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This paper presents six principles designed to prevent writing difficulties as well as to build writing skills: (a) providing effective writing instruction, (b) tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs,(c) intervening early, (d) expecting that each child will learn to write, (e) identifying and addressing roadblocks to writing, and (f) employing technologies.


Many students with LD experience difficulties mastering the process of writing. We examine how schools can help these children become skilled writers. Six principles designed to prevent as well as alleviate writing difficulties are presented. These include: providing effective writing instruction, tailoring writing instruction to meet each child ‘s needs, intervening early to provide additional assistance, expecting that each child will learn to write, identifying and addressing academic and nonacademic roadblocks to writing, and deploying technological tools that improve writing performance.

The mn was sneB (translation: “The man was scared.”)

I think theu shold no how to speek dififerint langwges. If theu go to like dutch countri sombodie might ask them something theu cold have two kinds of langage

The two compositions presented above were written by Arthur Dent 1, a 5th-grade child with a learning disability (LD). The first was written at the start of 2nd grade in response to a picture of a young girl showing her father a large fish she had caught. The second exposition was Arthur’s written reply to his 5th-grade teacher’s query, “Should children have to learn a second language?” Although these two compositions make it clear that Arthur has made some progress as a writer during the 3 intervening years, they also highlight several continuing problems. One, his responses are inordinately short, containing few ideas and little elaboration, and two, it is difficult to decipher his writing, because of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization miscues.

Concern about Arthur’s writing capabilities initially surfaced in 1st grade. His teacher observed that he was reluctant to write, often became frustrated while writing, and avoided working or sharing his writing with others. Teachers in 2nd and 3rd grade indicated that Arthur would hurry through writing assignments, doing little or no planning in advance, and writing quickly, taking short pauses to think about the spelling of a word or what to say next. They further noted that it was difficult to get him to revise his written work, and when he did revise, his efforts typically focused on making the paper neater, correcting spelling miscues, and changing a word here and there. As a consequence of his difficulties with writing, Arthur was tested for learning disabilities at the start of 4th grade. Although his intellectual capabilities were within the normal range, he scored 2 standard deviations below the mean on a norm-referenced writing test, qualifying him for special education services.

Unfortunately, Arthur’s difficulties with writing are not unique. They are shared by many other children with LD. Just like Arthur, children with LD typically employ an approach to composing that minimizes the role of planning in writing. This approach to writing was illustrated in a recent Peanuts cartoon 2 where Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, is typing, “The light mist turned to rain.” He pauses and continues, “The rain turned to snow.” After another pause, he writes, “The story turned boring.” Whereupon, he throws his paper away. Like Snoopy, children with LD often compose by drawing any information from memory that is somewhat appropriate, writing it down, and using each idea to stimulate the generation of the next one. With this retrieve - and-write process little attention is directed at the needs of the audience, the constraints imposed by the topic, the development of rhetorical goals, or the organization of text.

Another Peanuts cartoon involving Snoopy as well as his most ardent critic, Lucy, captures a second similarity between Arthur and other poor writers with LD. After typing, “Dear Sweetheart,” Snoopy gives his paper to Lucy for feedback. She quickly informs him that he should use a more endearing greeting. He subsequently revises his introduction to read, “Dear Angel Food Cake With Seven Minute Frosting.” Like Snoopy, when children with LD revise their writing, the result is generally ineffective. When asked to revise, they primarily employ a thesaurus approach to revising, correcting mechanical errors and making minor word substitutions. Not surprisingly, this approach has little impact on improving the quality of their writing.

A third similarity between Arthur and other students with LD can be revealed by returning to our friend Snoopy once again. After finding a seat in the back of the classroom at Charlie Brown’s school, Snoopy tries to remember the “I before E” rule in case he is asked to spell a word. He has it all confused, however, thinking that it is the “I before C” rule, or maybe the “E before M except after G” rule, or possibly the “3 before 2 except after 10” rule. Like Snoopy, many children with LD struggle with the mechanics of writing. In contrast to classmates who write well, their papers are replete with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and handwriting errors. Mechanical skills, such as handwriting fluency and spelling, however, play an important role in writing development, accounting for a sizable portion of the variance in writing quality and fluency.

