Today I read this excellent article on the Huffington Post: “Fixing our National Writing Crisis From the Foundation Up.” In the article, Graham discusses how student writing scores are pretty low considering that writing proficiency is required “for success in today’s knowledge-based economy” where “communication skills are more important than ever.” He suggests that we go back to teaching foundational skills since they are the “building blocks of written language.” There are seven things we should teach: handwriting, spelling, vocabulary development, sentence construction, writing process, writing strategies and genre knowledge. I can’t say that I disagree with any of those things. In fact, addressing most of those seven things is how I’ve been approaching writing instruction with my students for many years now. What I’ve found is that foundational skills are what so many of my students missed back in their early elementary school days, that they developed negative behaviors as ways to cope; they would be forced out of class or school in order to not have to deal with what they were unable to do. As a result, as those students entered middle and high school with those coping strategies, they needed basic instruction.
My students all have emotional and behavioral challenges, but many of them have reading or writing disabilities as well. Handwriting has historically been difficult to work on for my students. Some of them have motor difficulties which requires them to have a scribe or to use software like Dragon. So I haven’t done as much as I should have with handwriting; I mean, some of them can’t even read cursive writing. Building vocabulary has also been a significant challenge because my students start out so much farther behind in their word knowledge than a middle class student does, so words you’d think they would know are not understood so meaning gets lost. I’ll give you an example: one student I had in the past didn’t know that “trapped” could have several connotations, so when he read the phrase, “he felt trapped,” that student could not make meaning from that. I frequently pull words from third and fourth grade vocabulary lists to use with vocabulary lessons because that’s where my middle and high school students are at academically.
What I’ve had the most experience with is helping my students with a writing process that includes learning strategies, learning how to write in several different genres, and learning how to construct sentences. Something I like to start with when I begin the school year is to train kids’ writing fluency. My students are all in middle and high school and are quite adept at avoiding what they have trouble doing, so I need to ease them into writing and help them build some self-confidence so they will be willing to take more risks. There are several things you can do to help with writing fluency: STROOP tests (hold up an index card with a color written on it in marker–but the color of the word doesn’t match what the word says, ie: “red” written in blue marker. Students need to say the color, not read the word); a table of 4-letter words is shown to students for 2 minutes, then taken away, and students have to write down as many of the words as they can remember; or category lists–where you name a category and students have 1 minute to list as many things in that category as they can (categories can be as simple as “things that are blue,” or more challenging like “crustaceans.” Whatever kind of fluency activity you do, it can be a great writing warm-up, and I’ve had a lot of success with all of those activities with my challenging students.
Another tip for students who have significant writing challenges is to first do all “writing” verbally; talk it through with them while you model the skill. This is especially helpful when you have students who have issues thinking, sequencing, and making movements at the same time. It allows students to get used to the process you teach them without the added pressure of having to write (at first). As students become comfortable with the process, then writing should be introduced slowly; first introduce it at the sentence level, and then move to the paragraph level, finally ending with longer pieces of writing. Here are some lessons I wrote that help illustrate teaching writing as a process for students with significant challenges: Writing Lessons