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Effective Writing Instruction for Students With Learning Problems

Learn about proven classroom strategies for helping kids master writing.

By Charles A. MacArthur

Writing is both a social and a cognitive process. In the world outside the classroom, people write to communicate with an audience, drawing on their knowledge of content and writing, strategies for planning and revising, and basic writing skills. In a previous article, I discussed writing development and disabilities in terms of five components:

  • the social context for writing
  • the writer's knowledge
  • planning processes
  • text production
  • evaluation and revision
  • self-regulation

In this article, I will outline components of effective writing instruction, to help parents assess the quality of instruction in their child's classroom. The goals of good writing instruction for students with disabilities are the same as those for all students.  All students need to develop their knowledge about the purposes and forms of writing, basic writing skills, strategies for planning and evaluating their work, and motivation. However, struggling writers need more support and more intensive, explicit instruction in skills and strategies.

A high-quality writing program will provide a balance between opportunities for children to engage in writing that is meaningful to them, and to receive explicit instruction in the skills and strategies they need to become proficient writers. Development of the self-regulation strategies and motivation needed for independent writing are also important. The writing classroom should provide:

  • a context for regular, meaningful writing
  • instruction in handwriting, spelling, and sentence formation, as needed
  • instruction in strategies for planning, revising, and self-regulation during the writing process
  • attention to development of motivation for writing
  • use of technology to support the writing process (this important topic will be addressed separately in a future article)

Context for Regular, Meaningful Writing

The foundation of an effective writing program is the opportunity for frequent writing on meaningful tasks that have an audience and purpose. This principle is at the heart of the Writers' Workshop approach used widely over the past 20 years. 1 When children have a regular time to write, see their writing tasks as meaningful, and get responses to their writing from peers, teachers, and others, they are motivated to write and come to understand the purposes and value of writing.

Consider, for example, the contrast between learning persuasive writing in order to master the five-paragraph essay format, and learning persuasive writing in order to argue a point of view in a social studies debate.  Or consider the difference between writing a story that only the teacher reads and grades, and reading your story to your peers in class or publishing it in a class magazine for parents.

Writing for real purposes makes writing far more enjoyable. Furthermore, it helps students to understand the reasons behind the various forms of writing. For example, they learn that persuasive writing needs to consider the possible objections of the readers. And the opportunity to read their stories to the class gives them direct feedback on what features made it entertaining.

It is sometimes a challenge for teachers to design opportunities for students to publish and share their writing with audiences.  Fellow students in the class are the most common audience - always available to provide responses in peer conferences or class readings. Many teachers have students create class magazines or write books for the class library.  Some teachers invite parents and other guests to readings of class work, or encourage children to write letters to a variety of audiences.  The Internet now provides a range of possible new audiences. Many websites publish children's work or support collaborative research projects among classrooms.

In addition to writing for specific audiences, writing can be made meaningful by connecting it to other areas of the curriculum. Writing as part of research projects in science and social studies shows children how writing about a topic can enhance their learning. When the projects are shared with others, they provide a model for communication in a learning community - an important use of writing in the adult world.

Parents can provide important support for this aspect of writing by encouraging children to write at home. Think of all the ways you use writing - from shopping lists, to thank-you notes, to email - and engage your child in those activities.

Comments from readers

"Do you have any suggestions for a good specific empirically based writing program or curriculum for students with severe writing deficits? "
"Hi I have only just come across this article - I am a teacher of 20 yrs exp who is passionate about writing and developing effective writing classrooms, leading PD for other teachers. last year My colleague and I facilitated our yr 6 classes to publish the first childrens' story book written and illustrated by children for children. The Supertastic Marvelistic - you can find more on web - this came from the children and was a real context for writing, meeting authors, etc and they raised NZ$5000 for a charity selling. I am now at the front of a push in NZ to make writing meaningful - I would love to have more dialogue about this Great article - summed up what we about "
"sometimes these ways are not effective for a certain period of time I mean students need alot of time to overcome their problem . This might make them late friom their friends or class. What shall we do in this situation?"
"I like it!!!!It has some very good idea,very important for the Kids future"