A fourth characteristic common to Arthur and other students with LD can be illustrated in a Peanuts cartoon involving Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally. While practicing her periods, Sally tells her brother that periods are very important, shouting that a “PERIOD” must be added at the end of every sentence. Like Sally, children with LD often overemphasize the importance of transcription skills, such as handwriting, spelling, punctuation, or capitalization. In comparison to classmates who write well, they are more likely to stress form when describing good writing and what good writers do. They are also less knowledgeable about writing and the process of writing.

In this paper, we examine how schools can help children like Arthur and other students with LD become skilled writers. The writing instruction that Many of these children currently receive is inadequate. Instruction for some of these students focuses almost exclusively on the teaching of lower-level writing skills, such as handwriting and spelling, with few opportunities to actually write. Others are placed in classes where frequent writing is emphasized, but little time is devoted to teaching needed writing skills and strategies, as it is assumed that these skills can be mastered through informal and incidental methods of learning. Still other children attend schools where virtually no time is provided for either writing or writing instruction. It is highly unlikely that children with LD will acquire all they need to know in programs like these. We believe that writing instruction for these students must emphasize both prevention and intervention; respond to the specific needs of each child; maintain a healthy balance between meaning, process, and form; and employ both formal and informal learning methods.

The design of such instruction is not an easy task, as it is not limited to a single teacher or grade. Instead, it requires a coherent, coordinated, and extended effort. The writing problems of children with LD are not transitory difficulties that are easily fixed. Our recommendations for providing such a program center on the following 6 principles:

  1. Provide effective writing instruction;
  2. Tailor writing instruction to meet the individual needs of children with LD;
  3. Intervene early, providing a coherent and sustained effort to improve the writing skills of children with LD;
  4. Expect that each child will learn to write;
  5. Identify and address academic and nonacademic roadblocks to writing and school success; and
  6. Employ technological tools that improve writing performance.3

Provide effective writing instruction

In a conversation with his friend Linus, Charlie Brown asks, “Do you know why English teachers go to college for four years?” Linus thinks for a minute and answers, “No.” Charlie Brown already has an answer for his own question, however, as he screams out: “So they can make little kids write stupid essays on what they did all stupid summer!!”

Although we are not sure if Charlie Brown’s lament is directed at a single assignment, a specific teacher, or teaching in general, there is little doubt that children’s success as writers is intimately tied to the quality of writing instruction provided at school. Consequently, a crucial tactic in preventing writing difficulties, for children with and without LD, is to deliver effective writing instruction, starting in kindergarten and 1st grade and continuing throughout the school years. Although this approach will not eliminate all writing difficulties, it is advantageous for 3 reasons. One, it helps to maximize the writing development of children in general. Two, it minimizes the number of children who experience writing failure as a result of poor instruction. Three, it serves to ameliorate the severity of writing difficulties experienced by children whose primary problems are not instructional, such as children with LD.

What does effective writing instruction look like? We drew on multiple sources to answer this question, including research reviews of writing instruction for students with and without writing problems, recommendations for teaching writing to children with LD and other special needs, and studies of the instructional practices of outstanding literacy teachers. The results of our analysis are presented in Table 1.

The Early Literacy Project (ELP) developed by Englert and her colleagues provides an example of a literacy program that embodies many of the features presented in Table 1. This program was implemented with 1st through 4th grade students with special needs in resource room classrooms. Most of the children were identified by the schools as having a learning disability.

With the ELP program, writing and reading were integrated together around thematic units. During a thematic unit on wolves, for instance, students would read expository and narrative material about these animals and use writing as a means for responding to text as well as a mechanism for gathering additional information about wolves. Both skill (e.g., spelling) and strategy instruction for planning and revising such text occurred within the context of these units and was supported by teacher modeling, discussion, and guided practice in the application of these procedures. Opportunities to engage in meaningful writing were plentiful, as children not only responded in writing to the material they read, but kept a journal, generated personal -experience stories, and wrote reports that they shared with each other. Teachers further provided students with temporary supports that scaffolded their learning. For example, ELP teachers used word banks, pictionaries, and planning sheets as temporary aids to help children write when they could not do so without such support. A supportive classroom community was also created through the use of activities involving sharing and student collaboration. Students worked together to apply strategies modeled by their teacher, frequently engaged in talk with each other about what they were doing, and shared their own writing with the class either orally or through written publications. Finally, the ELP program was supplemented by more conventional skills instruction, as participants were explicitly and systematically taught phonemic awareness, spelling, and phonics skills.

