Teaching Writing to Diverse Student Populations
Writing is a complex operation requiring knowledge of text structure, syntax, vocabulary, and topic, and sensitivity to audience needs; so it is not surprising that many teens find writing challenging. This article identifies the qualities of strong writing instruction, and offers advice to teachers for incorporating writing instruction into their practice, using tools like notebooks and journals, and sharing strategies that reinforce the importance of pre-writing and revision.
In this article:
- Areas of Difficulty for Students With Writing Problems
- Qualities of Strong Writing Instruction
- Establishing Routines
- Additional Instructional Considerations
- Breaking Down Different Genres in Writing
- Building and Assessing Advanced Writing Components
- Spelling and Handwriting Strategies
- Teaching Composing Strategies
- Integrating Writing Instruction with Content Area Learning
According to data from the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 28% of fourth graders, 31% of eighth graders, and 24% of twelfth graders performed at or above a proficient (i.e., competent) level of writing achievement for their respective grade level (Persky, Daane, & Jin, 2003). This Access Center resource is intended to help teachers implement writing instruction that will lead to better writing outcomes for students with and without writing difficulties. We provide research-based recommendations, activities, and materials to effectively teach writing to the wide range of students educators often find in their classrooms.
There are three apparent reasons why so many children and youth find writing challenging. First, composing text is a complex and difficult undertaking that requires the deployment and coordination of multiple affective, cognitive, linguistic, and physical operations to accomplish goals associated with genre-specific conventions, audience needs, and an author's communicative purposes.
Second, the profile of the typical classroom in the United States has undergone dramatic changes in the recent past. Many more students today come from impoverished homes, speak English as a second language, and have identified or suspected disabilities (Persky, Daane, & Jin, 2003).
This increasing diversity of the school-aged population has occurred within the context of the standards-based education movement and its accompanying high-stakes accountability testing. As a consequence, more demands for higher levels of writing performance and for demonstration of content mastery through writing are being made of students and their teachers, while teachers are simultaneously facing a higher proportion of students who struggle not only with composing, but also with basic writing skills.
Unfortunately, many teachers feel ill-equipped to handle these competing pressures, in part because they lack the prerequisite pedagogical knowledge, instructional capabilities, and valued resources for teaching writing, and in part because writing curricula, which exert a strong influence on teachers' writing instruction, tend to be underdeveloped and misaligned with other curricula (Troia & Maddox, 2004).
Third, the quality of instruction students receive is a major determinant of their writing achievement (Graham & Harris, 2002). In some classrooms, writing instruction focuses almost exclusively on text transcription skills, such as handwriting and spelling, with few opportunities to compose meaningful, authentic text (e.g., Palinscar & Klenk, 1992). In other classrooms, frequent and varied opportunities exist to use the writing process to complete personally relevant and engaging writing tasks, but little time is devoted to teaching important writing skills and strategies, as it is assumed these can be mastered through incidental teaching and learning (e.g., Westby & Costlow, 1991).
Still in other classrooms, virtually no time is devoted to writing instruction or writing activities (e.g., Christenson, Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & McVicar, 1989). In perhaps a minority of classrooms, students are taught by exemplary educators who blend process-embedded skill and strategy instruction with writing workshop elements such as mini-lessons, sustained writing, conferencing, and sharing (e.g., Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Troia, Lin, Cohen, & Monroe, in preparation; Wray, Medwell, Fox, & Poulson, 2000).
Yet, for students with disabilities who tend to develop or exhibit chronic and pernicious writing difficulties, even this type of instruction may be inadequate. These students need considerably more intensive, individualized, and explicit teaching of transcription skills and composing strategies that incorporates effective adaptations to task demands, response formats, student supports, and teacher practices (Troia & Graham, 2003; Troia, Lin, Monroe, & Cohen, in preparation). The box below presents several areas of difficulty for students with writing problems.
Qualities of strong writing instruction
- Students should have meaningful writing experiences and be assigned authentic writing tasks that promote personal and collective expression, reflection, inquiry, discovery, and social change.
