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Holistic writing: integrated patterns.


This study examines a small group of upper elementary students who have struggled with language foundations and the fundamentals of writing. Focusing principally on English language learners and learning disabled students, classroom investigation takes a close look at behaviors that demonstrate a surprisingly broad range of student needs. It weighs these behaviors against related theory and research to identify instructional implications.


There is a relative directness about the English language--as Robert Kaplan saw it, a dominantly linear pattern of thought and discourse (Kaplan, 1966)--that seems to serve the dual purpose of getting things said and getting the job done. This aspect, along with other sociopolitical realities, has contributed to making English the lingua franca for international communication in a variety of spheres. Among native speakers, schooled patterns of thought and discourse are conveyed through what we read and how we are encouraged to write. Even in our unschooled speech and our approach to storytelling, patterns emerge consistent with the rhythms and contours of our language.

Returning to elementary education after many years of secondary and university teaching, I encountered fertile ground for research into language acquisition. As an ESL teacher at a small elementary school in Fairfax County, Virginia, I joined the pool of school-based specialists providing instructional support to English language learners as well as lower achieving and learning disabled students. This diversity was fully represented by a total of fifteen upper elementary students, ages nine to eleven, assigned to me for remedial writing workshops. I soon learned from these students that the dominantly linear pattern of English thought and discourse is something that may well need to be taught. For all the strength and clarity of expression that it affords, there is nothing intrinsically natural about it. All of these students needed to recognize the generally forward movement of English and apply it to their own writing; but this was the functional tip of an entire iceberg of learning obstacles.

The Literacy Environment

At my school, direct literacy instruction represents only part of a rich environment frequently reviewed and adjusted to student needs. With certain appropriate variations, there is a common language for assessment and placement. Standard rubrics provided by the district give clear literacy benchmarks through levels of achievement. The current approach to writing is essentially derived from the work of Donald Graves (2003) and adapted to a six-step process of planning, drafting, conferring, revising, editing, and publishing. In addition, a variety of writing organizers are introduced from the second grade on. Web organizers receive particular emphasis in the upper grades through Kidspiration software (2001) which has proven effective with some of our most challenged learners. A Reading Buddies program brings students together for a variety of shared reading experiences. Finally, through two years of school-based workshops, our reading specialist has implemented the Fountas and Pinnell (2001) guided reading program modeling classroom procedures and providing further instructional support. This infrastructure would seem to make language and literacy development accessible to a broad range of learners. In fact, the school has seen notable improvement in standardized writing scores for its upper-graders, with a fifty-point rise in mean scaled scores over a three-year period and a drop in the non-pass rate from 30% to 4% over the same period. But this upswing could not be expected to continue under its own impetus. A certain degree of complacency in the fourth and last year under comparison yielded significant losses in many strands of literacy assessment. Clearly, I would need to determine how our professional learning community might continue to meet the challenge of state-mandated testing.

Research and Data Collection

Having taught language to students of all ages, and noted many aspects of the language acquisition process shared across multiage diversity, I was eager to explore the full range of learning needs for all fifteen of my writing workshop students. Current inclusive trends in elementary education have made it increasingly common for ESL teachers to find themselves working not only with targeted English language students but also with other challenged learners. In this heterogeneous if not broadly inclusive ESL environment, the common thread of language delay or language processing difficulty--whether permanent, transitory, or content-related--became the central criterion for involvement in the research project. Drawn from an unusually international student population, my fifteen writing students included only nine who were enrolled concurrently in the ESL program--a Peruvian, a Uruguayan, two Salvadorans, a Turk, a Pakistani, a Tibetan, and two Koreans. Only five of these students had attained an elementary level of literacy in their home languages; the other four were also receiving special education services. Six American-born children comprised the remainder of the group; these were two learning disabled and four lower achieving mainstream students.

As a qualitative approach seemed to serve my purpose most directly, I posed the following questions for research: What happens when struggling elementary students are faced with a writing assignment; and what are the instructional implications of their behavior? Employing the contextual approach of teacher research, I collected data from a variety of sources in the learning environment. To identify student strengths and weaknesses, I examined writing samples gleaned from ESL, LD, and general classroom assignments and assessments. Classroom observations, particularly useful in noting behavior and affect related to the writing experience, also helped clarify where writing flow was achieved or hindered. I became acquainted with relevant learning issues for students receiving special services through their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Further insights were provided by audio-taped student interviews and frequent conferences with classroom teachers and specialists. Finally, my research log offered a reflective space for identifying patterns and relationships that might lead to instructional solutions.

