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Improving the compositions of students with learning disabilities using a strategy involving product and process goal setting.

In recent years, one of the most influential conceptualizations of the process of composing is that writing is a problem-solving task (Flower & Hayes, 1977). Most writing tasks that children are assigned in school, however, can best be described as ill-defined problems; the rules, or methods, for completing the task are often unclear to students and they may have no systematic way to tell whether a particular solution is correct. Two strategies that can be helpful in working with ill-defined problems are to break the problem into several subproblems or add more structure to the situation. To illustrate the first procedure, a writing assignment might be subdivided into several subproblems: (a) planning what to say in advance, (b) writing the paper, and (c) polishing it by making final changes. By treating the problem as several subproblems, students find it less overwhelming.

The second procedure involves limiting or restricting the possible solution to the problem. For example, a writer could conduct a means-ends analysis figuring out what the final form of the paper will look like (product goals) and the means that will be used to reach the selected "ends" (process goals). By adding more structure to the problem, it becomes better defined and more manageable.

In the present study, students with learning disabilities, who were poor writers, were taught to use a planning and writing strategy based on both procedures. The strategy was structured around a means-ends analysis; the student set product goals for what the paper would accomplish and contain and further articulated process goals for how this would be accomplished. The writing task was also broken down into several related subproblems designed to facilitate accomplishment of the goals:

* Generate product and process goals.

* Develop notes.

* Organize notes.

* Write and continue planning.

* Evaluate success in obtaining goals.

A strategy of this nature should be particularly effective with students with learning disabilities for several reasons. First, goal-setting is not only a critical component of effective writing (Hayes & Flower, 1986), but the beneficial effects of setting goals on task performance is one of the most robust and replicable findings in psychological research (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). Goals affect students' performance by influencing what is attended to, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating the development and use of strategies for accomplishing the target goals. Thus, goal setting appears to be especially beneficial for students with learning disabilities, who are often described as unable or unwilling to make active academic responses and deficient in strategy deployment (Harris, 1982).

A second reason that the strategy should be successful is that is provides students with a mechanism for executing and managing many of the mental operations considered important to planning and writing text (Graham & Harris, 1989a). Specifically, students set goals aimed at generating, framing, and planning text; and the strategy provides a mechanism for regulating the writing process. Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty with each of the processes. In terms of content generation, these students do not appear to be especially successful in employing strategies for self-directed memory search. Thomas, Englert, and Gregg (1987) found that students with learning disabilities were unable to produce multiple written statements about familiar topics, whereas others (Graham, 1990; MacArthur & Graham, 1987) have noted that students with learning disabilities possess much more knowledge than is reflected in their written products.

Students with learning disabilities also appear to have some difficulty in using genre-specific knowledge to retrieve and frame relevant information. they frequently fail to include critical elements such as how a story ends (Graham & Harris, 1989b; Nodine, Barenbaum, & Newcomer, 1985) or the premise and conclusion to their essays (Graham, 1990). Furthermore, heir planning of prose can best be described as what Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) term "knowledge telling": simply converting the writing assignment into a question-answering task, telling whatever comes to mind and then terminating their response or answering in short choppy phrases (Englert & Raphael, 1988; Thomas et al., 1987). Finally, Englert, Raphael, Fear, and Anderson (1988) found that students with learning disabilities were less aware than their normally achieving counterparts of how to monitor the quality of text or control and regulate the writing process.

Strategy training has become a popular means for attacking the academic problems of students with learning disabilities, especially in the area of writing (Wong, Harris, & Graham, in press). In addition to our program of research (see Graham & Harris, 1989a), Deshler and his colleagues have developed writing strategies for adolescents with learning disabilities (Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, & Warner, 1983); and Englert and her colleagues have field tested a writing-strategies curriculum with elementary students with learning disabilities (Englert et al., in press). The strategy examined in this study differs from our previous work and that of the other investigators in that the strategy is primarily structured around the goal-setting process.

In learning the strategy, students in this study were first taught to use it when writing argumentative essays; however, generalization to story production as well as maintenance over time were also investigated. Data were further collected on changes in students' written products (especially in terms of the target goals selected), approach to writing, knowledge about composing, attitudes toward writing, and self-efficacy. In addition, evidence concerning students' use of the strategy and social validity were obtained. Finally, students did all of their composing on a word processor.