The writing progress of students in the ELP program was compared to the performance of similar children in the same school district. In comparison to these control students, children who were taught by veteran ELP teachers made greater gains in writing. Their papers contained fewer spelling miscues, were longer, and better organized. These improvements were accomplished with just 1 year of instruction. It is likely that even greater gains would be realized if such instruction was provided on a consistent and regular basis each school year. For example, Mariage reported that 2 to 3 years of ELP instruction, starting in the primary grades, was enough to bring some students with special needs up to grade level performance.

Tailor writing instruction to meet the needs of children with LD


After placing her paper on the teacher’s desk, Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, returns to her desk. She then tells the teacher that the paper is her book report and wistfully adds, “What are the odds on a little love and understanding?”

Outstanding writing teachers not only recognize the importance of “a little love and understanding,” they also stress the importance of tailoring instruction to meet the individual needs of children experiencing difficulty learning to write, including those with LD. In a study by Pressley et al., for example, outstanding kindergarten through 2nd grade literacy teachers reported that they provided qualitatively similar instruction for all students, but that children experiencing difficulty with literacy learning received extra teacher support. This included devoting more attention to the development of critical skills, more explicit teaching of these skills, and more individually guided assistance. This approach was illustrated in a qualitative study by Dahl and Freepon, where teachers provided extensive personalized assistance to weaker writers, including scaffolding and guidance designed to help them refine and extend their writing skills. For instance, struggling writers in these teachers’ classrooms received additional support with spelling, as their teachers spent extra time explicitly teaching them about letter-sound relationships.

Table 1

Features of exemplary writing instruction

  • A literate classroom environment where students’ written work is prominently displayed, the room is packed with writing and reading material, and word lists adorn the walls.
  • Daily writing with students working on a wide range of writing tasks for multiple audiences, including writing at home.
  • Extensive efforts to make writing motivating by setting an exciting mood, creating a risk-free environment, allowing students to select their own writing topics or modify teacher assignments, developing assigned topics compatible with students’ interests, reinforcing children’s accomplishments, specifying the goal for each lesson, and promoting an “I can” attitude.
  • Regular teacher/student conferences concerning the writing topic the student is currently working on, including the establishment of goals or criteria to guide the child’s writing and revising efforts.
  • A predictable writing routine where students are encouraged to think, reflect, and revise.
  • Overt teacher modeling of the process of writing as well as positive attitudes toward writing.
  • Cooperative arrangements where students help each other plan, draft, revise, edit, or publish their written work.
  • Group or individual sharing where students present work in progress or completed papers to their peers for feedback.
  • Instruction covering a broad range of skills, knowledge, and strategies, including phonological awareness, handwriting and spelling, writing conventions, sentence-level skills, text structure, the functions of writing, and planning and revising.
  • Follow-up instruction to ensure mastery of targeted writing skills, knowledge, and strategies.
  • Integration of writing activities across the curriculum and the use of reading to support writing development.
  • Frequent opportunities for students’ to self-regulate their behavior during writing, including working independently, arranging their own space, and seeking help from others.
  • Teacher and student assessment of writing progress, strengths, and needs.
  • Periodic conferences with parents and frequent communications with home about the writing program and students’ progress as writers.

Teacher adaptations

To gain a better understanding of how teachers tailor instruction to meet the needs of struggling writers, we recently surveyed 1st through 3rd grade teachers nationwide to determine the types of adaptations they make for these children (Graham, Harris, Fink, & MacArthur, 2000). Two different tactics were used to query teachers about their adaptations. First, teachers were asked to indicate how often they engaged or employed specific activities or instructional procedures when working with average as well as weaker writers. Respondents recorded their responses for each group of writers separately on a Likert-type scale (categories included: never, several times a year, monthly, weekly, several times a week, daily, and several times a day). Using this approach, we found that teachers devoted more attention to teaching handwriting, phonics for spelling, and punctuation and capitalization skills to weaker writers than to average writers. Teachers were also more likely to re-teach writing skills to weaker writers, provide mini-lessons responsive to their needs, and conference with these children about their writing.

