Don’t “Write Off Writing” Instruction
Creative Ideas for Teaching Composition to Your Struggling Learner—Part I
By Faith Berens, M.Ed
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant
“I am frustrated with trying to teach my child to write properly! His spelling is atrocious, and he does not use punctuation or capitalize consistently. Maybe he is just lazy? His writing is also short and poorly organized, and I don’t even want to talk about grammar! We do copy work and have tried so many workbooks on grammar, usage, and mechanics, but they are not helping. Should I just forget about writing instruction and focus on the other basics? Please help!”
—Frustrated homeschooling parent
Many parents, particularly those who do not enjoy writing or who feel it is not a personal area of strength, get overwhelmed when it comes to teaching their children to write, particularly when one of them is a struggling student. Parents sometimes mistake their child’s difficulties for lack of motivation, laziness, and other character or behavior issues. It’s also easy to become discouraged when “traditional” curricula and materials (what worked with the other kids) isn’t working with this particular child. Struggling students often feel anxious and unsure when it comes to writing. They frequently have trouble generalizing or applying language exercises and grammar drills to their own writing. Writing for real and meaningful reasons can be the way to go. This includes journaling and keeping a learning log when linked to areas of special interest or excitement, as well as writing for authentic purposes.
To get started, I encourage you to invest in a few solid resources on teaching writing such as the How To series by Teacher Created Materials, the How To Write book by Teaching & Learning Company, and the books Teaching Your Child to Write by Cheri Fuller, or Dean Rea’s The Write Stuff Adventure: Exploring the Art of Writing. These resources offer not only information about the writing process, but many creative strategies, ideas, and practical application of writing lessons.
Writing Is A Complex Task
Writing is truly the most sophisticated and complex achievement of the language system. In the process of language development, the “art” of learning to write is typically the last to be learned. Through the process of writing, we integrate previous learning and experiences in speaking, listening, and reading. Oftentimes, we adults who may or may not be strong writers ourselves take for granted all the underlying, integrated processes, and skills involved in learning to write. Writing is an active process, and competent writing requires many prerequisite skills including adequate oral language, planning and organizational strategies, the ability to read, spelling skills, legible handwriting or skill with keyboarding, as well as knowledge of rules of written usage. One must be able to keep an idea or “gestalt” (picture) while formulating it into words and sentences that are complete and grammatically correct. The writer must have sufficient visual and motor memory skills in order to integrate complex eye-hand coordination, be skilled in planning and forming the correct symbol or form for each letter and word, and be able to manipulate the writing instrument. So, many students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, language processing problems, and other special challenges, struggle with composition.
Some of the key ingredients of writing are oral language skills, handwriting (visual motor integration), spelling, and written expression. I do not have the space to address all of these components. However, many of these areas are addressed in previous newsletters and available at our Struggling Learner website. Today, I will focus on a few creative techniques for teaching struggling students how to become proficient in written composition in spite of their areas of struggle.
Where to Begin When a Child Has Writing Difficulty
- Plan a Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Address the Areas of Writing Difficulty.
Many students with learning disabilities, language processing difficulties, cognitive delays, and attention problems often lack, or are weak in, many of the above-mentioned critical writing-related skills and thus have a very challenging time communicating through writing. That is why it is so important to take a multi-disciplinary approach when working with a child who has special needs. What I mean by a multi-disciplinary approach is getting support or assistance in order to attack the roots of the writing difficulties and come at it from different angles.
1. Oftentimes, supplemental therapies and interventions are needed, such as occupational therapy for fine motor (visual motor dysfunction/dysgraphia) and/or speech and language therapy for articulation, expressive, and receptive language processing difficulties, all of which have tremendous impact upon a child’s ability to proficiently write. Sometimes, simply working with another, experienced parent or educational consultant in order to come up with a strategic plan for instruction is the way to find a solution.