Participants were four fifth-grade students with learning disabilities (Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo) receiving resource room services in an inner-city elementary school in the northeastern United States. These four participatns were the only fifth-grade students in the resource room that met the following stepwise criteria: identification as learning disabled by the school district, IQ scores between 85 and 115 on an individually administered intelligence test (WISC-R or Slosson Intelligence Test), achievement at least 2 years below age or grade level in one or more academic areas as measured by the Woodcock Johnson Psychoeducational Battery (WJ), absense of any other disability, and interviews with teachers indicating that significant composition problems were evident. The Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests from the Test of Written Language (TOWL) were also administered to each subject; each subtest has a mean standard score of 10 and a standard deviation of 3 (Hammill & Larsen, 1983).

The first participant, Merry, was age 11 years, 10 months, at the start of the study; she had previously been retained in the first grade. Her full-scale score on the WISC-R was 100, and her reading achievement score on the WJ was 2 years below her age level. Merry's standard scores on the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests of the TOWL were 8 and 7, respectively.

Sam, the second participant, was age 11 years, 2 months; and his score on the Slosson Intelligence Test was 87. Furthermore, his reading achievement score on the WJ was 2 years below age level, while he scored 6 and 9 on the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests of the TOWL, respectively.

The third participant, Pippin, was age 12 years, 6 months; and he had been retained in both the first and fourth grade. His full-scale score on the WISC-R was 98, and his reading achievement score on the WJ was 2 years below his age level. His standard scores on the Vocabularly and Thematic Maturity subtests of the TOWL were 3 and 8, respectively.

The fourth participant, Frodo, was 13 years old, and he had been retained in the third and fourth grade. His full-scale score on the WISC-R was 90, and his reading achievement score on the WJ was 3 years below his age level. On the Vocabulary and Thematic subtests from the TOWL, he scored a 3 and a 5, respectively.

Experimental Design

The effects of the strategy were assessed through the use of a multiple probe design across subjects. The following conditions were in effect during the experiment:

* Preteaching. Participants received instruction in using the word processor and on the components of a good essay and story.

* Baseline. During baseline, pretreatment response rates on writing essays were established.

* Treatment. Instruction was started for the first participant, Merry, after a stable baseline in terms of total number of functional essay elements was established. Instruction continued until the student demonstrated independent mastery of the strategy and was able to write essays that contained all the basic parts. Instruction was not started for the next participant until Merry's posttreatment essay performance reached a criterion level of at least one and a half times the mean number of elements produced during baseline. Identical procedures were followed when introducing and terminating treatment with the third and fourth participants.

* Posttreatment essay probes. Three to four posttreatment essay probes were administered immediately following instruction.

* Maintenance probes. For the first participant, Merry, maintenance writing probes were collected at 4, 11, and 15 weeks following instruction. For the second participant, Sam, maintenance probes were collected at 7 and 11 weeks following instruction. For the third participant, Pippin, a maintenance probe was collected at 5 weeks following instruction. The end of the school year precluded collection of a follow-up probe from the fourth participant, Frodo.

* Task generalization probes. Multiple story-writing probes were collected during baseline and following the administration of posttreatment essay probes. Because students were not demonstrating adequate transfer from essay to story writing, an additional instructional session was initiated following either the first or second task generalization probes with three of the participants.

General Procedures

Two graduate students majoring in special education served as instructors. Each instructor kept a daily log, recording students' comments and their observation on the students' use of the strategy.

Students were told that they would compose their essays and stories on a computer (an Apple IIe computer with a 40-column green monitor and a printer). All essay topics and picture prompts for writing stories were approved in advance by the school's two special education teachers and had been used in previous studies with similar children. The essay prompts and stories were presented in random order. On all writing problems, students were told that they could use the charts, introduced in pretraining, that detailed the parts of a good essay or story to help them write. Furthermore, at the strt of each writing session, students were given two pieces of paper and two pencils for preplanning or making notes. The examiner was directed to provide only computer-related assistance to students.