The second tactic for determining teachers’ adaptation was more open-ended and simply involved asking respondents to list all adaptations made for weaker writers in their classrooms. This approach yielded a variety of adaptations, ranging from procedures for circumventing writing problems to extra encouragement and praise. The most frequent adaptations involved additional one-on-one assistance. This included individual help from the teacher, adult tutors or volunteers, or older and same-age peers (including collaborative planning, writing, or revising with a peer). Another cluster of adaptations focused on difficulties with text production skills. To overcome problems with spelling skills, teachers indicated that they developed personalized spelling lists for weaker writers, directly helped them spell words they didn’t know, or provided resources (e.g., word banks) designed to facilitate correct spelling. Teachers also sought to bypass text production difficulties by allowing weaker writers to dictate their compositions or write with a keyboard (e.g., Alpha Smart). A third cluster of adaptations centered on procedures for supporting the thinking and creative processes involved in writing. Teachers facilitated planning for weaker writers by having them talk out their story in advance of writing, using webs or graphic organizers to generate and sequence ideas, or drawing pictures depicting what would happen in the story. Children’s revising efforts were supported through the use of revising checklists or via direct help from the teacher or a peer during revising. Other adaptations included help with selecting writing topics, shorter or easier writing assignments, small-group instruction, additional homework assignments, and extra instruction on grammar and sentence writing skills.

Unfortunately, not all the teachers who participated in the study made adaptations for struggling writers. Almost 20% made no adaptations, whereas another 24% reported only I or 2 adaptations. Furthermore, not all the reported adaptations, in our opinion, were positive ones. In comparison to their average writing classmates, for example, weaker writers in some teachers’ classrooms were less likely to share their writing with peers, help others, select their own writing topics, or complete writing assignments at their own pace. Teachers are unlikely to maximize the writing success of students with LD and other struggling writers if no adjustments are made or if they make modifications that limit participation or reduce children’s participation in decision making.

Balanced instruction

A critical aspect of tailoring writing instruction to meet the needs of students with LD is finding the right balance between formal and informal instruction, as well as between meaning, process, and form. We contend that each of these factors should be emphasized when developing a writing program, but that teachers should adjust the emphasis placed on each, depending on an individual child’s needs (Graham & Harris, 1997b, 1997c).

Consider, for instance, the writing skill of spelling. In a recent review, Graham (2000) reported that children learn to spell some words incidentally or informally as they read or write, but that good spellers learn many more words via these methods than poor spellers. On the other hand, there is a considerable body of literature that demonstrates that direct spelling instruction improves the spelling performance of both good and poor spellers (e.g., Gordon, Vaughn, & Schumm, 1993; Graham, 1983), but it is unlikely that such instruction is extensive or complete enough to account for all the growth necessary to become a competent speller (Graham, 2000). To illustrate, adults can typically spell 10,000 or more words correctly, but are only taught how to spell about 3,000 words while in school, and not all those words are mastered. Consequently, both formal and informal methods should be stressed, as neither by itself is powerful enough to ensure the attainment of spelling competence. This does not mean, however, that equal amounts of both should be provided. Instead, the level of formal and informal instruction needed by individual children, including those with LD, will vary and should be adjusted accordingly. With balanced instruction, the fulcrum is the child, and balance depends on what the child needs.

This same principle also applies to considerations about the role of meaning, process, and form in writing instruction since skilled writing is dependent on all three (Graham & Harris, 2000, 1994). Teachers do struggling writers no favor when they suggest, even implicitly, that one or more of these are unimportant. Likewise, the amount of emphasis placed on each area should be adjusted so that it is consistent with the needs of the child. For example, Juel (1988) found that some children who were poor writers had difficulties with both form (e.g., spelling) and process (e.g., content generation), whereas others had difficulties with just one or the other. Thus, some of the students in her study would have benefited from additional help in both areas, whereas other students needed help in only one.

Table 2

Research-based procedures for teaching spelling vocabulary to students with LD

  • Before studying new spelling words, the student takes a pretest to identify the words that need to be studied.
  • After studying new spelling words, the student takes a posttest to determine the words that were mastered.
  • Immediately after taking a spelling test, the student corrects any misspellings.
  • The student is taught a systematic and effective strategy for studying new spelling words.
  • Study and testing of new spelling words occurs daily.
  • Students work together, using cooperative arrangements such as class wide peer tutoring (Maheady, Harper, Mallette, & Winstantley, 1991), to learn new spelling words.
  • The number of words to be mastered each week is reduced to 6 to 12 new unknown words, depending on the capabilities of the student.
  • While studying, the student monitors on-task behavior or the number of times words were practiced successfully.
  • Spelling words previously taught are reviewed to ensure retention.