Mapping It Out

When I began working with them, most of these students had written little or nothing in the writing journals they were expected to keep as an upper-grade classroom requirement. Some of them, on the other hand, had developed a disjointed, rambling style that was largely undecipherable. Many students, due either to a learning disability or to limited familiarity with the language, had failed to perceive and apply to their own writing the spoken language patterns around them. My American-born students seemed unable to identify sufficiently with the writing process to transfer to it their own native voice in English, while ESL students retained foreign patterns--the digressions, rhetorical turnings, and parallelisms native to other languages (Kaplan, 1966)--which they translated into dictionary English. To facilitate growth, I would need to provide my students with a consistently balanced and integrated approach to whole-language development (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004) which was based on their own learning and behavioral patterns. In charting strengths, weaknesses, behaviors, and relevant learning issues, I found a surprising range of instructional needs. In fact, there was a greater demand for differentiated instruction in my small, pullout groups than in the general classrooms they had left behind, where classmates were doing quite well with large-group instruction. At first glance, my students presented directions so varied that individual instruction seemed the most effective intervention. Upon closer examination, however, I saw that all strands within each area of analysis affected two or more students, creating a variegated but cohesive cross-weave of students with special needs. Among noted strengths were small but clear signs of ongoing development, albeit at a rate below general standards. Minute improvements, retention of one small correction or another, offered encouraging evidence that even these students possessed the natural human drive to write effectively (Graves, 1972). Most of them revealed a "success hook," something that might be tapped or applied to enhance learning. For example, some responded to bilingual coaching or could write freely on a single favorite theme. Not all students needed to work on writing mechanics. There were a few who could be counted on to offer peer guidance in correct usage and revision in early-draft stages.

There were three leading weaknesses, or obstacles to cohesive linear discourse: an utter lack of productivity, frequent verbatim or thematic repetitions, and an overflow of unfocused language with key letters and words omitted. A few students, both ESL and learning disabled, also had difficulty with letter formation and basic letter-sound relationships. Most needed considerable work in spelling and punctuation. Finally, errors related to foreign language interference persisted even with students who were not fluent speakers of the home language.

Behaviors demonstrated varying degrees of focus on the task at hand. There were those students who responded to a writing prompt by immediately drawing a web organizer. But after achieving initial focus by brainstorming words, phrases and whole sentences into the interconnected circles, they either stopped writing, not knowing how to proceed from planning to drafting, or copied in paragraph form the exact wording of their planning web. IEPs also indicated the presence of "inappropriate social behavior interfering with learning". Indeed, behaviors common to the majority involved task avoidance, most often taking the form of social interaction where permitted. Where it was not permitted or, more rarely, not desired, "zoning out" in complete inactivity was quite common. At times, actual discomfort was reflected in nervous fidgeting and an edgy reluctance to focus close-in. Occasionally this seemed to trigger other behaviors related to loss of trust and diminished self-esteem, such as aggressive/defensive behavior and self-deprecation.

Weighing the Issues

A few significant learning issues predominated. For many of these students, the "quantum leap" from sentence to paragraph writing and their incapacitating concern with writing mechanics seemed to alienate them from the writing process itself, as a medium that could ever express their own personalities and experiences. Protracted questioning of the teacher and extended task avoidance revealed that the school's six-step writing approach, referred to earlier (Graves, 2003), had not provided them with the necessary foundations for written expression. Unfortunately, some of our best-laid lesson plans are little more than "noise" for students who face language processing challenges. The acquisition of language and related skills follows largely from accumulated instances of comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985). Therefore, we cannot always assume that all lessons will be learned as delivered. English language as well as learning disabled and otherwise challenged mainstream students all need to devote more time and effort to language processing, in addition, English language learners often have difficulty attending to both language form and content (VanPatten, 1990).

Where learning-to-listen has not yet become listening-to-learn, appropriate strategies must be applied at an appropriate pace. My attempts at whole-group instruction were met with absent stares, as I tried to teach paragraph structure and the concept of generalization applied to "main ideas" or topic sentences. Lacking were the kinds of learning stimuli that would build from the child's intimate view of detail to the target concepts. In gestalt terms, such appropriate learning experiences would enable the learner to develop a coherent field of perception related to the writing process by leaving clear traces that facilitated their own recurrence (Blosser, 1973).

In the meantime, my students' openness to abundant social interaction and teacher-guided peer instruction helped them find the vocabulary and structures native to their own experiences. Faced with the foreign or alienating nature of the writing process, they seemed to thrive on social interaction as an essential bridge between the medium and themselves. A good many of them had not come from homes where early literacy foundations had been laid effectively; and where such foundations are weak, teachers need to provide the comfort and oral basis of formative social interaction (Lyons, 2003). In fact, brain research has shown that positive emotional and social experiences are associated with production in the body of the organic compounds dopamine and serotonin. These affect the very biological disposition to learn by facilitating the firing and transmittal of brain impulses that result in learning (Given, 2002).