Instructional Procedures

Guidelines for designing and implementing self-instructional strategy development (Graham & Harris, 1987) were followed in constructing the instructional regime. The total number of 40-min instructional sessions (not including preteaching sessions) required for Merry, Sam, Pippin, nad Frodo were six, seven, eight, and six, respectively. The instructional steps were as follows:

Preteaching. Before the study received instruction on computer operations and typing. All participants initially had difficulty with a variety of text-editing operations and their typing speed was relatively slow, ranging from 12 to 21 letters/minute (min). Following instruction (7 to 13 sessions), all students were able to independently load the appropriate file from the disk, make revisions (including inserting, deleting, or replacing textual material), center headings, save the revised file, and print the paper. Typing speed also improved substantially; average number of letters/min ranged from 20 to 105 following training.

Preteaching further focused on teaching participants to identify and define the components of both a good essay and a good story. For each genre, the basic elements were itnroduced through a small chart that the student subsequently kept in a writing folder. After each element was introduced and defined, the student practiced identifying the elements in a series of short essays or stories, respectively. Preteaching on genre components took two sessions per student.

Review Current Performance Level. Following baseline, the student and the assigned instructor discussed the student's performance on the essays written during baseline. This included an examination of the basic components (premise, reasons, and conclusion), as well as the quality of each component. They then discussed the goal of training (to learn a strategy for planning and writing better papers) and why this is important. Students also wrote and signed a contract indicating they would learn the strategy.

Describe the Composition Strategy. The instructor next introduced the target strategy using a small shcart and explicitly described why and how each step of the strategy was used in planning and writing. The strategy included three steps:

1. Do PLANS (Pick goals, List ways to meet goals, And, make Notes, Sequence notes).

2. Write and say more.

3. Test goals.

The first step, PLANS, was a prewriting strategy that involved setting product and process goals, generating possible content to use in the paper, and sequencing notes before writing by numbering them. Students' choice of product goals was limited to a small set of alternatives; this reduced the complexity of the task and ensured that realistic goals were selected. The product goals were presented on a separate chart and included three or four goals in three areas: (a) purpose (i.e., write a paper that will be fun to read; write a paper that will teach something), (b) structure (e.g., write an essay that has all the parts, write a story that has all the parts, etc.), and (c) fluency (e.g., write a paper that is 80 words or longer, write a paper that is 100 words or longer, etc.). The fluency goals were adjusted for each student according to his or her pretest performance. In completing the first substep of PLANS, students were directed to select one goal from each area.

For the second substep of PLANS (List ways to meet goals), students were directed to develop one or more process goals for accomplishing each product goal selected. It was further stressed that the product and process foals should be attended to when generating the sequencing notes.

The second step of the strategy (write and say more) was a self-administered prompt to remind the student to continue planning once writing had actually started. The third step (test goals) involved evaluating the paper to determine if the selected goals were accomplished. If a goal was not met, students were encouraged to reflect on how it could be accomplished next time.

Model the Strategy. The instructor modeled the use of the strategy by writing an essay while "thinking out loud." While modeling the strategy, the instructor showed the student how to set up a planning sheet that would aid in the completion of Steps 1 and 3. The instructor also used self-statements or instructions (including problem definition, planning, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement) designed to regulate the use of the strategy. Once modeling was completed, the instructor and student discussed the importance of what we say to ourselves while we work. The students then recorded on small charts their own examples of things they could say to themselves to help them use the strategy. These charts, as well as the strategy and goal charts, were kept in the students' writing folders.

Mastery of Strategy Step.s Students were required to rehearse the steps of the strategy until memorized. they were permmited to paraphrase as long as meaning remained intact.

Controlled Practice. The instructor and student jointly composed an essay using the strategy and self-instructional statements. The strategy chart, goal chart, and the student-generated self-instruction list were available as prompts. Although instructions directed and monitored the process, they did not write the essay for the student.

Independent Performance. The student independetly composed two of three essays using the strategy and self-instructional statements. Positive and corrective feedback was provided as needed, and transition to covert self-instructions was encouraged. The strategy, goal, and self-statements charts were initially available as prompts, if necessary, but then faded.

