in which to express those ideas. The secretary, on the other hand, has to worry about the mechanical concerns: margins, spelling, punctuation, and handwriting. The author-secretary tension exists throughout the writing process, from planning to editing and writing a final draft.

Students with learning problems have difficulties with both the author and secretary roles. In the author role, they are less likely to understand the intended purpose and genre, think about the needs of the reader, or organize their thoughts. In the secretary role, they make more spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors and have less legible handwriting. The two roles are not independent. In fact, problems with the secretary parts of writing interfere with the author’s performance. One way to relieve this tension for poor writers is to emphasize the author role during the writing of the first draft and shift the emphasis of the secretary role to the final draft.

Teachers need to teach students the skills required by both the author and the secretary. Students may need several years to learn the spelling, punctuation, and handwriting skills necessary to be an effective secretary. In the meantime, students who have not yet learned these skills may view their lack of skill as an obstacle to writing. Teachers also may view them as obstacles to teaching students author skills. However, with assistance, these obstacles to writing may be reduced during writing of the first draft in a way that allows students to concentrate on the generation of ideas (author role). Also, assistance in the mechanical aspects of writing during the final draft improves the readability of the product (secretary role).

Table 1. Comparison of Methods to Overcome Mechanical Obstacles
Evaluative Questions
Method First Draft: Does It Enable Focus on Ideas? (Author role) Final Draft: Does It Improve Readability? (Secretary Role) Notes
Dictation Yes Yes Student does not learn to coordinate mechanical aspects with composition
Pre-cued spelling Slightly Slightly Effects not significantly different from other methods
Word book No Yes Use for final draft only
Asking the teacher Inconsistently Somewhat Depends on willingness to ask and awareness of misspelled words; waiting can detract from writing time
Invented spelling Yes No Supplement with strong spelling program
Peer collaboration Potentially Potentially Depends on how well students are prepared to work with each other
Self-checking strategy Not intended for first draft Yes Editing must be separated from drafting
Computer-assisted writing Inconsistently Partially Improves appearance but not necessarily quality of writing; strong motivational appeal

In this article, we examine eight methods that teachers commonly use to help students overcome the spelling obstacle to writing (see Table 1). Not all are equally effective. Some methods are quite beneficial; others not. In addition, some have research support, and others do not. The purpose of this evaluation is to provide classroom teachers with enough information to allow them to choose methods most suitable for their students.

Addressing the secretary concerns helps the author, too

The lack of secretary skills affects how successfully the author can manage the writing process in two ways. First, lack of automaticity in the mechanical aspects of writing prevents students from focusing on the author role while writing a first draft. If students worry about how to spell a word or how to make a capital G, they may be distracted from and possibly forget their topic ideas, interfering with the rich expression of ideas and clear meaning. Therefore, the first evaluative question to ask about the soundness of any method of assistance is: Does the method enable the student to focus attention on ideas while composing the first draft?

Second, mechanical concerns affect the legibility of the message (final draft). Readers will not appreciate the author’ s point of view, careful organization of ideas, and use of humor if they cannot make out the words. Writing fails in its communicative purpose if the receiver cannot decipher the message. Therefore, a second evaluative question is: Does it improve the readability of the message? Each of the eight methods discussed are evaluated in terms of how they assist both the author and the secretary at different stages of the writing process.

Method 1: Have the student dictate

One way that the teacher can help students overcome the mechanical barriers of writing is to have students dictate while the teacher transcribes. The student, in the author’s role, generates ideas and composes sentences as the teacher, in the secretary’s role, takes responsibility for the production.

Dictation fulfills the first evaluative criterion by helping students focus attention on ideas during the first draft. When the teacher takes responsibility for the mechanical aspects of the process, the student is free to concentrate on topic ideas. MacArthur and Graham demonstrated in their research that dictation (by student to teacher) can significantly increase the length and quality of compositions by students with learning disabilities (LD). Initially, some children may view dictation as a request to speak (i.e., converse with the teacher) rather than write. However, skill in dictation improves over time, and dictated texts increasingly take on the characteristics of written text.

In regard to the second evaluative criterion, dictation also improves the readability of the message. Because the teacher writes the dictated story or assists the student with spelling and punctuation as the student writes, the product is more readable.

Dictation’s major limitation is the student’s dependence on the teacher in the writing process. Dictation shelters the student from those parts of the process that will continue to be an obstacle to independent writing. Flower and Hayes described writing as a complicated juggling act. The writer must keep in mind knowledge of the topic, use the linguistic conventions unique to writing (which are much different than those for speaking), and consider what will be understood and not understood by the audience, while managing the mechanical aspects of putting it all on paper (or computer screen). Because the teacher takes responsibility for a significant part of the task, the student does not learn the metacognitive “juggling” necessary for mastery of the process.