A careful distinction must be made between organic disability and temporary deficiency in order to avoid the mistaken placement of ESL students in special education programs. But there is indeed a point where learning issues and related instructional strategies will overlap for these two groups. My own English language students exhibited differences in cultural thought patterns and difficulties in activating passive language that paralleled certain learning disabilities, as both groups of students struggled with the dominant linear pattern of English discourse. In addition, certain English language learners observed at the elementary level are seen to experience a kind of dual language delay--a natural period of adjustment to parallel but distinct language codes in the child's environment. The characteristic confused or insufficient development in either language is a manifestation of a transitional sorting process, which may resemble language delay due to a learning disability. In both cases, attention, auditory processing, and memory are directly affected.

Although my writing students had been designated for remediation, I knew I had to avoid any remedial approach involving exclusive exposure to tightly controlled, reduced input. Relevant controls would have to be provided within an engaging, accelerated and comprehensive instructional framework leading to the rapid proficiency demanded by high-stakes testing, and to higher-level competencies needed for problem solving (Mohr, 2004). But the inability to articulate recall of past events and associated emotions limited a number of these learners as they tried to find language to address hypothetical situations. Fortunately, this inability yielded significantly to a constructivist approach. By adjusting the strictly linear concept of past-presentfuture for those students who were challenged by it, I was able to help some of them reconstruct past moments and feelings through future planning based on current information (Given, 2002).

What Works

We can begin to construct strategies for higher level competencies if we allow our students to see, hear, and feel the connections from speech to literacy. Links between facets of the self, body and mind, speech and writing, need to be carefully nurtured or constructed for some learners. For those who find it particularly difficult to make the jump from sentence to cohesive paragraph writing, the topic sentence is the first mountain to climb. From the student's point of view, that summary introduction to linear discourse presents an almost absurd challenge: How can I tell you what I'm going to say without saying it? To provide instructional time and space for this and the daunting list of other equally challenging individual and group needs, I ultimately relied on a holistic approach supported by four main strategies--group storytelling, paragraph knitting, group paragraph writing and interactive reading. Where a student's social drive interferes with the rather lonely task of writing, it is important to assist focus by infusing this task with enlivening social energy. Particularly for those children who have not found motivation elsewhere, the social factor is indispensable in the classroom. The consecutive integration of language modes will also facilitate focus through maximal involvement in balanced language and social development.

Group Storytelling

We often speak of voice in literature and in developing writers. By adding speech to the reading/writing continuum, and allowing students to witness the voice in literacy, we can help them develop that inner voice where writing begins. Accepting the written word as an extension of oneself by establishing clear oral foundations is particularly important for those learners who

have never experienced personal ownership of their own writing. Almost everyone loves a good story told around the campfire. In the classroom, I tried to capture some of that feeling by guiding students through collaborative group storytelling, in an atmosphere of light-hearted exploration. Once upon a time ... seemed as good a place as any to begin developing a sense of opening statements; and my students had an almost preverbal grasp of the generalization embodied in the formula. In the telling, there were abundant teachable moments. I was able to call group or individual attention to key concepts and strategies that connected bits of our story to related writing conventions. With some basic ground rules appropriate to each student grouping, even the most reticent managed to participate. From these stories, we all began to draw ideas and vivid details to spark our writing. Even where writing prompts provided clear content, bringing oral foundations into the writing class empowered the children to connect with their own written expression and to develop the quality of flow that comes when there is an inner voice connected to the writing hand. Benefits were also apparent for children with memory and auditory processing difficulties. Their investment in the auditory environment seemed to have an enhancing effect on both comprehension and short-term recall.

Paragraph Knitting or Word and Idea Links

Remembering that, in a sense, most of my students could see the stitch but not the fabric, I thought of helping them experience cohesive paragraph writing and linear discourse by knitting or linking one sentence to the next using words as stitches. Paragraph knitting seemed an appropriate name for the strategy, although my students much preferred word and idea links. Two or three "main words" would be circled in a sentence just completed; and the next sentence would have to contain one of these words. Repeating this process, the writer would eventually return to pick up all the key words in the opening (topic) sentence and, optionally, add on another sentence from another key word in an immediately preceding sentence. Modeling and group practice continued over a period of a good many lessons, providing as many varied and fun-filled repetitions as it took for my students to feel comfortable with the process. The paragraphs that we constructed together almost always had an element of the absurd or the fanciful; and this approach seemed to work for acquiring the strategy.