Note. Adapted from Graham (1999).

Currently, spelling, planning, and revising are the areas we know most about tailoring writing instruction to meet the needs of students with LD. According to Graham (1999), an effective spelling program for students with LD includes 4 components. One, students with LD need to be taught how to spell words they commonly use when writing. Validated procedures for teaching spelling vocabulary to these students are summarized in Table 2. Two, students with LD need to learn how to generate plausible spellings for unknown words. Teachers can facilitate the development of this skill through instruction in phonological awareness (see O’Connor, Notari-Syverson, & Vadasy, 1998; Troia, Roth, & Graham, 1998), the alphabetic principle (i.e., teaching phoneme-grapheme associations, spelling patterns, spelling rules, and so forth), dictionary skills, and strategies for “figuring-out” unknown spellings, such as spelling by analogy (see Englert, Hiebert, & Stewart, 1985). Three, students with LD need to know how to check and correct any misspellings that occur. This includes learning to use spell checkers and other aides, such as a dictionary, soliciting editing assistance from others, and applying strategies such as reading text aloud to locate spelling miscues. Four, students with LD need to develop a desire to spell words correctly. Teachers can promote this inclination by modeling correct spelling when writing in class and providing plenty of opportunities for students to share, display, and publish their writing (to promote attention to correct spelling in practical and social situations).

Undoubtedly, the use of traditional procedures, such as a predictable writing routine where planning and revising are expected and reinforced (see Table 1 for other examples), increases the likelihood that students with LD will engage in these processes when writing. Nevertheless, many of these children benefit from more extended and explicit instruction in both planning and revising strategies (Englert, Raphael, Anderson, Anthony, Stevens, & Fear, 199 1; Graham & Harris, 1996; Harris & Graham, 1999; Wong, 1997). For example, in our own research (Graham, Harris, MacArthur, & Schwartz, 1991b; Harris & Graham, 1996), we have successfully taught students with LD to use the same kinds of planning and revising strategies that more skilled writers use when they compose. With this approach (i.e., Self-Regulated Strategy Development), the teacher first models how to use the target planning or revising strategy and then provides students with as much support as needed as they move towards independent use of the strategy. Support ranges from the teacher working as a partner in applying the strategy to peers helping each other apply the strategy to simple reminders to use part or all of the strategy. Students also learn any background knowledge needed to apply the strategy, develop a thorough understanding of how the strategy can support their writing, and systematically investigate where and how to apply the strategy beyond the initial learning situation (i.e., maintenance and generalization). Learning and application of the strategy is further supported through the use of self-instructions, goal setting, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation. To illustrate, children often develop and use a specific self-statement for managing some aspect of their behavior (e.g., impulsiveness) that interferes with using the strategy; they are encouraged to evaluate how the strategy helped them improve their writing; and they set goals for applying the strategy in new situations. Throughout instruction, the importance of effort and students’ role as collaborators in the learning processes is stressed. Finally, instruction is criterion-based, as students do not move to later stages of instruction (e.g., from supported use to independent use of the strategy) until they have met at least initial criteria for doing so.

The Self-Regulated Strategy Model has been used to teach a variety of planning and revising strategies to children with LD (see Harris & Graham, 1999). These include brainstorming, semantic webbing, generating and organizing writing content using text structure (e.g., story grammar), reading to locate information, goal setting, revising using peer feedback, and revising for both mechanics and substance. Instruction in these strategies has led to improvements in 4 aspects of students’ performance: quality of writing, knowledge of writing, approach to writing, and self-efficacy (Graham et al., 199 1 b). For readers interested in a more detailed presentation of these strategies or the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model, see Harris and Graham (1996).

Intervene early

After waking Snoopy up, Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, asks for some writing advice. Snoopy’s initial comment is, “Sure, but don’t mention my name.” Later when she asks the dog to render an opinion on her title, “Our Animal Friends,” he muses, “It’s probably a little presumptuous.” He then justifies his unresponsiveness by asking, “How can I help? I don’t know any animals.”