- Routines should permit students to become comfortable with the writing process and move through the process over a sustained period of time at their own rate.
- Lessons should be designed to help students master craft elements (e.g., text structure, character development), writing skills (e.g., spelling, punctuation), and process strategies (e.g., planning and revising tactics).
- A common language for shared expectations and feedback regarding writing quality might include the use of traits (e.g., organization, ideas, sentence fluency, word choice, voice, and conventions).
The illustration below provides a graphic representation of the core components of effective writing instruction.
Putting the pieces together:
the core components of effective writing instruction
All of these basic components must be thoughtfully coordinated to form a comprehensive writing program for students. Of course, these are only the basic features of strong writing instruction. Additional features, such as procedural supports for carrying out the writing process, a sense of writing community, integration of writing with other academic areas, assistance in implementing a writing program, and sustained professional development to strengthen teachers' knowledge and skills are presented in the box below.
These characteristics of exemplary writing instruction are equally relevant for elementary and secondary teachers — regardless of content area focus — and their young writers. If students are expected to become competent writers, then writing instruction must be approached in similar ways by all teachers who expect writing performance in their classrooms and must be sustained across the grades to support students as they gradually become accomplished writers.
- Mini-lesson (15 minutes)
Teacher-directed lesson on writing skills, composition strategies, and crafting elements (e.g., writing quality traits, character development, dialogue, leads for exposition, literary devices), which are demonstrated and practiced through direct modeling of teacher's writing or others' work (e.g., shared writing, literature, student papers); initially, mini-lessons will need to focus on establishing routines and expectations;
- Check-in (5 minutes)
Students indicate where they are in the writing process (i.e., planning, drafting, revising, editing, publishing). The teacher asks students to identify how they plan to use what was taught during the mini-lesson in their writing activities for that day;
- Independent Writing and Conferring (30 minutes)
Students are expected to be writing or revising/editing, consulting with a peer, and/or conferencing with the teacher during this time;
- Sharing (10 minutes)
Students identify how they used what was taught during the mini-lesson in their own writing and what challenges arose. The teacher may discuss impressions from conferring with students; students share their writing (it does not have to be a complete paper and may, in fact, only be initial ideas for writing) with the group or a partner, while others provide praise and constructive feedback. Students discuss next steps in the writing assignment; and
- Publishing Celebration (occasionally)
Students need a variety of outlets for their writing to make it purposeful and enjoyable, such as a class anthology of stories or poems, a grade-level newspaper or school magazine, a public reading in or out of school, a Web site for student writing, a pen pal, the library, and dramatizations.
Additional instructional considerations
Writing workshop is an instructional model in which the process of writing is emphasized more than the written product and which highly values students' interests and autonomy. Because so many teachers use some variation of writing workshop as the fundamental structure for their writing program, the attributes of an exemplary workshop are described in Specific Characteristics of a Strong Writers' Workshop. Some of the most important attributes include explicit modeling, regular conferencing with students and families, high expectations, encouragement, flexibility, cooperative learning arrangements, and ample opportunities for self-regulation.
On occasion, teachers may wish to assign topics or provide prompts for journaling or other writing activities. A list of potential prompts appropriate for late elementary and middle school grades is given in Writing Prompts. Using titles is a unique way of having students plan and write creative narratives that conform to a particular sub-genre or that have a distinctive tone. Other ways of prompting creative narratives include pictures, story starters, and story endings (these are particularly beneficial because they require a high degree of planning).
Numerous persuasive topic prompts are listed because persuasive writing often is overlooked until secondary school, and because such topics can engage students in critical thinking about relevant issues. Of course, teachers will need to supplement this list with other prompts to trigger other forms of writing (e.g., exposition, poetry); many such prompts can and should be derived from the curriculum as well as students' personal experiences and interests (for suggestions, see Fletcher, 2002; Heard, 1989; Portalupi & Fletcher, 2001; Young, 2002).
Breaking down different genres in writing
A carefully orchestrated routine should also guide coverage of the writing curriculum. One type of routine includes genre study. In genre study, each instructional cycle focuses on a single genre (e.g., poetry) and one or two particular forms of that genre (e.g., cinquain and haiku). To develop a strong sense of the genre, a genre study cycle should typically last about one marking period.
