Find out what research tells you about teaching writing to students with learning disabilities by reading this interview with Steve Graham.
The road to writing consists of two distinct but related paths. Students who successfully travel these paths often have had teachers and/or parents assisting them to safely navigate their way. Successful navigation frequently results in reinvigorating students’ enthusiasm for writing even if they struggle with learning disabilities.
The path of enthusiasm and self-confidence
Students on this path approach writing with an excited feeling and interest in the topic. While they know the task has many components, they also have confidence that they have tools to use in dealing with each component, one small part at a time (chunking). If they have learning disabilities, they have learning strategies to get around each challenge they face.
Students not on this path approach a writing task with the feeling that it is boring, uninteresting, and/or overwhelming. These students have difficulty establishing a purpose and consequently struggle to develop and organize their ideas. They may be coping with inadequate language skills or writing expectations that are beyond their automatic skill level or difficulties such as dysgraphia.
An elementary school student with dysgraphia describes his feelings about writing in the following passage:
“Writing was definitely the worst task of all. It was just way too hard to remember all the things he needed, like periods and capital letters. And then it was almost impossible to think about how to spell words when he was busy trying to think about the story…. So Eli figured it was easier to write just a few sentences. His teachers complained, but Eli just kept writing very short stories. After all, teachers didn’t understand what it was like to struggle and struggle to write, and still have the paper turn out sloppy and full of mistakes.”1
Research demonstrates evidence of significant failure to develop students’ positive beliefs and motivation towards writing in many of today’s writing programs. Students who experienced a limited amount of written language success often force writing with a hurried pace, a lagging confidence, and a lingering malaise. Furthermore, the students remain ambivalent about writing. Although many students acknowledge that writing is important and directly related to success in school and life, the thought of writing too often evokes negative reactions such as feelings of anxiety and dread, lack of control, and avoidance.2
The path of multiple tools
Students’ feelings of self-confidence, or its lack, greatly influence their ability to manipulate multiple components simultaneously and successfully. The task of writing places many demands on a person’s working memory system: one must constantly switch attention between multiple goals and subtasks. Mel Levine in his book for teenagers describes writing as “the awesome juggling act”. Under a picture of a boy juggling eight balls, each containing a necessary component for writing, he states, “To juggle, he has to keep all of these balls in the air at the same time. To write well, you have to keep all of the parts of writing in your memory while you are writing.” Efficient writers need good working memory, patience, persistence and flexibility.3
Students successfully navigating The Path of Multiple Tools perform these processes effortlessly and painlessly. They are able to coordinate the multiple demands required, using tools, i.e., strategies. They systematically move through each of the subskills required for written performance, often simultaneously.
Struggling to progress down this path is a result of having incomplete tools, or being inefficient in using tools already developed. They sometimes need learning strategies or accommodations to overcome their learning disabilities. These inefficiencies greatly interfere with the higher order aspects of written expression, the integration of ideas and clear expression. For many, this decreased effectiveness leads to avoidance of writing. A student must write to progress because practicing writing contributes to greater automaticity in the subskills. As a consequence, students who actively avoid writing miss out on critical practice of many subskills. However, it is also relevant to realize that practice without a feeling of success, or rote practice without feedback, leads to frustration rather than skill development.
Avoiding the avoidance of writing
If a student has not yet developed competence using one or more writing subskills, it is necessary to provide explicit instruction, examples, and practice before expecting the student to use those skills in an integrated manner while writing. Multisensory techniques encourage a student to simultaneously use visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic strategies and help reinforce the connectedness between the subskills. If skill development is difficult or delayed, the use of compensations may be appropriate, and in many cases essential.
Three basic skills clusters are essential for efficiency in written expression.
- Use of letter form, spacing and lines
- A student needs to easily and automatically place letters efficiently on the page. Struggles in these areas require remedial assistance and/or compensations.
- Remedial assistance may include reteaching manuscript or cursive letter form, using well sequenced multisensory instruction. Use of a vertical plane, such as a whiteboard, is valuable to assist initially with directionality.