Just as Sally recognized the need for additional assistance, there is an increasing interest in the use of early supplementary instruction or intervention to prevent or at least partially alleviate later writing difficulties (Graham & Harris, in press). This interest is based primarily on the assumption that early intervention programs yield more powerful benefits than efforts aimed at remediating problems in later grades. The basic goal is to help struggling writers catch up with their peers early, before their difficulties become more intractable. Such programs typically seek to accelerate the progress of struggling writers by providing them with additional instruction, either in a small group or through one-on-one tutoring.

To date, only 4 studies have examined the effectiveness of early intervention programs in writing. In each study, young children received extra instruction in either handwriting or spelling from an adult tutor, classroom aide, or a parent volunteer.

In the earliest study (Berninger et al., 1997), 1 st grade children with poor handwriting were randomly assigned to 1 of 5 handwriting treatment groups or a contact control condition (i.e., instruction in phonological awareness). The handwriting treatments evaluated 5 alternatives for learning how to write the lower-case letters of the alphabet: (1) write the letter after seeing the instructor write it; (2) write the letter after examining a copy of it containing numbered arrows showing the order and direction for each stroke; (3) write the letter from memory after examining an unmarked copy of it; (4) write the letter from memory after examining a copy containing numbered arrows; and (5) write the letter while looking at an unmarked copy. After 8 hours of instruction with a specially trained tutor, children in the 5 treatment groups made greater improvements in handwriting than students in the contact control condition, with the most successful treatment being the one where children wrote the letter from memory after examining a copy containing numbered arrows. This same group had higher scores on a norm-referenced measure of compositional fluency, assessing students’ ability to craft sentences, than children in the contact control condition or the other handwriting conditions. This finding is especially noteworthy because it showed transfer from instruction in handwriting to composition fluency, at least for the group that made the largest handwriting gains.

A second investigation by Jones and Christensen extended this initial finding by demonstrating that supplemental handwriting instruction improved not only the handwriting of 1st grade children with poor penmanship, but the quality of their writing as well. Over the course of an 8-week period, the participating children received extra handwriting instruction (individually or in a small group) from a teacher aide or parent volunteer (10 minutes per day). Instruction focused on learning how to form the lower-case letters of the alphabet, correcting errors in letter formation, and writing letters fluently. At the end of the 8-week period, both the handwriting and story writing quality of children who received this extra instruction improved to the point where it was indistinguishable from that of their regular peers who were initially better hand writers and story writers.

A third study by Graham, Harris, and Fink replicated the earlier finding that supplemental handwriting instruction can boost compositional fluency, but it did not replicate the finding that it enhances writing quality as well. First-grade children with poor handwriting were randomly assigned to a handwriting treatment condition and a contact control condition (i.e., instruction in phonological awareness). The handwriting treatment included instruction in naming, identifying, and writing the lower-case letters of the alphabet as well as repeated writing exercises designed to increase handwriting fluency. After approximately 7 hours of instruction provided by specially trained tutors, students assigned to the handwriting condition made greater improvements in handwriting than those in the contact control group. They also evidenced greater gains in crafting sentences, as in Berninger et al., and generating text when writing a story. Handwriting instruction, however, did not improve the overall quality of the stories that these children produced. On 6-month follow-up probes, most of the advantages obtained by the handwriting group were maintained, including their superiority in crafting sentences (no conclusions could be drawn about story writing, though, as this measure was not administered at this point).

In contrast to the first 3 investigations, a fourth study by Berninger et al. focused on the impact of supplemental spelling instruction on writing performance. Second-grade children who were poor spellers were randomly assigned to 7 spelling treatment groups and a contact control condition (i.e., receiving instruction in phonological and orthographic awareness skills). Specially trained tutors provided approximately 8 hours of instruction to students. Children in the spelling groups made greater gains in spelling than those in the contact control condition. For one of the experimental groups, spelling instruction also resulted in improved writing performance (i.e., longer compositions). Students in this group were taught common phoneme- spelling associations; practiced new spellings by pointing to each letter in a left-to-right order while simultaneously saying the sound; and used their spelling words when writing a short composition. Although additional replication is needed, the findings from this study suggest that early and extra spelling instruction can also have a beneficial effect on compositional fluency.