One way of thinking about the organization of genre study is to relate it to the process of growing a prize-winning rose for entry into a garden show. The first step is to plant the seed for writing by immersing students in touchstone texts (i.e., exemplary models) of the genre targeted for instruction and discussing the key qualities of those examples to illustrate the structure and function of the genre.
The next step is to grow the seed idea through careful planning and small increments of drafting (much like giving a seed just the right amount of sunlight, water, and fertilizer to help it grow). Then, as any accomplished gardener will tell you, once a rose plant begins to grow, it is often necessary to prune back dead branches and leaves, add structural supports, and perhaps even graft new plants.
Likewise, once a draft has been produced, it requires multiple trimmings of unworkable portions or irrelevant information; expansions through the addition of details, examples, and even new portions of text; and attention to writing conventions for ultimate publication. Displaying one's writing in some public forum to gain valuable feedback and accolades, much like a prized rose, is the culmination of all the hard work invested in the writing process and the written product.
Building and assessing advanced writing components
Students need to develop an understanding of the valued aspects or traits of good writing and the capacity to incorporate these traits into their writing. Developing a routine for communicating about specific writing qualities is essential to the success of a writing program. A number of resources are available to help teachers do this (e.g., Culham, 2003; Spandel, 2001).
The most commonly taught writing traits are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. These closely resemble the dimensions on which many state-mandated accountability measures base their writing achievement assessment (i.e., content, organization, style, and conventions). An example of a scoring rubric for teachers for all of these traits is the Analytic Trait Scoring Rubric (note that voice is not included on the rubric because it is difficult to reliably distinguish it from other traits and score accordingly.
However, teaching it does have instructional value). This kind of rubric is appropriate for all types of writing. Examples of genre-specific rubrics, which focus on unique aspects of a genre such as its structure, include the Story Grammar Elements Rating Scale and Guidelines for Segmenting Persuasive Papers Into Functional Elements.
To help students develop a sense of what constitutes a strong example of a particular trait, teachers can have students listen to or read excerpts from an exemplar touchstone text (which could be a student writing sample) to (a) identify the primary trait evident in the excerpts and (b) identify concrete evidence for characterizing a piece of writing as strong on that particular trait.
Teachers also might ask students to develop their own definition for the trait and/or the descriptors for different scores on a trait rubric by examining superb, average, and weak examples. It is better to limit the number of traits that receive instructional focus at any given time to one or two; the decision regarding which traits are targeted should be guided by the genre and form of writing being taught as well as students' needs.
Writing portfolios are a valuable tool for providing students with feedback regarding how well they incorporate various traits in their writing. They also give students opportunities to reflect on the writing process and their writing accomplishments, and help them make informed choices about what pieces of writing exemplify their best work (see Writing Portfolio: Student Reflection). Portfolios also can provide a mechanism for teachers to reflect on their writing instruction and to establish individualized goals for students (see Writing Portfolio: Teacher Reflection).
Accommodating all students
Even when a top-notch writing program is firmly established in the classroom, some students will require additional assistance in mastering the skills and strategies of effective writing. Such assistance can be provided through adaptations, which include accommodations in the learning environment, instructional materials, and teaching strategies, as well as more significant modifications to task demands and actual writing tasks. A list of such adaptations is provided in Adaptations for Struggling Writers.
Spelling and handwriting strategies
Of course, elementary school teachers must explicitly teach spelling and handwriting to their students (this is not to say that secondary educators do not address these skills, but they do so to a much lesser extent). Research-based suggestions for teaching spelling and handwriting to students with and without writing difficulties are summarized in Tips for Teaching Spelling and Tips for Teaching Handwriting, respectively.
Students can spend time practicing and self-evaluating their performance, with the teacher frequently checking their work (error correction is critical). Depending on how well the students do, the teacher may teach additional lessons. The students might also work with each other to study/practice and evaluate each other's work. Finally, at the end of the week, the teacher should assess how well the students have learned the elements.
