Writing Intervention for Struggling Learners

150 150 DC Special Education Cooperative

Through Project SOAR, the Co-op brought an expert writing coach to work with teachers at 4 member schools in SY14-15 as they implemented a new writing intervention. We asked our coach, Cindy Sherman, a speech language pathologist with a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Maryland, to share her thoughts on the past 10 months. Read on to hear what Cindy has to say about writing intervention and struggling learners!

Written language is a difficult skill to teach because it is such a complex form of communication and the result of multiple interactive processes.  According to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress report, an overwhelming majority of 8th and 12th grade students (73%) performed at or below the Basic level on a nationally representative writing assessment.  The statistics are even more alarming for students with learning disabilities; 95% were at or below the Basic level with 60% of 8th graders and 63% of 12th graders at the Below Basic level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011).  Unfortunately, students who are classified as “Basic” writers in high school are often considered “poor” writers in college (Butterfield, Hacker, & Albertson, 1996).

Writer’s workshops typically only benefit average to high-achieving students because they do not provide students with the strategies they need to plan and write quality papers.  We also know that novice and struggling writers have difficulty revising their compositions.  These students focus more on surface changes (e.g., spelling, punctuation, and word choice) rather than on changes that improve the quality of the text.  In addition, students may have difficulty identifying problems that actually exist or realizing what they intended to write is not what was actually written.  In short, novice and struggling writers do not know enough about the writing process to plan or write what they want to say.  They also do not know enough about the revising process to make “big picture” changes.

Fortunately, novice and struggling writers with or without learning disabilities can improve the quality of their written language with explicit instruction in strategies that help them navigate the writing process (planning, writing, and revising).  In response to the need for more professional development to help students meet the new writing standards, the Special Education Cooperative teamed up with The Write Turn to bring an evidence-based writing program to DC public charter schools.  Students were introduced to strategies to plan and write narratives as well as expository and persuasive essays.  Students also learned how to make “meaningful changes” when revising their papers.  Teachers involved in this year’s pilot program reported noticeable differences in their students’ level of enthusiasm toward writing, in students’ ability to brainstorm their ideas, and in students’ overall confidence in getting their thoughts on paper.  One teacher reported that the “strategies did a good job breaking things down for students who struggle most and also provided concrete steps for all students.”  In the end, teachers felt the strategies resulted in considerable improvement in the overall quality of their students’ essays.  Another teacher reported that her students were “definitely more comfortable writing and expressed that they were proud of their writing.”