Paragraph Knitting uses the child's intimate focus on detail, and builds toward a gestalt perception of paragraph structure. It is also a very concrete way of teaching the forward movement of English expository style. Admittedly the strategy can yield some rather stilted language; but for some students it makes a good beginning. It affords sufficient time and space for appropriate clarifications and for meeting further individual and group learning needs. Students can gradually be taught, for example, how to avoid excessive repetition by using pronouns or by switching from literal word links to related idea links. Eventually students will be able to see that a given sentence does not belong in a certain paragraph because there are no links with any other main words or ideas in the paragraph.

Group Paragraph Writing and Interactive Reading

Building on the social and collaborative strengths of paragraph knitting, I extended our group experience to a round-robin group paragraph writing activity. Writing space was provided along the classroom walls to accommodate all students present, working in pairs. Starting from a teacher- or student-generated topic sentence--often one based on our group storytelling--student pairs would rotate around the room, using word and idea links to build paragraphs one sentence at a time, until all students had contributed to all writing stations. Each pair consisted of a coach and a scribe. These roles would alternate, where student skills were somewhat equally matched, or remain constant, where there was clearly a stronger peer coach. An agreed-upon signal would send the pairs on to the next station; and timing between signals would allow for the kinds of monitoring and whole-class or individualized instruction demanded by the students' needs--from letter formation to higher-level thinking.

Any appropriate combination of choral, teacher, or student reading of completed paragraphs would further extend the social event around an interactive reading process, involving group evaluation of content and attention to writing mechanics. The evaluation would often culminate in a decision, by vote or consensus, as to which was the best paragraph, the most interesting start for a short story, the most likely to succeed as a Hollywood movie, and the like. Both shared and individual ownership of the material being evaluated seemed to eliminate any negatively competitive element and, additionally, helped to sustain student focus throughout the process.

Findings and Implications

By early spring and the final days before testing, I had begun to notice signs of a significant change in the way my students related to their own writing. They actually seemed eager to focus on writing for and by themselves, finally weaned of the social, affective, and technical scaffolding I had provided. In fact, classroom observations made in September and again toward the end of the school year revealed a marked increase not only in productivity but also in the time that these students were able to concentrate on their writing. Even the least productive among them showed an increase, over the time indicated, from five to thirty minutes of sustained writing in a single sitting, and from three to twelve written lines per half hour. In addition, preliminary writing scores on state-generated practice tests, based on Virginia's Standards of Learning, indicated that my students had, indeed, learned to write under a certain degree of pressure, following a standard formal essay format. In retrospect, I realize that what may be missing in general classroom instruction, even among the most comprehensive of literacy programs, is a learning environment that is sufficiently diversified and holistic to accommodate the fullest range of learners. Notwithstanding current trends and the importance of inclusive elements in the general classroom, it may be necessary for a full spectrum of diversified instruction delivery to retain pullout instruction for certain students with special needs.

Effective development of all the skills essential to cohesive expository writing should include, where lacking, student ownership of strategies related to sustained focus and productivity. Instructional time needs to be found to help students focus singly and holistically on all the relevant building blocks, including oral foundations of literacy, structural links contributing to linear discourse, interactive reading, and purposeful social interaction.


Blosser, P. (1973). Principles of gestalt psychology and their application to teaching junior high school science. Science Education, 57, 43-53.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D.J. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Fountas, I., Pinnell, G.S. (2001). Guiding readers and writers, grades 3-6: Teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Given, B.K. (2002). Teaching to the brain's natural learning systems. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Graves, D.H. (1972). Balance the basics: Let them write. New York, NY: The Ford Foundation.

Graves, D.H. (2003). Writing: Teachers and children at work, 20th anniversary edition. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

Kaplan, R.B. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, 16,1-20.

Kidspiration. (2001). Inspiration Software, Inc., 7412 SW Beaverton, Hillsdale Hwy., Suite 102, Portland, OR 97225-2167, (800)-877-4202,

Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis. London, UK: Longman.

Lyons, C.A. (2003) Teaching struggling readers: How to use brain-based research to maximize learning (Forward by Marie Clay). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mohr, K.A.J. (2004). English as an accelerated language: A call to action for reading teachers. The Reading Teacher, 58, 18-26.

VanPatten, B. (1990). Attending to form and content in the input: An experiment in consciousness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12, 287-301. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cary Kamarat, Fairfax County Public Schools

Cary Kamarat researches language acquisition, has taught at Evergreen State College and NATO Defense College in Rome, and served on the Greater Washington Reading Council.
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Author:Kamarat, Cary
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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