However, dictation is a good place to begin with students who cannot translate their thoughts into written form. It can be an effective bridge in early writing development-an intermediate step between speaking and writing text independently. De La Paz and Graham pointed out the potential influence the scribe (teacher) has in modeling how to break the text into sentences and segment text with punctuation. The teacher can also ask questions to guide discourse and help the student keep track of what has been already produced. However, the teacher has to gradually withdraw assistance, turning more of the process over to the student in order for the student to learn to manage the process in all its complexity.

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Method 2: Prompt by pre-cueing the spelling

The second method of assistance does not have the same empirical support as dictation. Teachers can assist students by supplying them with the spellings of important words before they write. When the teacher chooses the topic, spellings can be pre-cued on prompt cards. When students choose their topic, the teacher and students can generate a word list that will be written on a chart or chalkboard for future reference. For example, in writing about a store, the class might suggest words such as friendly, candy, and vegetables as the teacher writes them on the board.

Pre-cueing enables students to focus attention on ideas, although somewhat inconsistently. Gleason, Isaacson, Good, and Yocom conducted a study that compared four types of teacher assistance on the first-draft writing of students with learning problems. After students provided one baseline composition, they were taught one of four methods to overcome the spelling barrier to writing. Students in all four groups generated ideas before writing, but only in the pre-cueing condition were ideas written on the board as a spelling resource. This pre-cueing condition did not have a significantly different effect overall than the three comparison interventions on fluency.

As to the second evaluative criterion, pre-cueing does influence the readability of the message. In the Gleason et al. study, most students in pre-cueing group, as in the other intervention groups, slightly decreased the number of misspellings in their compositions, making them a little easier to read. Words suggested by students for the list on the board tended to be useful content words. However, students with learning problems also misspell frequently used function words such as every, again, and with, which would not be listed on the board. On the other hand, because content words convey more of the meaning in a text than do function words, being able to correctly spell the content words improves the readability of the message.

Method 3: Teach a strategy for using a word book

Many teachers have students use a dictionary or personal word book to look up the spelling of unknown words. This is an appealing approach from the standpoint of teaching students a self-regulated strategy similar to one adults use. Unfortunately, a word book does not always enable attention to focus on ideas. Gleason et al. taught one group of students to use a personal word book (calling it My Spelling Dictionary). They found that a few students with learning problems used it to good advantage. In fact, for most, especially those who already wrote stories of 50 or more words, the word book was a distraction-that is, it focused attention away from their story, even when it was not used until after the drafting of the story. From baseline to intervention, the number of words that students in the word book condition wrote decreased anywhere from 10% to 80%, whereas most students in the other three conditions increased in fluency.

On the other hand, word books or spelling dictionaries do improve the readability of the message. For many students the accuracy of their spelling-and, therefore, the readability-increased. However, a personal word book contains a limited set of frequently used words and is helpful only if students realize that they need to check a word. Using the word book does not necessarily improve spelling if a student does not suspect a word is misspelled. Having the student look up a word in the dictionary is seldom an effective strategy, because knowing how to spell the word is necessary in order to find it.

Method 4: Have the student ask the teacher

Using available resources may also include asking the teacher for spelling help. In this commonly used strategy, the student raises his or her hand when he or she cannot spell a word, and the teacher comes and spells it as the student writes it down.

Asking the teacher does not always enable student attention to focus on ideas. In Gleason et al.’s study, teacher- supplied spelling had inconsistent results for high- and low-functioning students. For students who wrote fewer than 50 words at baseline, teacher assistance seemed to increase their fluency during intervention.

Asking the teacher does improve the readability of the message somewhat. Students in Gleason et al’s study had a decrease in the number of misspellings across lessons. As with the use of a word book, asking the teacher for spelling assistance is related to students’ awareness that there are words they might not know how to spell. This strategy also depends on their willingness to ask the teacher for help.

Waiting for teacher help also may detract from writing time. In Clarke’s study with average first graders, children in a traditional spelling approach requiring them to look to the dictionary, word lists, or the teacher for spelling assistance were away from their desks much more often and, therefore, spent less time writing than children in the comparison group.

Method 5: Encourage invented spelling

Some teachers promote writing fluency by instructing students not to worry about punctuation and letter formation and to use invented spelling. First, teachers should call it invented spelling, making it clear that it is not standard English spelling, but that spelling inventions are okay for first-draft writing. Second, teachers must model a strategy for inventing spellings. For example, the teacher might model by composing a sentence like “He tossed it in the washing machine.” Coming to the end of the sentence, the teacher might say, “Machine, I’m not sure how to spell this word, so I’ll use invented spelling. What is one letter that might be in machine ? Yes, M I think I hear a Ash/ sound, so I’ll write SH. What other letters do we hear? Okay, E and N. I’ll want to check that later, but right now I keep writing.” The strategy is to (a) write as many letters as you can and (b) keep writing.

