Of all the activities students engage in during their academic careers, writing can be especially bedeviling. Writing requires thinking on paper in such a way as to transmit a message to another person who may not have knowledge of what you are saying. The idea of communicating a clear message is central to any writing task, yet it can be very challenging. In this article, I will explain how teachers and parents can develop writing ability using a general process approach to writing instruction.
Writing requires the coordination of many skills, such as planning, text production, and revision, while attending to conventions, language rules, and the constraints of the topic and the genre. Because this process can be so challenging, even skilled writers have known suffering when faced with the infernal blank page, or when grappling with having to find the right word.
Not surprisingly, for students with disabilities in written language, writing can be even more difficult. For example, they may not be able to think of ideas to write about, may lack knowledge of what good writers do when writing and revising, and may have such severe difficulties with spelling, grammar, and vocabulary that their writings are very difficult for others to understand or appreciate. If you know of a writer with these characteristics, there is good news! Despite the difficulties they may face, their writing ability can be improved through effective instruction.
When trying to support struggling writers, the most important goal is to help them understand what good writers do while writing. The most commonly practiced method to accomplish this is through a process-oriented approach to instruction. Such an approach will commonly include five stages that writers work through when creating a piece of writing. These stages are:
Prewriting encompasses three activities: planning, collecting, and organizing. When planning, students need to consider what they want to write about, their audience, and their reason for writing. They must then begin to collect information about the topic, which could involve brainstorming or further reading. Finally they must put the arrange the information using an outline or a graphic organizer.
Drafting involves turning ideas into words, sentences, and paragraphs. During this stage the focus should be on producing text freely without thinking about mechanics, spelling, or handwriting.
Revising is the point in the process where the message is fine-tuned through adding, removing, or changing text.
Editing requires careful focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Students with writing disabilities may ignore this stage, or may not know how to detect or correct such problems in their own writing.
Publishing is the payoff point for a writer. It is the time to share the complete and polished message with an audience.
Although it would be far simpler for students if these stages occurred in a linear fashion, that is not usually the case in real writing situations. Skilled writers often work through cycles that may encompass several stages nearly simultaneously. For example, a writer may collect information on a topic, draft and revise a portion of text, and then return to the planning stage as ideas are discovered that require more information be collected. This new information is then drafted and revised into another portion of text. This recursive (and messy) process may continue until a somewhat organized whole is formed, then additional cycles may ensue so that the rough whole is smoothed and tuned. However, initially teachers should help students focus their energy on one part at a time.
One of the best ways that a teacher or parent can assist writers through these stages is by modeling actual writing while the students watch and listen. When modeling you should think out loud and tell what you are doing. For example, you might say, “hmmm…what exactly do I want to write about and who am I writing this for? What do they know about my topic? How should I begin? Ah…that’s a great first sentence! It really will grab my readers’ attention!” You could also add supportive statements such as, “This is hard, but I know I can do this because I have written stories before.” Additional statements such as, “What other ideas can I think of to add? How does that sentence sound? What word do I need here? Is there a better way to say that?” will help your writers to think about how their writing sounds to others.
Although the writing process is an effective way to organize writing instruction for most students, and really the foundational framework for any writing program, students with disabilities in written expression often need additional supports and enhancements to be successful.
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.