To facilitate the establishment of weekly routines in spelling (which is usually a focus of instruction across elementary grades), review the following activities and student handouts.
The above are basic lesson formats; the content for an actual lesson is derived from the spelling patterns (either orthographic or morphemic) targeted for instruction. These teacher-directed activities are used to provide more explicit spelling instruction, as student self-study or partner activities are insufficient for many students, especially those who struggle with spelling, to learn spelling patterns and rules.
Teaching composing strategies
Students who struggle with writing, including those with disabilities, typically require explicit and systematic instruction in specific composing strategies. Even more emphasis should be placed on strategies that support the planning and revising aspects of the writing process, which trouble these students most. Fortunately, there have been numerous studies examining the effectiveness of various planning and revising strategies for students with and without high-incidence disabilities in multiple educational contexts (i.e., whole classrooms, small group instruction, individualized tutoring). Two excellent resources that describe this research and give advice on how to teach the many available strategies are Writing Better: Effective Strategies for Teaching Students With Learning Difficulties (Graham & Harris, 2005) and Making the Writing Process Work: Strategies for Composition and Self-Regulation (Harris & Graham, 1996). For this resource, only a few research-based strategies are presented in depth to give teachers an idea of how to implement composing strategies in their particular setting.
Following are two planning strategies (one for narrative writing and one for persuasive writing) and five revising/editing strategies. For all of these, the teacher should first model how to use the strategy, then give students an opportunity to cooperatively apply the strategy while producing group papers, and finally let students practice using the strategy while writing individual papers. Throughout these stages of instruction, the teacher should provide extensive feedback and encouragement, discuss how to apply the strategy in diverse contexts, solicit students' suggestions for improvement, and directly link strategy use to writing performance. All of the strategies presented here use acronyms that encapsulate the multiple steps of the strategies. Furthermore, each strategy has an accompanying watermark illustration that serves to cue the acronym. These features help reduce memory and retrieval demands for students, particularly those with learning problems.
This is a narrative-planning strategy (personal or fictional) that incorporates the basic structure of narrative (i.e., SPACE) and the steps for planning and writing a good story (i.e., LAUNCH). A prompt sheet identifies the strategy steps and can be copied for each student or reproduced for a poster display. A planning sheet allows students to record their story ideas, writing goals, and self-talk statements.
First, the student should establish and record personalized writing goals: a quality goal and a related quantity goal. For example, a student struggling with word choice (one of the six traits described previously) might identify a goal to increase quality rating from a 3 to a 5 on a 6-point scale (see Analytic Trait Scoring Rubric). A related quantity goal to help the student reach this level of quality in word choice might be to include a minimum of 10 descriptive words in the story.
Next, the student should generate ideas for a story and record single words or short phrases that capture these ideas (it is important to discourage students from writing complete sentences on a planning sheet, as this will restrain flexibility in planning and yield a rough draft rather than a true plan). Note that space is provided for multiple ideas for each basic part of a story — students should be encouraged to explore several possibilities for setting and plot elements to foster creativity and to permit evaluation of each idea's merit.
Finally, the student should record self-talk statements, which are personalized comments, exhortations, or questions to be spoken aloud (initially) or subvocalized (once memorized) while planning and writing to help the student cope with negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the writing process or the task. For example, a student who believes writing is hard might record, "This is a challenge, but I like challenges and I have my strategy to help me do well."
The last sheet is a score card, which is used by a peer to evaluate the student's writing performance. The evaluation criteria are closely linked to the valued qualities embedded in the strategy itself (i.e., million-dollar words, sharp sentences, and lots of detail), the basic structure of a narrative, and writing mechanics. Of course, these criteria could be modified to align more with particular writing traits, and the rating scale could be adjusted to match the scale used by the teacher. At the bottom of the score card, the writer tallies the points, determines any improvement (this implies progress monitoring, a critical aspect of strategy instruction that helps students see how their efforts impact their writing), and sets goals for the next story.
