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
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.
Explicit instruction in basic writing skills
All students can benefit, at some point in their development, from direct instruction in the basic writing skills of handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and sentence formation. For many students with writing problems, difficulties in these skills are a significant barrier to writing. These students need extra time devoted to explicit instruction and practice in basic skills. This instruction should be carefully planned and include regular monitoring of student progress. However, it also needs to be efficient so that it does not dominate either instruction or writing time.
The basic goals of handwriting instruction are to help students develop writing that is legible and fluent, that is, relatively rapid and not effortful.2 As in reading, fluency is important. When students are not fluent and have to pay attention to handwriting, it interferes with other aspects of the writing process. Either cursive or printing can be effective. Instruction should include teaching how to form letters correctly, as well as how to hold the pen and paper. Short daily practice sessions (10-15 minutes) followed by application in meaningful writing tasks are most effective. Fluency in handwriting is best promoted through frequent writing, and develops gradually over time. Instruction in the primary grades for children experiencing difficulty with handwriting may help to prevent later writing problems. In addition to instruction, teachers and parents should consider the use of word processing or other computer tools as a way of compensating for problems with handwriting.
Spelling and decoding skills are strongly connected. Both require phonemic awareness and phonics skill, knowledge of spelling patterns, and familiarity with high-frequency words. Thus, spelling is part of both reading and writing instruction. Students with reading and writing problems generally need explicit, intensive instruction in decoding and spelling that emphasizes sound-symbol relationships and patterns. In writing, the practice of “invented spelling” in the primary grades helps students to develop their phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge. Instructional methods that emphasize spelling patterns by grouping words with similar patterns are effective.
In addition, students with spelling problems need support in memorizing the spelling of high-frequency, irregularly spelled words (for example, “right,” “laugh,” and “their”). Word lists, word walls, personalized spelling dictionaries, and strategies for studying spelling words are all common ways to support learning high-frequency words.
In addition to instruction, students need opportunities to practice spelling words both in lists and in the context of writing. A few recommendations pertain particularly to writing.
- First, instruction should pay special attention to the words most commonly used in student writing.3
- Second, because many students with learning disabilities will continue to have problems with spelling even after learning to read fluently, it is especially important for such students to learn strategies for proofreading their writing.
- Third, they also need to learn to use tools, including dictionaries and spell checkers, to monitor and correct their spelling. Personalized dictionaries, in which students write the words they are learning, can be helpful.
Even good writers often pause to figure out how to express their ideas in sentences. For struggling writers, writing correct, effective sentences is a significant problem. In addition to learning to write grammatically correct sentences, they need to learn to write sentences with embedded clauses, write topic sentences that introduce main ideas, use transition words, and craft introductory sentences. There is less research on instructional methods in this area than for spelling and handwriting, and some of the research results go against common wisdom or practice. For example, traditional grammar instruction, with its focus on rules for correct writing, has little impact on the quality of students’ writing.
Three methods that have support from research or from the practices of effective teachers are sentence expansion, sentence combining, and teaching sentences within paragraph types.4 All three methods require students to apply their language sense (asking themselves: “Does that sound right?”) to writing increasingly complex sentences, rather than learning grammatical rules. In sentence expansion, students begin with “kernel sentences” composed of a subject and verb, for example, “John ran.” Then they add elements to expand the sentence to tell more about the “who, what, why, when, and where.” In sentence combining methods, students begin with several short sentences and learn how to combine them into longer more complex sentences. In paragraph-based methods, students learn sentence patterns for the topic, detail, and concluding sentences in different types of writing, such as sequence paragraphs and persuasive paragraphs. As always when learning skills, it is important for students to have opportunities to practice these skills in meaningful writing tasks, with regular feedback.
Strategies for planning, revising, and self-regulation
Proficient writers have sophisticated strategies for planning and evaluating their writing. They:
- set goals for communicating with an audience
- use knowledge of genre to generate and organize content
- evaluate their writing in terms of their goals and general standards for writing
- often revise extensively
In contrast, struggling writers do little planning and limit their revising primarily to correcting errors. The research on the cognitive processes of good writers has been used to develop strategies to teach to less proficient writers. For example, we can teach students planning strategies that help them to use knowledge of organizational elements of text (e.g., in persuasive writing: position, reasons, evidence, and conclusion) to generate and organize their writing. Research provides strong evidence that we can successfully teach struggling writers to use more effective strategies for planning and revising and, thereby, help them to make substantial improvements in their writing.5 Fortunately, strategy instruction is effective with average learners as well as struggling writers, so it is a good method for general education classes that include students with disabilities.
