Improving the writing skills of students having difficulty in this area is not easy. There are several key components underlying students’ writing difficulties:
- A failure to plan and effectively organise their writing.
- Difficulty in writing a sufficient quantity of text to effectively express their ideas. This can be further compounded by handwriting difficulties.
- Inability to use a range of literary techniques to engage the reader.
- Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. Related to this is the inability to effectively edit their writing.
A meta-analysis of research-based instructional approaches that educators have used to teach written expression to student with learning difficulties by Baker, Gersten and Graham (2003) highlight three key areas of effective instruction:
- Explicitly teaching the steps in the process of writing.
- Quality feedback
- Explicit teaching of different genres and the conventions associated with these genres.
Students need to be explicitly taught the three critical steps in the writing process: planning, writing a draft and editing. Each of these steps requires a high level of support, including planning sheets, prompts and encouragement. I believe mind-maps are an effective tool for helping in this planning stage as they help students organise their thoughts and provides a structure to the actual writing process at a paragraph and a sentence level.
The actual writing step is the most difficult to implement. Students can be helped in this process by:
- Analysing good examples of the type of writing you are expecting from the student.
- Guiding the student in the writing process by given explicit instructions, a sentence at a time. This should include meeting specific goals such as including specific literary devices such as adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and speech (just to name a few) into the sentence.
- Providing opportunities for independent writing which are goal specific. For example, having a student write sentences with a focus on developing a character.
If you are a poor writer, it is difficult to know how to edit your work without some specific guidelines. Strategies such as colour-coding the different parts of speech can highlight to students a lack of descriptive language (adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, etc.). It can allow them to focus on the verbs and use tools such as the thesaurus on the computer to replace them with more ‘powerful’ verbs.
However, to really improve a student’s writing nothing can replace extended feedback from a teacher or parent. The research shows that providing frequent comments, thoughts and suggestions is directly linked to improvement in writing. This type of dialogue allows you to highlight a student’s strengths and provide a bridge for their weaknesses. In a classroom situation, it would be difficult if not impossible for teachers to provide this high level of support. This is where parents can play an invaluable role.
You could plan to write a story over one or two weeks. Begin with planning the story. Then, each night, together, write one paragraph. Talk about each sentence your child will write. Ask questions and provide suggestions on how that sentence could be improved. Aim for quality rather than quantity.
The Writing Creatively book may be a useful resource to help in this process.
Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Graham, S. (20013). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: Research-based applications and examples, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36 (2), 109-123.