How to teach expressive writing to students with LD [or other mental disorders]
What top-line information can researchers in the area of special education tell us about students with learning disabilities (LD) and writing? Are there basic guidelines – based on research – for teaching expressive writing to students with LD? Yes!
We know that personal and expository writing – the goal of which is to share or explain information – are powerful means of expression. We also know that these creative forms of communicating are important – and empowering – ones for students with learning disabilities to master in order to be successful in the classroom, to prepare for post-high school education opportunities (like college), and as part of a necessary skill set for many workplaces.
For students who have dyslexia or dysgraphia, and others who struggle with written expression, researchers have determined that instructional writing interventions can lead to significant improvements – both in the quality of their writing and in their overall expressive skills.
How did researchers find better ways to teach writing to children with learning disabilities? They looked to proficient writers as models – how they actually plan, organize, and carry out the difficult and typically introspective (and hidden) aspects of the expressive writing process.
Three Key Phases and Three Critical ComponentsIn reviewing the findings of multiple research studies, what we have learned is that most successful writing interventions – in general or special education classrooms – follow a basic framework of three phases:
And at each phase of the writing process, three critical components should be included:
- Explicit Instruction: Teachers need to provide students with explicit strategies and instructions. As part of this instruction, students may be given “think” sheets or mnemonics (which is a fun and easy strategy for remembering essential steps in the writing process).
- Demonstration: Teachers need to demonstrate how to write particular types of narrative and to provide explicit examples of each. Different types of writing require different approaches to organizing ideas, selecting vocabulary and framing context, and it’s important to provide explicit examples for each type so that students will learn these different writing conventions more effectively. For example, persuasive writing is organized very differently and has a different structure (for a different desired impact) than narrative writing.
- Providing Feedback: Teachers should take the lead in this process, and offer direct, explicit, and frequent feedback so students can reflect upon and edit their work in meaningful ways. Peers can also be an important source of feedback, and many students find feedback from peers about the quality of their work, missing elements, and strengths of the written product especially helpful. Peer-to-peer feedback is also a great way to foster a community of writers within the classroom. And it encourages discussion about writing and the sharing of ideas. Feedback from both a teacher and peers helps students develop their writing style.
Important Related SkillsResearch evidence also suggests the importance of teaching skills such as spelling and punctuation in conjunction with skills such as organization, text structure, and techniques for making edits and revisions. While children with learning disabilities often have problems with many skills underlying the writing process, teaching and practicing skills in tandem and not in isolation have been found to be most beneficial. And the less a child has to spend concentrating on the mechanics of writing, the more time and effort can be spent on the complex tasks such as planning, composing, and revising.
One interesting and important question has to do with the use of assistive technology (AT) as a possible bridge to better writing. For some students, especially those who have difficulties with spelling and punctuation, dictation to an adult or the use of voice-to-text assistive technologies may allow students to produce higher-quality narrative content, not to mention their finding enjoyment in a process that would otherwise be burdensome and deter rather than encourage them to “write” frequently and hone their skills as engaged and independent writers.