- Compensations may include keyboarding skills.
- Use of writing mechanics within the process of written expression
- Such skills include, but are not limited to, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, and grammar.
- Because the process of writing places great demands on a students active working memory system, any subskill which lacks automaticity may drop out when the student focuses on content. This leads to frustration for students, parents, and teachers because the student may be able to perform that same subskill in isolation.
- To enhance active working memory, each individual subskill needs to be as strong as possible: the more automaticity, the less demand on active working memory. Conversely, the less automatic the skill, the greater demand on active working memory.4
- Organized use of content: clearly expressing basic ideas, with elaboration
- Writing efficiency and elaboration of ideas depend upon a students ability to integrate the basic mechanical skills with foundational processing skills related to letter form and space, thus allowing the student to focus on content.
- Organizational strategies can help minimize the students tendency to approach writing as an erratic and impulsive activity. These include pre-organization plans and strategies as well as visual organizers.
“The atmosphere that is most conductive for this journey of learning to write well is one that is free: Free of undue pressure, sustained or high stress, and instead, suffused with a degree of pleasurable intensity.”5
Leading students down the path of enthusiasm and self-confidence
As teachers and/or parents, we need to help students learn the joy of producing good sentences that represent their ideas and feelings. The challenge is being able to convey that writing can be fun even though it involves many demands. Because practice and repetition are critical, we need to encourage students to write, regardless of their skill level or comfort with language. To do so, we provide background experiences related to the concepts and vocabulary while also stimulating enthusiasm related for the topic.
Providing students with background information and experience with the concepts prior to beginning the writing task “primes” the brain to anticipate critical features or ideas that will be forthcoming. Examples of priming are presenting the objective of the lesson in advance, reading a fun related story or enjoying role playing a related situation.
Some priming strategies to use prior to a writing activity include:
- Place a humorous or thought provoking notice on your bulletin board to elicit a discussion.
- Use a prop to introduce the concepts within the topic.
- Create experiences/activities related to the topic so that students develop some prior knowledge.
- Develop a group or individual KWL chart. This is a large chart with three columns: K for “What do you know?” W for “What do you want to know?”, and L for a “What have you learned?” The L column is completed after discussion or research.
- Provide a picture prompt, role-playing situation, or song, integrated with any of the above strategies.
- Ask for expectations related to what students expect to discover about the concept or events.
- Develop a group visual organizer identifying specific components of the task or brainstorming concepts related to the activity.
Our brains are biologically programmed to first attend to information that has strong emotional content. Providing hooks to create excitement, identify key information, and provide experience with the topic help set the stage and prime the student to focus on the critical aspects.6
Understanding the relevant related vocabulary is critical to being able to successfully express one’s ideas. Also, providing experience with critical vocabulary related to the topic is another aspect of priming.
Estimates indicate that students learn “approximately 3000 to 4000 words each year, accumulating a reading vocabulary of approximately 25,000 words by the end of elementary school and approximately 50,000 words by the end of high school.”7 “Children with learning disabilities tend to have lower vocabularies mainly through lack of exposure to challenging books and not through differences in abilities.”8 Therefore, students who avoid reading and writing activities are at a significant disadvantage.
Children with learning disabilities need to work on vocabulary in group activities with their peers. When students experience difficulty, the vocabulary tasks and instruction should be restructured, presented in a different matter and/or different contextual format. Effective instruction, especially for these students, involves both direct instruction and direct teaching of words as well as vocabulary acquisition through incidental learning.
Key principles characterizing effective vocabulary instruction include:
- Emphasizing both definitional and contextual information about a word.
- Engaging the child in deep processing about each word, including generating information that ties the new word to already known information. It is critical that students learn to generate rich connections that help them relate new vocabulary words to knowledge they already have.
- Teaching words in clusters or themes rather then in isolation: learning vocabulary requires repetition and rich support (connectedness with meaning and different contextual situations).