2. In addition to offering one of these therapeutic methods to address the child’s difficulties, parents can provide appropriate accommodations and modifications in the teaching setting, such as cutting back on the writing load and utilizing adaptive equipment and assistive technology so that the student feels less fatigued, defeated, or frustrated while on the path to becoming a proficient writer.
3. Set realistic, attainable objectives for your child’s writing development based on his needs and goals. Remember that as the parent-teacher and administrator of your homeschool, you determine proficiency level based on your child’s special needs, the severity of those needs, and his functioning level. For some students with more severe special needs, writing proficiency may be the ability to write one’s name, phone number, and address, as well as completing simple forms and every-day documents, such as a thank-you letter, store list, etc. For most students, however, writing proficiency will be more in-depth and include learning to write paragraphs, essays, and research papers, as well as various genres of text such as poetry, narratives, and persuasive papers. (Keep in mind that in many states students are required to take standardized tests at certain grade levels. Also, community colleges and universities have entrance requirements that include levels of writing proficiency. Writing also is a portion of college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT.)
4. Be sure to obtain the necessary documentation of a special need (from an evaluator, medical professional, or psychologist) in order to apply for and/or allow for testing accommodations on standardized tests. The test publishers of standardized achievement tests and college entrance exams require that a child have a documented disability or need in order to grant special testing accommodations, such as frequent breaks, extended time, use of a scribe or word processing, reader, etc. As parent-teachers, we frequently use accommodations in our teaching setting, but we should have the disability documented in order to obtain such accommodations to our children during testing situations. The College Board has a fairly detailed “Documentation Review” process that homeschoolers must undergo to apply for special testing accommodations. So if your child has a written expressive disorder or other special need that will require such accommodations, be sure to check into this process early (go to the section on Services for Students with Disabilities).
- Use Specialized Writing Curricula.
Here are some of my top picks:
1. The Four Square Writing Method combined with Writing Step by Step by Mary Lou Ward
2. The Apple Tree Curriculum for Developing Written Language
3. Teaching Competence in Written Language: A Systematic Program for Developing Writing Skills
4. Writing with Purpose, Attainment Company (comes with Teachers Guide with CD with printables, plus a student book)
5. When They Can’t Write by Charlotte G. Morgan
- Use Multi-sensory Learning Activities and Games at the Word and Sentence Level to Teach Vocabulary, Sentence Structure and Grammar.
1. Primary Concepts carries a wonderful primary writing center, Build-A-Sentence cubes (color coded), Instant Sentence Kit, and Story and Poem Kit for hands-on learning!
3. Super Duper Publications has many games and engaging learning activities that children love.
- Plan to Utilize Helpful Adaptive Equipment, Software Tools, and Appropriate Accommodations.
Allowing your child to dictate his writing assignments serves as an appropriate accommodation that may enable him to communicate his ideas while he continues to develop the necessary writing skills. There are some good speech recognition systems available that allow a person to operate the computer and write (or type) by speaking to it. Using such programs, like Kurzweil 3000 or Dragon Naturally Speaking, the user dictates to the system through a microphone and the spoken words are converted to text. Such programs are helpful for children with fine motor difficulties, handicapping conditions, and those who have superior oral language abilities but struggle with written expression and spelling. There are computer spell checkers, but you may also be interested in utilizing a Franklin Spelling Tutor from Franklin Learning Resources, which is an electronic speller. Children need to learn keyboarding skills, and there are also many wonderful word processing programs to use. One program many parents have found helpful is Keyboard Classroom. There are also many new apps that are coming available for the iPads and iPhones that can be of great benefit for people with learning disabilities.
Principles for Teaching the Writing Process
- Provide Explicit, Direct Instruction in how You Write and Model the Process for the Child.
It is really important to guide students through the process of writing. First, they need to be told and shown the steps in the writing process. You can either make or buy a commercially available chart/poster with the stages: Pre-Writing, Drafting, Revising/Editing, Sharing/Publishing.