Generalization and Maintenance Components. In a final session, the student and instructor discussed how the strategy could be used with other classroom assignments (e.g., stories and reports). A variety of other procedures for promoting generalization and maintenance were used throughout training:

* Students were asked to share what they were learning with their teachers.

* The teacher was asked to initial all instructional materials and compositions.

* Students were told to be prepared to use what they were learning in other settings.

* Students were encouraged to discuss opportunities for and instances of generalization with their instructor.

Data Collection and Scoring Procedures

All essays written before and after instruction were scored in terms of number of words, essay elements, coherence, and quality. For essay elements, all essays were divided into the following minimal parsable units: premise, reasons, conclusions, elaborations, and nonfunctional text. The coherence score was the longest number of funcitonal elements (premise, reason, conclusion, or elaboration) that were consecutively and coherently ordered in an essay. Similarly, all stories written before and after instruction were scored for number of words, story grammar elements, and quality. A scale by Graham and Harris (1989b) that assessed the inclusion and quality of eight basic story grammar elements (main character, locale, time, starter event, goal, action, ending, and reaction) was used (scores range from 0 to 19). For both essays and stories, quality scores were based on a holistic rating scale with scores ranging from 1 (low) to 8 (high). Each of these measures is described in greater detail in Graham and Harris (1989c).

For all essays and stories, the amount of time between the end of the instructor's direction to write and actual start of writing (prewriting time), as well as the amount of time between the end of instructor's directions and students' completion of the composing process (total composing time), was determined. In addition, the materials (i.e., papers) that students used while writing were examined to determine if they developed a planning sheet and used the strategy. Students and their resource room teacher were also interviewed at the end of the study to obtain information on the social validity of the strategy and the teaching techniques. (See Graham & Harris, 1989c for more detail.)

Finally, the following questions from a metacognitive interview developed by Graham, Schwartz, and MacArthur (1989) were administered to each participant before preteaching and again after the completion of instruction.

1. When good writers write, what kinds of things do they do?

2. Teachers often ask students to write a short paper/report outside of class on a famous person such as Abraham Lincoln. When you are given as assignment like this, what kinds of things do you do to help you plan and write the paper?

3. If you were having difficulty with the assignment (on Abraham Lincoln), what kinds of things would you do?

Students also completed two additional sections of the metacognitive interview. First, using a 5-point Likert-type scale, they responded to six statements measuring attitudes toward writing: (a) I like to write; (b) I would rather read than write; (c) I do writing of my own outside of school; (d) I avoid writing whenever I can; (e) I would rather write than do math problems; and (f) Writing is a waste of time.

In a second section of the interview, a similar format was used to measure self-efficacy, or perceived competence, in writing: three statements measured self-efficacy for completing common school assignments (reports, stories, and book reports), and seven items measured self-efficacy for executing cognitive strategies considered central to effective writing (e.g., getting ideas, organizing ideas, and making changes).


Reliability of Measures

Pearson product-moment reliability coefficients were calculated between the scores assigned by the instructors and an independent examiner. Interrater reliabilities for essays were as follows: total number of elements (.85), premise (.82), reasons (.86), conclusion (1.00), elaborations (.80), nonfunctional (1.00), coherence (.87), and number of words (.99). For stories, interrater reliabilities for the story grammar elements scale and number of words were .81 and .99, respectively. The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients between the holistic quality-rating scores assigned by two elementary-level teachers (following the completion of the study) were .83 for essays and .74 for stories.


Elements. Figure 1 presents the total number of functional elements for the essays written during each phase of the study. Three students evidenced low levels of performance throughout baseline; Merry, Sam, and Frodo's mean baseline response rate in terms of total number of functional elements was 3.5, 2.75, and 2.3, respectively. Pippin produced an average of 4.3 functional elements per essay during baseline, and his essays evidenced more variability than those produced by the other students.