Invented spelling seems to effectively enable attention to focus on ideas. Both first graders and fourth through sixth graders’ fluency on first-draft writing increased when students used invented spelling. However, this method of overcoming spelling obstacles does not improve the readability of the message. In fact, in both the Clarke and Gleason et al. studies, invented spelling led to an increase in the proportion of words that were misspelled, thus decreasing readability.

Although invented spelling was useful in increasing fluency during first-draft writing, it was not useful when completing a final draft. In addition, there is some evidence that generating misspellings may be detrimental to subsequent spelling performance. Contrary to what some authors maintain, functional use of spelling does not, in itself, improve spelling. A writing program that incorporates invented spelling must be supplemented with a strong spelling program to teach students the words they will not learn incidentally by writing them.

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Method 6: Promote peer collaboration

The success of the process approach to writing often is attributed to the establishment of a social context in classrooms in which students share their writing with each other. Peers can help each other with all aspects of writing. In the planning stage, students can generate ideas together. During the drafting stage, partners can collaborate to supply or invent spellings. In the rewriting stage, peers can assist in editing each other’s stories.

Little research exists that demonstrates the effects of peer collaboration alone. In most studies, it is one component of effective interventions that also include integrated reading and writing, computer-assisted writing, strategy instruction, or both computers and strategy instruction. Stoddard and MacArthur acknowledged that “by itself, peer response may be of limited value with students with LD and other immature writers who possess few evaluative criteria and strategies for revision”. They suggested that a combination of strategy instruction and peer interaction may be more effective than either one alone.

There are at least two cautions to the use of peer collaboration. The first is that in writing, as in other areas of the curriculum, the success of peer collaboration depends on how well partners are matched. Two students with severe learning problems, both having few literacy skills, may provide little or no assistance to each other.

Second, success also depends on how thoroughly students are prepared to work with each other in supportive and productive ways. Cosden, Goldman, and Hine found that the interactive behaviors of writing partners with LD were not always conducive to story production. Assertions, rather than requests for assistance or information, were the most common form of initiating interactions, and assertions were most often followed by disagreements or counterassertions. The higher the proportion of assertion-disagreement interactions in a session, the more likely the students would produce a less well-developed story. Students with LD demonstrate problems in their social interactions and communication skills that can undermine their success in small group or partner activities.

In regard to the first evaluative question, therefore, peer collaboration combined with strategy instruction may enable attention to focus on ideas in a way that improves the quality of writing if students are prepared to work with each other in mutually supportive ways. In the Stoddard and MacArthur study, the quality of student compositions increased significantly with peer support following the teaching of an editing strategy. Teachers who use peer collaboration must assess carefully the communication skills students bring to collaboration activities and teach the social skills necessary for achieving joint success.

Stoddard and MacArthur also found that the combination of peer collaboration and strategy instruction had a beneficial effect on the readability of second draft compositions. Collaboration should have a beneficial effect on mechanical correctness for two reasons. First, because students are writing with and for each other, they may be motivated to communicate effectively and produce a polished composition. Second, peers collaborate by editing each other’s work and giving feedback, first on the content and then on mechanical violations that might interfere with readability.

Tompkins devised an editing checklist to be used in a partner editing strategy that looked at both content and mechanics. First, the author, using a list of 100 commonly used words, identifies 3 to 5 “spelling demons,” words that he or she may consistently have trouble spelling. After writing the words in the Spelling Demon section of the checklist, the author carefully rereads the composition using the eraser end of the pencil to track each word. The author checks off items in the checklist column marked Author that address possible misspellings, punctuation errors, and any other skills the teacher may have chosen to target. After listening to the composition and commenting on its content, the peer editor uses the same checklist as he or she reads the partner’s paper, checking off the same items in the column marked Editor.

A possible limitation of peer collaboration is that it does not bring a student to complete independence as a writer. In one study reported by MacArthur, students had not learned to apply the strategy independently after 6 weeks of instruction; they were still dependent on help from a peer. Peer collaboration should be a transition step from teacher collaboration to independent writing.

Method 7: Teach a self-checking strategy

When a student is producing the final draft, the teacher should teach a self-checking strategy that the student can use when editing their own work. Archer and Gleason suggested this strategy:

  1. Check to be sure your sentence makes SENSE.
  2. Check for a CAPITAL at the beginning of the sentence.
  3. Check for a PERIOD at the end of the sentence.
  4. Check your SPELLING.

The self-checking strategy is not intended for first-draft writing and therefore should not affect fluency. This strategy could enable attention to focus on ideas if the teacher remembers to use the strategy only in production of the final draft, separating mechanical concerns from idea generation. Concern about correctness during the planning or drafting stages can interfere with fluency and idea generation.