Plan on spending a great amount of time teaching the process of pre-writing, planning, and brainstorming. Oftentimes, struggling students lack confidence, may be passive, or unmotivated in writing. They may put forth minimum effort, hurrying through the assignment. Help to spark their imagination and excitement by providing experiences to write about such as trips, hands-on learning experiences and activities, special films, reading, art, a sporting event, or story read aloud. Also, it is fun to brainstorm a list of possible writing topics based on these things and keep them on index cards in a writing folder or special box. You can demonstrate how you plan a piece of writing by making an outline or using a concept map, mind map, or graphic organizer (using pictures and notes, phrases, labels and ideas). Another powerful strategy for pre-writing and planning is called storyboarding. In this strategy, which looks like a comic book, students draw, in large boxes, the scenes, events, ideas, etc. that they are going to write about. This is a strategy that many filmmakers use in planning a movie. A great resource that provides explicit mini-lessons in writing is 25 Mini-Lessons for Teaching Writing: Quick Lessons that Help Students Become Effective Writers by Adele Fiderer, available through Scholastic Professional Books.
- Start at the Most Basic Level of Writing and Move to more Complex Construction, Building from Words, to Phrases, Complete Sentences, Paragraphs, Essays, etc.
Directly teach the child how to write various types of sentences. Show the child an interesting picture and have him generate varied sentence patterns. First, practice writing simple sentences and questions. Next, teach the child how to join and create compound sentences. Then introduce and practice writing complex sentences with one clause. Finally, teach the child how to write compound-complex sentences. Teach the child how to combine sentences into more complex structures by using transitional words (e.g., continuation, sequence, conclusion, causal, conditional, and comparison/contrast). Directly teach transitional words to introduce subordinate clauses and to clarify the meaningful relationship among sentences. Be sure to provide the words and phrases on visuals for the child to refer to.
- Systematically Introduce and Teach Various Genres of Writing (Letters, Narrative, Poetry, Persuasive, How-to/steps in a Process, etc.), Writing Styles, and Traits of Writing and Provide Samples (through Published Literature or Personal Samples).
By reading aloud various genres and styles of writing and providing samples, children will come to know what each is supposed to sound (and look) like. I love to use children’s literature as a springboard for writing. For example, when introducing or practicing letter writing, read aloud and show a children’s book that has letters written in it, for example, the book The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small. Scholastic Books also carries many teacher resources, such as a series by Tara McCarthy and Narrative Writing. Ruth Culham’s 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, teaches the various genres, styles, and traits of writing, such as organization, word choice, voice, and presentation.
- Focus First on the Process of Writing (which is about Conveying Meaning, Thoughts, Ideas and Opinions) and Free the Child from Concentrating on the Mechanics of Writing.
Children need to know that all writers make errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation in the drafting process. Although the mistakes must eventually be corrected, they do not have to be fixed immediately. Instead, help your child focus on the content during the drafting stage, and then later you can work together to clean up the work in the editing phase.
- The Process of Writing Helps Students Learn to Revise their Work.
Oftentimes, students think that writing is done when they complete a paragraph or finish the first draft. Help them realize that writing is a process that requires revisiting and revising a work. It is powerful to show your child a first draft of something you have written (or use the child’s first attempt) and model and guide the revising process. You can even give your child drafts of something you have written and put him in charge of helping to correct punctuation or capitalization errors. Parents can also use the COPS acronym (developed by Schumacher, Nolan, and Deshler) with a visual picture/poster of a police officer. The child will use this acronym checklist to orally read and correct work for Capitalization, Oral Reading, Punctuation, and Spelling.
- Avoid Excessive Corrections of the Child’s Work.
Oftentimes, students become discouraged if their attempts to express ideas are met only with negative comments, red ink, corrections, or penalties for mistakes. Also, they try to beat the game by limiting vocabulary to words they know how to spell, keeping writing short and sentences simple, and avoiding complex and creative ideas. Utilizing dictation, a voice recognition software program, and letting students know up front not to be concerned with spelling during the drafting phase, can free them up from anxiety, fear, and frustration.
Next month: Part II—Strategies for Teaching Writing.