Following instruction, Merry's mean performance on the posttreatment essay probes was 6.3, clearly exceeding her previously established baseline level. Merry's average performance on the maintenance probes (5.0) continued to be higher than baseline scores. The second student's (Sam) mean performance on the posttreatment essay increased to 6.3, and he had an average score of 5.5 on the maintenance probes. Pippin had the highest overall scores on posttreatment essay probes; he averaged 8.5 functional elements per posttreatment essay and received a score of 8.0 on the maintenance essay administered 5 weeks following instruction. The final students, Frodo, evidenced the largest gains; his mean performance on the posttreatment essays was 7.3.

Interestingly, only 21% of essays written during baseline contained all of the basic components of an essay (premise, reason, and conclusion); but following instruction, 89% met this requirement. Furthermore, instruction resulted in increases in all four types of functional elements. Most prominently, the average number of reasons per essay doubled, the average number of elaborations increased by a factor of three, and the average number of conclusions increased by almost a factor of four. The average number of premises per essay evidenced a slight increase; 80% of essays during baseline included a premise, whereas 95% of essays following instruction met this criteria. Finally, nonfunctional material accounted for less than 4% of essay elements during either baseline or following treatment.

Number of Words. Each student also evidenced substantial increases following instruction in the length of their essays. For Merry, the mean length of baseline essays was 26 words. Posttreatment essays, however, averaged 60 words; and the maintenance essays were 58 words long. Similarly, Sam's baseline essays averaged 26 words; but posttreatment essays were 78 words long, and maintenance essay were 62 words in length. Pippin had the longest baseline essays, averaging 48 words per essay. His posttreatment essays increased to an average of 81 words, and he generated 88 words on the maintenance probe. Frodo also made large gains in number of words written; his baseline essays increased from 22 words to an average of 70 words for the posttreatment essay probes.

Coherence. During baseline, each student evidenced considerable success in coherently ordering the functional elements they generated. In 75% of baseline essays, all functional elements produced were coherently ordered. The average length of the longest string of functional elements for Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo during baseline was 3.5, 2.0, 3.5, and 2.3, respectively. The high level of coherence in baseline essays is not surprising given that they were relatively short and contained little nonfunctional material.

Following instruction, Merry continued to successfully order all of the elements she produced; the average length of the longest string of Merry's posttreatment and maintenance essays was 6.3 and 4.3 elements, respectively. Similar to Merry, the other students showed an increase over baseline levels following instruction in the average number of elements that were included in their longest coherent string. This increase was particularly pronounced on the maintenance probes, where all of the functional elements produced were coherently ordered; Sam's average coherence score on maintenance probes was 5.5, while Pippin received a coherence score of 8.0 on the maintenance essay he generated. On the posttreatment essays, the average number of elements that Sam, Pippin, and Frodo included in their longest coherent string was 3.7, 4.3, and 5.3, respectively. Though these scores are higher than baseline levels, these three students clearly were not as successful in incorporating all of their functional elements into one coherent string as they were during baseline or maintenance. This should not be interpreted to mean that their posttreatment essays were not coherent. Two of their essays had no breaks in coherence, seven had only one break, and one had two breaks.

Quality Ratings. The mean holistic quality rating for Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's baseline essays was 2.0, 2.4, 4.2, and 1.9, respectively. Following completion of instruction, each evidenced improvement in the quality of their essays. Most notably, the average holistic quality ratings on Merry, Sam, and Frodo's posttreatment essays rose to 6.0, 5.0 and 4.0 respectively. Both Merry and Sam maintained these gains on follow-up probes, averaging 5.5 and 4.8 holistic scores, respectively. Pippin, in contrast, registered the smallest amount of improvement in overall quality following instruction; his average posttreatment quality score was 5.0, and he received a score of 5.0 on his maintenance probe.

Prewriting Time. With the exception of one essay probe, all students spent less than 5 seconds (s) of prewriting time on their baseline probes. Following teaching, students' average prewriting time on posttreatment nad maintenance probes rose to approximately 8 min. Instructors reported in their logs that students used this time constructively, making notes and planning their essays.

Total Composing Time. Before instruction, subjects spent approximately 12 min planning and writing their essays. Following instruction, total composing time increased to an average of 20 min per essay.