- Ensuring that vocabulary instruction is interactive, multisensory, and that students are actively engaged.
Examples of some types of graphics:
A basic visual organizer about whales illustrating main ideas and supporting details. This was created by a student and provides a format to use in beginning to write. Richards, Regina G. LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students, 2001, page 77, (www.retctrpress.com )
A Venn diagram illustrating the differences between mammals and reptiles as well as the similarities (in the center portion). Richards, Regina G. LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students, 2001, page 47, (www.retctrpress.com )
Is Mr. Magic losing his hair or hare or both?
The figure with Mr. Magic presents a representation of the words hair and hare in a visual graphic form. Some students may prefer to draw their own cartoons to represent the meaning. Richards, Regina G. LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students, 2001, page 43, (www.retctrpress.com )
A simple mind map for the word bill. The word bill can refer to an electric bill or a pelicans bill. Students may enjoy a related riddle to help focus their memory: What happened to the pelican who stuck his head in the light socket? Answer: He now has an electric bill. Richards, Regina G. LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students, 2001, page 42, (www.retctrpress.com )
Leading students down the path of multiple tools
The more that explicit (direct) instruction is provided, the better equipped the students will be in using the various subtasks required for writing. Students benefit immensely from teacher demonstration and modeling. They need to be exposed to many examples of good writing as well as examples of inefficient written expression, with discussion about the variables of each.
Successful writers integrate the following subskills:
- General Subskills
- Use background knowledge.
- Have goal direction and understand the tasks purpose.
- Mechanical Subskills
- Have fairly efficient letterform so that the mechanics of writing do not interfere with thought processes (for some students this is extremely difficult and keyboarding compensations are necessary for longer written tasks).
- Use strategies for planning, writing, and editing.
- Have sufficient knowledge and use of writing mechanics for the task, including capitalization, punctuation, and spelling (the demands at this level will increase as the students sophistication increases).
- Contextual Subskills
- Move smoothly from planning and organizing into composing.
- Organize thoughts cohesively and with elaboration.
- Understand the function of writing as well is the needs of the audience.
Many students benefit from visual organizers to organize thoughts and ideas cohesively. These can be drawn by hand or created using a computer program. Visual organizers are particularly helpful for students who have executive function difficulties or other problems organizing what they know. Some programs allow students to add sound bites and picture clips.9 Two examples of graphics to help students relate to and understand how information is organized are the dinosaur model and the hamburger model.
The Dinosaur Model: Using a dinosaur to represent the main components of a paragraph, story, or report. Richards, Regina G. The Source for Dyslexia & Dysgraphia, 1999, page 241. (www.linguisystems.com )
Graphic organizers are effective for students, especially those who prefer to conceptualize information visually and/or who may struggle organizing language. Some reasons include:
- Organizers illuminate the organization or structure of concepts/ideas and show relationships.
- Organizers demonstrate in a concrete way how information is structured and related.
- Organizers help students brainstorm the components of a task or details of a concept and then organize these into a more cohesive framework.
- Organizers encourage students the process information using higher order thinking skills such as cues to recognize key information, decision making, consolidating information, identifying main idea and supporting details, and making choices related to how to format information.
The Hamburger Model: Using a hamburger to represent the main components of a paragraph, story, or report.
- The topping: Introduction, topic sentence or introductory paragraph.
- The filling: The details and supporting ideas.
- The ending: The conclusion or summary
View a sample visual organizer
Visual organizers can be used in a variety of situations. Richards, Regina G. The Source for Learning and Memory, 2003, page 209. (www.linguisystems.com )
Mnemonics (memory tricks) provide useful strategies for the task of proofreading. It is valuable for students, especially those with some struggles, to proofread in stages, focusing on one component at a time. Strategies are critical because they encourage the student to stop periodically and check the work in a step-by-step fashion. COPS and C-SOOPS are strategies that encourage focus on primary subskills. STOPS is a slightly more advanced proofing strategy.10 Selection of a particular strategy will depend upon the focus for that given lesson and the age of the students. Students with dyslexia and dysgraphia have particular challenges with proofreading as it is in their area of disability. Provide them accommodations such as larger print or software on a computer that talks to them. Be sure to evaluate their content and try not to allow their incorrect spelling and punctuation distract you from what they are trying to communicate.