A self-checking strategy also improves the readability of the message. However, as with the word book, a self-checking strategy does not necessarily improve spelling or punctuation if a student does not suspect a word is misspelled or a punctuation error has been made.

Method 8: Have students use technology

Many teachers have perceived the use of technology to be effective in improving their students’ writing. On the other hand, the empirical support of these effects has been mixed. Positive results depend on a number of factors, including the accompanying instruction. As MacArthur, Graham, and Schwartz (1993) noted, “Word processing alone does not lead to better revision unless instruction focuses on how to revise effectively”.

The potential (or theoretical) benefits of computer-assisted writing include easing the physical demand of writing; making letters and sentences visible on screen, thereby helping to focus the student’s attention on the text; revising without tedious recopying; making text more legible to the teacher, thereby facilitating assistance; facilitating collaboration between student and peers in cooperative writing; and producing a neat, attractive product that promotes the student’s self-image as a writer. Only some of these potential benefits have been supported by research.

Computer-assisted writing does not necessarily alleviate the mechanical challenges of writing for students with learning problems and enable the writer to focus on ideas. Computer-assisted stories by students with learning problems in Grades 4 through 6 were not any longer or better than handwritten stories. However, the ease of revision provided by a word processor creates the potential for students to concentrate on authoring while writing a first draft and edit for mechanics at a later time (Daiute, 1986). Success would depend on (a) whether students took advantage of the power of the computer for revising, spellchecking, and so forth; and (b) their fluency with editing, keyboarding, and use of keyboard commands. In Graham and MacArthur’s study, most students typed very slowly, averaging 4.6 words per min. less than half as fast as the average handwriting rate. Handwriting errors averaged 2.5 per 100 letters whereas word processor errors averaged 7.3 per 100 letters. Research results on the effects of word processing on the quality of students’ writing have been limited and inconclusive for students with LD. However, recent studies have achieved more success by systematically pairing word processing with effective writing instruction.

In addition to the word processor, other recent forms of technology have allowed students with LD to focus on authoring rather than being hampered by the secretarial aspects of writing. Speech synthesis, word prediction, and word bank software assist students by allowing them to focus on idea generation and think less about the mechanical transcription of their words into written language.

Computer-assisted writing does improve the readability of the message. Computers produce an attractive, more legible product, and with the effective use of spellcheckers and grammar and style checkers, a more communicative product results (see MacArthur, 1996, for a thorough discussion of the uses and limitations of spellcheckers with students with LD). To enhance the use of spellcheckers and grammar checkers, teachers may want to combine peer collaboration with the use of technology.

Effective writing instruction

Teachers should have effective methods for helping students with learning problems overcome the mechanical obstacles to writing. The purpose of this article is to provide the readers with information that allows them to choose methods most suitable for their students. Each potential method should be evaluated according to its ability both (a) to focus the writers’ attention on ideas that will enhance the quality of the content and (b) to improve the readability of the product. A method used during first-draft writing is not successful if it improves mechanical accuracy at the expense of a student’s fluency or quality of expression. On the other hand, a method used during the final draft is not successful if it focuses only on the mechanical correctness of the composition and overlooks the deficiencies in its content.

Of those methods reviewed in this article, encouraging invented spelling appears to have promise for first-draft writing, although more research is warranted on all methods. Computer-assisted writing carries promise in its potential for alleviating the mechanical obstacles to writing, although research has not yet conclusively demonstrated its effects with students with LD. Any method chosen should match the particular needs of the student. Many successful programs combine methods. Effective assistance methods during both the first-draft and final-draft stages of the writing process will help students participate more fully in the writing process.

About the authors

Stephen L. Isaacson, PhD, is an associate professor of Special Education at Portland State University in Oregon, where he teaches graduate courses in learning disabilities. His research has focused on both the assessment and teaching of written expression. As a consultant to CEC’s Academy for Effective Instruction, Dr. Isaacson also has given workshops on effective teaching.

Mary M. Gleason-Richer, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Oregon, where she coordinates the undergraduate education program. Dr. Gleason has conducted research and developed curriculum in math, reading, writing, study skills, and computer-assisted instruction. She is the coauthor of Skills for School Success, a popular study skills program for students in Grades 1 through 8.

About the journal

The article is taken from the Learning Disabilities Research & Practice (LDRP) which a publication of the Division for Learning Disabilities, The Council for Exceptional Children. The purpose of the journal is to provide a forum for presentation of current research in the field of learning disabilities and a vigils for dissemination of information important to practitioners in the field.

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Stephen Isaacson Portland State University Mary M. Gleason University of Oregon reprinted with permission from Learning Disabilities Research & Practice Copyright 1997, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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