These 4 studies demonstrated that early intervention programs that provide instruction in either handwriting or spelling can have a positive effect on one aspect of struggling writers’ composing; namely, compositional fluency, as measured by children’s ability to either craft sentences or generate text when writing. These finding have important implications for the prevention of writing problems, as data collected by Berninger and her colleagues indicate that impaired compositional fluency in the primary grades may serve as the developmental origin of writing problems in later grades. Some caution, however, must be exercised in the selection of early intervention programs for handwriting or spelling, as many of the approaches employed in the studies by Berninger et al. did not lead to improvements in writing performance.

Additional research is needed to identify other approaches for preventing writing problems. Early intervention practices that are likely to be effective include allocating additional time for writing, providing individually guided assistance when writing, and supplying additional help in mastering critical skills, such as planning, revising, and sentence construction. Such approaches would provide a broader and richer range of options for accelerating the writing progress of young children with LD and other struggling writers in the primary grades.

Expect that each child will learn to write

As is often the case, Snoopy is sitting on top of his dog house, banging away on his typewriter, when Lucy asks to look at what he has written. She quickly renders her decision: “This isn’t a sad story; this is a dumb story.” Frowning, Snoopy looks back over his story and notes, “That’s what makes it so sad.”

Just like Lucy’s opinion of Snoopy’s writing, teachers often view children with writing and learning difficulties negatively, setting low expectations for their performance and limiting their exchanges with them. During literacy instruction, such negative views may take the form of more criticism, less attention and praise, fewer interactions with the teacher, and briefer and less informative feedback. These children may be viewed as so challenging that a form of pedagogical paralysis occurs, as teachers are uncertain about what to do or lack confidence in their own capabilities to successfully teach these children.

However, the findings from the study by Englert and her associates (Englert et al., 1995) reviewed earlier, demonstrated that teachers are not powerless-children with special needs, including those with LD, can be taught to write. A critical element in designing a successful writing program for these students is recognizing that they are capable. This belief was evident in an interview with a first grade teacher who had been identified by her principal as an outstanding literacy instructor. She indicated that she approached each child as a competent learner-one who can learn to work productively and independently in the classroom. Another essential ingredient was articulated by a second outstanding literacy teacher. He indicated that the weaker students in his classroom are never shown disrespect. Instead, he constantly seeks to support and maintain these students’ participation in class without stigmatizing them. For example, he has made sitting next to him a special honor in his class, so when he sits next to weaker students to support them, no stigma is attached to time spent interacting with the student. We believe that it is also important to ignore negative expectations (e.g., “Children with LD cannot learn to write well”); set high but realistic expectations for each child’s writing performance; help students develop an “I can” attitude; monitor and improve the quality of classroom interactions for struggling writers; plan writing lessons so that all children can accomplish tasks successfully; and build a positive relationship with each child, accepting them as individuals and showing enthusiasm for their interests.

Identify and address academic and nonacademic roadblocks

In another Peanuts cartoon, Peppermint Patty sadly tells her teacher that she doesn’t know the answer to the question. She goes on to explain that she felt smart when she woke up this morning, but it started to snow as she was walking to school and that all those snowflakes must have cooled down her brain.

A critical element in enhancing the writing development of children like Peppermint Patty, the perennial D student, is to identify and address obstacles that impede their success in learning to write. Children with LD may exhibit one or more maladaptive behaviors, including a low tolerance for failure, attention difficulties, and problems in activating and orchestrating the processes involved in learning. For instance, teachers at the Benchmark School, a facility for children with LD, identified 32 academic and nonacademic roadblocks experienced by their students. This included difficulties such as impulsivity, disorganization, inflexibility, lack of persistence, frequent absences, poor home support, and so forth. Less than 10% of the school’s students were identified as having a single roadblock-the remainder had as many as 10 roadblocks to learning.

Teachers need to address these or any other ‘roadblocks that might impeded the writing development of students with LD. An investigation by Sexton, Harris, and Graham provides one example of how this can be accomplished. This study focused on 5th- and 6th-grade students with LD who had writing difficulties and displayed a low level of motivation and maladaptive beliefs about the causes of success and failures. These students were not only taught a planning strategy to help them improve their written work, but instruction also included a component designed to address their maladaptive attributions. Students were encouraged to attribute their success to effort and use of the planning strategy. They also learned to use self-statements (e.g., “Good writing takes hard work”) reflecting these attributions. Following instruction, students’ papers became longer and qualitatively better, and there was a positive change in their attributions for writing.