This strategy for planning persuasive papers incorporates the structure of persuasion (i.e., DARE) and the steps for planning and writing a good opinion paper (i.e., DEFEND). The materials for this strategy are very similar to those provided for SPACE LAUNCH; there is a prompt sheet, a planning sheet, and a score card. Note that the student is required to identify and record ideas that support the position and ideas that counter that position. In the process of doing this, the student may decide to alter the position after evaluating the importance and relevance of each idea. The student can place an asterisk next to those ideas to elaborate upon or to provide concrete supporting evidence for, which encourages further planning.
These are revising/editing strategies intended to be used as checklists by individual students during an initial round of revision and editing. COPS (Mulcahy, Marfo, Peat, & Andrews, 1986) is a limited checklist and therefore is appropriate for primary grade students, but it can be used for any genre. COPS (Singer & Bashir, 1999), on the other hand, is a comprehensive checklist and thus is more suitable for older or better writers, but it is used for exposition and persuasion rather than narration. However, the items on the checklist can be modified to make it appropriate for narratives.
This strategy for individual revising (De La Paz, Swanson, & Graham, 1998) involves a greater degree of self-regulation on the part of the writer than checklists and is considerably more powerful; consequently, it is very helpful for students with writing difficulties. The prompt sheet lists the three steps for strategy deployment — compare (identifying discrepancies between written text and intended meaning), diagnose (selecting a specific reason for the mismatch), and operate (fixing the problem and evaluating the effectiveness of the change).
These strategy steps occur first while the student attends to each sentence in the paper, and then, during a second "cycle," while the student attends to each paragraph in the paper. A third cycle, focusing on the whole text, could be added. A minimum of two cycles is necessary to help the student attend to local as well as more global problems in the text. The diagnostic options for making meaningful revisions vary depending on the level of text to which the student is attending. The teacher will need to develop sets of diagnostic cards, color coded for each cycle, from which the student selects.
This revising/editing strategy (Ellis & Friend, 1991) employs a checklist, but it does have two unique aspects. First, the student is expected to set writing goals before even beginning to write, and when finished revising and editing a paper, to determine if the student's goals were met. Second, the student is expected to work with a peer to double-check editing. As for the other checklists, the teacher can add additional items once the student attains mastery of those listed.
This revising strategy (Neubert & McNelis, 1986) is appropriate for a second round of revision and editing (a third round would involve conferring with the teacher) during which students work with one another. The prompt sheet indicates that a peer editor is to first read the author's paper and mark those parts of the paper that are imaginative, unusual, interesting, and confusing.
Then, the peer editor praises the author for the positive aspects and questions the author about the confusing parts. The peer makes suggestions for how the paper can be improved and gives back the original, marked copy to the author.
Finally, the author addresses the confusing parts marked on the paper and, if desired, makes changes suggested by the peer editor. Whenever a student elects to not make a requested or suggested modification, the student should be expected to adequately justify that decision (this encourages ownership and responsibility).
Integrating writing instruction with content area learning
Teachers often feel that devoting ample time to writing instruction is problematic given the voluminous content area information that must be covered in the typical curriculum (Troia & Maddox, 2004). Simultaneously, they sometimes struggle to identify relevant and stimulating writing topics and assignments that will help students develop their expertise as writers. One way to resolve these dilemmas for older students or students with higher level writing skills is to integrate writing instruction with content area learning.
One important aspect of content area learning is developing communicative competence for interacting with others who have shared knowledge about a discipline or area of study. Individuals within a discipline — such as literary critics, historians, economists, biologists, physicists, and mathematicians — possess a unique way of talking and writing about the theories, principles, concepts, facts, methods of inquiry, and so forth connected with that discipline. Thus, a common goal of content area instruction and writing instruction is to help students acquire proficiency in disciplinary writing.
This does not mean, however, that less content-driven writing exercises are undesirable or unnecessary; the inclusion of disciplinary writing is simply one part of a strong writing program (see Ten Additional Attributes of a Top-Notch Classroom Writing Program). If teachers have students write regularly in content area classes and use content area materials as stimuli for writing workshop, it is more likely that students will develop the capacity to communicate effectively in varied disciplinary discourse communities and will write for more educationally and personally germane purposes.