Generalization to Stories

Story Grammer Elements. Figure 2 presents scores on the story grammar scale for the generalization stories written during baseline and after the administration of posttreatment essays. Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's mean performance on baseline stories was 8.0, 3.5, 9.0, and 4.75, respectively. All of Sam and Frodo's baseline stories were missing three or more of the basic story grammar elements. In contrast, Merry's baseline story was missing only two basic story grammar elements; and Pippin's baseline stories consistently included all but one or two of the basic elements.

Following completion of instruction, two of the students' performance on the story grammar scale improved. Frodo's average score increased to 8.0, and his stories contained all but two of the basic story elements (time and starter event). Also, Sam's performance increased to 11.0 on his first story following instruction. While this story contained all but one of the basic elements (starter event), the story was simply a listing of component ("the story began at 12:00...") and not a well-integrated composition. Merry and Pippin showed little or no transfer effects to story writing following instruction. Merry's average performance remained virtually unchanged (9.5 on two stories), and Pippin's performance dropped to 6.0 on the first story adminstered after instruction. Only Frodo, however, was using most of the parts of the strategy to write stories; Merry made notes, while Sam and Pippin did not appear to use any of the components of the target strategy.

As a result, a single booster session was initiated with Merry, Sam, and Pippin; each student received feedback on his or her previous performance and was provided with practice in using the strategy to write stories. Following the booster session, Merry's average score on the story grammar scale remained about the same, at 9.5. Sam's average score rose to 10.0, well above baseline levels. Pippin's average score increased to 11.3. For all three students, all of their stories following the booster session contained all, or all but one, of the basic story elements.

Number of Words. The length of students' stories increased following instruction. While Merry's baseline story was only 33 words long, stories written after training were 50 words long; following the booster session, they averaged 41 words per story. Sam's baseline stories averaged 22 words, but his story following instruction was 78 words long; stories completed after the booster session were approximately 85 words in length. Pippin had the longest baseline stories, averaging 79 words in length. Nonetheless, his story following instruction was 115 words long, and stories following the booster session averaged 155 words. Frodo wrote baseline stories that averaged 42 words. His posttreatment stories increased to an average of 79 words.

Quality Ratings. Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's mean holistic quality rating for baseline stories was 2.5, 2.3, 4.4, and 3.3, respectively. Modest carryover effects following instruction were noted for three students. Merry, Sam, and Frodo's scores rose to 4.0, 3.0, and 4.5, respectively. While Pippin had the highest quality ratings on baseline stories, he evidence a decrease to 3.5 on the story completed following instruction. Following the booster session. Merry's average quality rating remained about the same at 4.1. The quality of Sam and Pippin's stories increased, however: Sam's average quality rating was 4.8, and Pippin's was 5.8.

Prewriting Time. Each student spent less than 5 s of prewriting time on baseline stories with the exception of two probes (25 and 112 s long). Following instruction, only two students evidenced an increase in prewriting time; Merry averaged 10 min per story, while Frodo averaged approximately 3 min of prewriting time per story. Once the booster session was initiated, prewriting time increased to about 5 min for Merry, 8 min for Sam, and 5 min for Pippin.

Total Composing Time. With the exception of Frodo, the students evidenced increases in total composing time following instruction. Merry's baseline performance of 9 min rose to 13 min following instruction and leveled out at 11 min after the booster session. Sam spent only 6 min composing baseline stories, but following instruction and again following the booster session averaged 22 and 21 min of composing time, respectively. While Pippin averaged 20 min of time composing baseline stories, his performance rose to 31 min following instruction and jumped again to 44 min per story following the booster session. In contrast, Frodo averaged 19 min of composing time before and after instruction.

Strategy Usage

Each student evidenced use of all or most of the strategy steps when writing posttreatment or maintenance essays. Merry consistently used all of the strategy steps except on the last two maintenance essays; she did not overtly test her goals on one essay, and just made and organized notes on the last one. Sam consistently completed all steps but one; he did not overtly test to see if goals were met. Pippin showed the most variability in overt strategy usage. On two essays, he clearly used the complete strategy. On two other essays, he made and organized notes. On another essay, he set some goals, made notes, organized the notes, and tested goals. Finally, Frodo overtly used all of the steps except for setting process goals for meeting the selected product goals.