An investigation by Harris, Graham, Reid, McElroy, and Hamby provides a second example of how interfering roadblocks can be addressed. This study involved 5th- and 6th-grade students with LD who had difficulty staying on task because of difficulties with attention. To address this situation, the participating students were taught to daily count and graph the number of words produced while writing. As a result of this simple self- monitoring procedure, there was a 50% increase in on-task behavior, and students’ compositions became 2 to 3 times longer.

Take advantage of technological tools for writing

In a final Peanuts cartoon, Sally is sharing her report with the class. After telling the class her paper is about Walter Diemer, the man who invented bubble gum, she stops and blows a bubble. She then proceeds to inform the class that we are all grateful to Mr. Diemer, stopping once again to blow another bubble. When the teacher asks what she is doing, Sally responds, “Audio visuals, Ma’am.”

Technology has clearly come a long way since Sally’s “audio visuals.” An expanding array of technological devices, many of them electronic, provide new options for minimizing the writing difficulties experienced by students with LD, allowing them to circumvent some problems and obtain support in overcoming others. As MacArthur noted, technological tools can make the process of writing easier as well as more motivating for students with LD. Word processing, for example, provides at least 3 possible advantages for these students: (1) revising can be done without tedious recopying, (2) the resulting paper can be presented in a wide range of professional-looking formats, and (3) typing provides an inherently easier means for producing text when fine motor difficulties are present. Technological tools can also provide support for planning and revising through the use of outlining and semantic mapping software, multimedia applications, and prompting programs. In addition, text production processes can be supported or even circumvented in some instances by using spell checkers, word prediction programs, grammar and style checkers, and speech synthesis. Finally, the use of computer networks allows children to collaborate and communicate easily with audiences that extend beyond their classroom.

The experiences of Christo Irving, a student attending a private school for youth with LD, captures technology’s power for boosting writing performance. This senior, who had trouble writing and focusing his attention, typically produced what he referred to as “the bare minimum” when completing written assignments. Once he started composing on a computer that allowed him to dictate text, his papers became more complete, as he could now “write stuff in detail” because he could speak it in detail.

Although technology can support and even change how students with LD write, it is important to keep in mind that it does not make writing instruction superfluous. For instance, many of these students often fail to take advantage of the power of word processing when revising because they continue to revise in the same old way, mostly trying to correct mechanical errors. Teaching them to focus their attention on substantive changes when revising, however, can result in a much greater use of the editing features of word processing, as the students are more likely to make additions and rewrite parts of their text. Similarly, a spell checker will not eliminate spelling errors or the need for spelling instruction, as students with LD only correct about one-half of their errors when using such devices. Clearly, the impact of technological tools will be restricted if students with LD fail to develop the knowledge, skill, will, and self-regulation so critical to effective writing.

Closing comments

In this paper, we outlined 6 principles that we believe can help prevent as well as alleviate the writing difficulties experienced by children with LD. These principles should be viewed as necessary, but not sufficient, components of an overall response to these students’ writing needs for 2 reasons. One, we focused only on what the school can do and not on other critical constituencies such as the family or the community. Two, individual schools or school systems will undoubtedly need to add additional principles that are responsive to their specific situations.

Although we have no doubt that a single, dedicated teacher can have a significant impact on a struggling writer’s development, this is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Preventing writing difficulties and intervening successfully when such problems occur requires a sustained and concerted effort on the part of the school, parents, and the community. For many children with LD, writing problems are a chronic, not a temporary, condition. There is no quick or easy fix that will make their problems disappear. It is not only important to intervene early, but also to provide a sustained and coherent effort over time.

  1. This is not the child’s real name; in all our papers we substitute real names with the names of fictional characters from popular science fiction or fantasy books.
  2. This paper is dedicated to the late Charles Schultz and we draw on his cartoons to illustrate critical issues and concepts.
  3. This paper incorporates and expands on principles presented in Graham and Harris (in press).


Steve Graham, Karen R. Harris, and Lynn Larsen University of Maryland Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(2), 74-84 ©2001, The Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.

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