Figure 1 below provides an example of a strategy for revising a piece of writing.6 This peer revising strategy involves a pair of students who get together to help each other evaluate and revise their papers. The steps are written as instruction to the student who is acting as editor. To teach the strategy, the teacher models applying the evaluation questions to samples of writing and making revisions to improve the writing. The teacher engages the students in collaboratively applying the strategy until students are ready to practice it in pairs. Note that a wide range of evaluation criteria could be used in step 3. The strategy provides a routine to support students in evaluation and revision that looks more like the processes that proficient writers use.
Figure 1: Peer Revising Strategy6
- LISTEN and READ along as the author reads the story.
- TELL what the story is about and what you liked best.
- READ the story to yourself and make NOTES about:
- CLARITY? Is there anything you don’t understand?
- DETAILS? What information/details could be added?
- DISCUSS your suggestions with the author.
- Author decides what changes to make.
Effective instruction in strategies for planning and revising a piece of writing requires a teacher to:
- Provide an explicit explanation of how the strategy works.
- Demonstrate or model the strategy while “thinking aloud” to show students the cognitive processes involved.
- Provide guided practice in which the students try out the strategy with teacher support.
- Provide independent practice and application in other situations.
It takes several weeks to teach a strategy effectively, so usually teachers would only teach 3 or 4 strategies in the course of a year.
Another important part of teaching strategies is helping students to develop self-regulation strategies. Several aspects of self-regulation can be included along with strategy instruction.
- First, self-regulation involves the ability to select strategies and monitor whether they are working. Thus, teachers must spend time discussing why the strategy is important and when and where it might be used. In addition, they teach students how to evaluate their own writing and decide whether a strategy is working for them.
- Second, self-regulation includes task management, so teachers discuss with students how to set aside a time and place for writing.
- Third, it includes strategies for coping with difficulty and maintaining persistence. Teachers help students to learn things they can say to themselves to keep a positive attitude and to praise or reward themselves for good work.
The model of strategy instruction developed by Steven Graham and Karen Harris7, the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), as its name indicates, includes several procedures for enhancing self-regulation.
Motivation and final words
One of the most difficult challenges about working with students who struggle with writing is increasing their motivation. One cannot consider a writing instruction program successful unless, in addition to teaching skills and strategies, it helps students to develop positive attitudes toward writing. Without such positive attitudes, it is unlikely that students will use writing well outside of the classroom or continue to develop their skills.
I’d like to close by mentioning two important aspects of a writing program that contribute to motivation. First, writing instruction should engage students in writing that is satisfying to them in its own right. When writing is taught as an exercise with the emphasis solely on proper form or passing a test, not only do students remain unmotivated, but also they are less likely to learn what is being taught because it is not connected to any meaningful purpose. In contrast, when students write for meaningful purposes, have some choice in topic, and share and publish their work for peers, parents, and others, they develop a positive appreciation for the value of writing.
Second, failure is one of the main causes of poor motivation. Students who expect to fail at writing tasks will engage in them reluctantly, if at all. The antidote for failure is explicit instruction that shows students how to use effective writing processes and provides adequate practice so that they can develop mastery. Students want to know “how to do it,” and it is the teacher’s role to show them. When students work in an environment where they write for meaningful purposes and teachers provide explicit instruction on how to write effectively, the motivation to learn to write is seldom a problem.
When parents understand the challenges that students with learning difficulties face as they strive to become proficient writers, they are better equipped to help their kids overcome frustrations with writing, to provide opportunities at home for kids to practice meaningful writing, and to advocate for their children’s learning needs in the classroom.
- Calkins, L. The art of teaching writing . Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1994.
- Graham, S. “Handwriting and spelling instruction for students with learning disabilities: A review.” Learning Disability Quarterly,Vol. 22.
- Graham, S., Harris, K. J., et. al. “The basic spelling vocabulary list.” Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 86.
- Haynes, C., & Jennings, T. “Listening and speaking: Essential ingredients for teaching struggling writers.” Perspectives (in press).
- Graham, S. “Strategy instruction and the teaching of writing: A meta-analysis.” In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, et al., Handbook of Writing Research, 2006.
- MacArthur, C. A., Schwartz, S. S., et al. “Effects of a reciprocal peer revision strategy in special education classrooms.” Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Vol. 6.
- Graham, S. & Harris, K. J. Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties. Baltimore, MD: Brooks, 2005.