- Sentence Structure
- Overall format
- Sentence Structure
Proofreading strategies encourage the student to stop at the end of the work, go back, and check in a systematic step-by-step manner. Richards,Regina G. LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students, 2001, page 91.(www.retctrpress.com )
Research findings suggest that verbal feedback during and after a learning task are key elements in the error-correction process. There is much value in verbal feedback and discussing a learning process. However, interfering too soon or too often in the learning process can undermine information acquisition and retention. Monitoring student progress through direct teacher assistance is one of the most important roles of the teacher. Learners need ways to know if they are on track. Teachers need to tell students what they are doing well and ask provocative questions to stimulate further learning. Students enhance their metacognitive skills (their ability to think about what they are doing) by using self feedback checklists after different portions of the writing task. A program and sequence of visual organizers developed by LHQ includes a self-feedback component at the end of each organizer.11Examples from organizers for elementary grades follow:
Did I use correct:
Did I write neatly?
I made ________ changes/corrections!
Did I use correct:
I made ________ changes/corrections!
Putting it all together
Students need to develop strategies that give them power to succeed in written expression tasks. As they enhance their automatic use of subskills and develop motivation and enthusiasm for the task, their writing will be reinvigorated. A useful mnemonic to remind students to use an organized process is the word, POWER. 12
- POWER: P is plan
This stage includes a variety of priming activities and development of an experiential background, with the goal of establishing enthusiasm for the topic. It also involves discussing the basic format and type of writing required by the task, followed by determining the steps needed to complete the task. The student plans the focus of the task.
- POWER: O is organize
The goal of this stage is to dissect and describe the parts of the task. Visual organizers are extremely valuable at this stage. Younger students may focus on three primary parts: beginning, middle, and end. Older students may add components such as characters, setting, identification of a problem, development of the solution, and a theme.
The basic criteria for teachers to consider are:
- Begin in a more concrete mode and progress to more abstract.
- Begin with fewer components to include and progressively add more.
- Begin with a smaller task or chunk and progressively increased the size.
- POWER: W is write
Students write their paragraph/ paper, elaborating the ideas developed in the stage above. Younger students may start with pictures. It is critical to include both teacher feedback and self-feedback at this stage.
- POWER: E is edit
In the editing stage, students focus on a single component at a time. They proofread the paper multiple times, each time with a different focus. This is an area that is often the most difficult for many students with learning challenges because they tend to “read” what they intended rather than what they actually wrote. A great deal of scaffolding, modeling, and directed instruction is necessary to help students develop appropriate skills.
- POWER: R is revise
Many students attempt to avoid the revision stage. However it is critical that they learn this is a valuable component of the written expression task. Again, scaffolding, modeling, and directed instruction are very useful in helping them understand how to enhance their writing. Encouraging them to use their self-feedback form to record the number of changes they have made provides a concrete record of their progress in revising and enhancing their written products. Of course, changes need to be appropriate and add to the quality of the paper.
- Encourage students to practice writing
- Ensure that students practice the appropriate subskills to a level of automaticity
- Encourage students to use a staging or process approach, focusing on small chunks at a time
- Encourage students to have fun with their writing
- Encourage students to double check that their writing communicates their message effectively
- And be sure to accommodate their learning disabilities if they have them
Other useful information
This technique is recommended by research
Graphic organizers have been recommended as a practice with solid research evidence of effectiveness for individuals with learning disabilities by the Council for Exceptional Children — the Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) and the Division for Research (DR). To learn more, please read Current Practice Alert: A Focus on Graphic Organizers: Power Tools for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities .