The most commonly practiced method of writing instruction is called the writing process. Typically this process includes five stages that writers work through when creating a piece of writing. These stages are:
In this column I will explain the prewriting stage and how teachers and parents can support writers during this step of the writing process.
During prewriting, writers begin to collect their thoughts and additional information so that they may effectively begin their first draft. Because of this, prewriting is often termed the "getting-ready-to-write" stage. Getting ready involves planning, collecting, and organizing information while considering topic, audience needs, and personal reasons for writing. In newsrooms, reporters refer to this as "finding the story angle."
Prewriting is essential in the creation of a well-organized product. Furthermore, it is during this stage that "writer's block" is challenged and overcome. Unfortunately for writers with disabilities, this stage may be particularly troublesome as they must encounter and overcome the ominous blank page. Lacking strategies for doing this effectively might make it easier for such writers to procrastinate or give up completely rather than persevere.
Effective prewriting is akin to laying a good foundation when constructing a house: if the house's foundation is ill planned and weak, the house itself could be structurally unsound. Similarly, if prewriting activities are not effectively utilized, a writing piece may never be started at all or may be replete with bad ideas that lead no where.
To support this important process, teachers and parents should engage in activities that provide rich experiences for their students to write about, while also helping the students structure the created content. It's helpful to arrange these activities into two processes: planning and collecting information, and organizing information.
Planning and Collecting Information
Planning and collecting requires that students invest time creating a flow of ideas. This may be troublesome for students with disabilities for two reasons; first, they may not have extensive background experiences to write about, and second, they may be weak readers so that the experiences others gain through reading are largely unavailable to them. Teachers can provide assistance to students who suffer from one or both of these situations by providing prewriting activities to prime the pump such. One particularly effective activity is to link reading with prewriting. For example, a student may read a short selection on a topic by a favorite author and then write about an aspect of what they read, or change/extend the story in some manner. In addition, students could hear part of a reading selection and then continue the story or craft an ending.
Other activities could involve video watching, interviewing experts or interesting others, exciting field trips, free writing about meaningful topics, discussing controversial issues, and drawing/sketching. After ideas are flowing, the students can then begin to narrow their topics by identifying who they are writing for, and by selecting an effective writing format, such as compare/contrast or chronological.
Organizing involves placing gathered information on a graphic aid or outline so the content is arranged into a logical order matching the selected writing format. Unfortunately, many students with disabilities may be remarkably disorganized and unable to sequence their information; meaning they may be needful of direct and explicit support to do so. Graphic organizers are very useful in this process as they can help visually depict the stages or steps of an activity (for example tying shoes, or cooking pasta, or the interrelatedness/dissimilarity of concepts).
In addition to modeling how to use an organizer, your writers might benefit from training in web searches and library skills so that information on their topic can be accessed. Pairing such instruction alongside a graphic organizer makes sense as writers learn how to acquire and arrange information into a usable form simultaneously. This is important as the process of arranging the information makes it easier to determine what may or may not be used and what else may be needed so that additional collection can occur.
Teachers and parents need to keep in mind that the type of prewriting activity and how that activity is presented strongly affects the quality of the written product. In general, any activity needs to be enjoyable and stimulating. Activities should also be changed frequently so they do not lose appeal. In addition, after several activities have been modeled and practiced, writers should be allowed and encouraged to select one they believe suits their needs best. Whatever activities are selected, writers will need extensive explicit modeling and supported practice, which naturally takes time. However, time spent in prewriting in advance of writing will pay dividends during later stages.
Bruce Saddler, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, where he teaches courses in the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education environment. His research interests include writing disabilities, self-monitoring, and self-regulation.