A number of methods for integrating content area reading with writing have been developed by researchers. Following is a brief description of four methods. The story impressions method (McGinley & Denner, 1987), similar to exchange-compare writing (Wood, 1986), the steps for which are presented in Story Impressions/Exchange-Compare Writing,, utilizes a cooperative learning framework. Students are assigned to a group and given roles (researcher, scribe, content editor, proofreader, and reporter) for writing a brief summary that predicts the content of a lesson or unit text based on key vocabulary provided by the teacher. Once the group has read the text, they rewrite their summary to reflect the actual content of the text and their improved understanding of the material, and discuss this revised version with the rest of the class.
- Students are assigned to home groups and each person in a group is given a different source text (e.g., a magazine article about exercise and cardiovascular health, a newspaper clipping about new medical procedures and drugs that can help reduce the risk of heart attacks, a consumer brochure outlining healthy eating tips for promoting cardiac health, and a textbook chapter about the human circulatory system) to read.
- Then, each student completes a double-entry journal while reading the assigned source text. This is a journal in which the student records some important piece of information from the source text on the left side of the journal page (with an accompanying page number) and a response, question, or evaluative comment on the right side. After completing their double-entry journal, students disperse to an expert group, a group where everyone else has read the same source text. Members of the expert group share their journal entries and summarize the material using a graphic organizer.
- Finally, students return to their home groups to teach the other members about the content information they learned from their text and discuss how this information relates to that covered by the other texts. The double-entry journal could be expanded to a triple-entry journal by having students within the expert groups respond to each others' responses, questions, or evaluations in a third column.
- In math, a class might be about to embark on a unit of study related to geometry. The teacher asks students to brainstorm all that they know about geometry and list these under the Know column. This student-generated information should be organized into categories either by the teacher or by the students with teacher guidance (e.g., shapes, angles, spatial orientation, and measurement) that will facilitate text comprehension.
- Then, the teacher lists under the Want to Learn column those things students would like to discover about geometry (which helps motivate them to read the text).
- After reading, the teacher records under the Learned column what the students learned through the text, with particular attention paid to information that confirmed their prior knowledge, information that was inconsistent with what was anticipated, or new information. If appropriate, new categories are added. Next, students write their summary paragraph based on the information listed in the Learned column.
- Finally, students identify how they would locate missing information in the How to Find out More column (e.g., use a Web browser to search for documents related to geometry), which can help motivate additional learning.
One last method for integrating content area reading with writing is the use of Writing Frames (Nichols, 1980). Writing frames help struggling writers use appropriate text organization for summarizing content area information that adheres to a basic structure (e.g., compare-contrast). The frames prompt coherent organization by providing partially completed sentences or transition words that, over time, can be faded as students become familiar with each frame. The examples provided can easily be adjusted to fit the contents of a particular source text.
- Having the text on tape, CD, or in electronic file format for computer readout;
- Having the struggling reader/writer work with a partner who is a better reader; or
- Providing the student with a modified version of the text that is written with the same essential content but at a lower grade level.
- Carefully consider with whom students are most likely to work well in a group and place them in groups accordingly;
- Assign roles that are well suited for students' particular strengths (e.g., assign a student who is an accomplished speaker but a struggling writer the role or reporter); and 3. Seek professional development opportunities that focus on cooperative and peer-mediated learning.
A significant number of students perform well below the proficient level of writing achievement for their grade level (Persky, Daane, & Jin, 2003). The reasons for this are varied and complex. The number of exemplary writing programs are limited, and even when available they are often not adequate to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
These students require intensive, individualized, and explicit teaching of various strategies if they are to improve their writing abilities. This document provides an information base for the core components of effective writing instruction, and examples of specific strategies and supports that can be used to develop a comprehensive writing program to meet the needs of all students.
About the author
Gene Fowler, celebrated author, editor, and journalist, epitomized the inherent difficulty of composing with his comment, "Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."
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Reprinted with permission from The Access Center and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
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