Following instruction, only two students showed any overt evidence in using the strategy to write stories. Similar to his performance on essay writing, Frodo used the full procedure except for the setting of process goals. Merry, on the other hand, just made and organized prewriting notes. Following the booster session, Merry, Sam, and Pippin consistently used some, if not most, of the strategy steps. Sam and Pippin, for example, used the full strategy, except that they provided no overt evidence that they tested their product goals. Merry initially used the whole strategy just following the booster session but reverted back to first making and organizing notes on subsequent story probes.

Metacognitive Interview

In response to the query concerning what good writers do, three students (Sam, Pippin, and Frodo) changed their baseline responses, which centered totally on production factors or the mechanics of writing (indent, start on red line, write in sentences, etc.) to substantive concerns (look to see what they want, organize it, etc.) On the question pertaining to the kinds of things that can be done to help plan and write a paper, these same students initially mentioned generation of content as their primary planning strategy. Following instruction, however, Sam and Pippin responded with all of the basic components included in the target strategy (set goals, make notes, etc.), while Frodo's response primarily remained unchanged. In relation to the question asking what can you do if you are having difficulty, all four students initially concentrated on seeking help from others. After instruction, Merry and Frodo expanded their respective repertoire by suggesting things they could do (keep on writing or go to the library).

On the attitudinal items, all of the students, with the exception of Frodo, had positive attitudes toward writing. Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's mean score on the attitudinal items was 4.2, 4.0, 3.0, and 1.7, respectively. Following instruction, all but Frodo's attitudinal score remained the same or rose just slightly. Frodo, in contrast, evidenced a sizable increase on the attitudinal items, from 1.7 to 3.0.

Students' perceived competence in responding to common school writing tasks showed considerable variation. Merry, who evidenced little confidence in her ability to adequately respond to common school assignments, was slightly more confident following instruction (1.3) than during baseline (1.0). The trend for the other three students was in the opposite direction. Sam (4.3), Pippin (3.0), and Frodo (2.0) were more confident of their abilities before instruction than after; Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's posttraining scores dropped to 3.7, 2.7, and 1.0, respectively.

With the exception of Sam, all of the students were initially confident of their ability to execute the cognitive strategies considered central to effective writing. Merry, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo's mean item scores were 4.3, 2.3, 4.0, and 4.4, respectively. Following instruction, Merry's score remained the same, while Sam became more confident (3.4). In contrast, Pippin and Frodo's perceived confidence dropped to 2.3 and 3.3, respectively.

Social Validity Interviews

All four students indicated that the strategy helped them to write better. Comments suggested that the strategy help them write more and provided a helpful device for organizing content.

Similarly, all students thought the strategy should be taught to their friends because it was fun and would improve their writing. Likewise, the resource room teacher indicated that learning the strategy had a positive impact on the students' writing; and the teacher was enthusiastic about its use with other students with learning disabilities. She also reported that training had a positive carryover effect to the students' classroom.


In the present study, students with learning disabilities received instruction in using a general writing strategy when composing argumentative essays. Strategy instruction had a significant and meaningful effect on the essays the students produced; their performance following instruction improved in each of three areas in which they practiced setting goals: to include all the basic components, to increase the length of papers, and to be convincing. In comparison with baseline papers, posttreatment essays included approximately two times as many structural elements and were four times more likely to include all of the basic parts of an essay. Essays written after instruction were also two to three times longer and were judged to be qualitatively superior, or more convincing. The participating students were able to maintain these gains over time; and they reported, as did their teacher, that use of the strategy improved writing performance.

In additional to changes in students' writing, instruction in the use of the strategy resulted in a number of cognitive and affective changes, as well. One notable change involved the way in which students approached the task of writing. Before instruction, students appeared to do all of their planning as they wrote, and the instructors reported that there was no overt evidence that they used common writing strategies such as notetaking, outlining, and so forth. Following instruction, however, students appeared to plan both in advance of and during writing. Evidence collected during the course of the experiment revealed that students spent about 8 min planning their posttreatment essays in advance of writing by using part or all of the PLANS substrategy. In addition, an informal analysis of the posttreatment essays following the completion of the experiment showed that students continued the process of planning as they wrote. Ninety percent of all essays generated after instruction included additional details and ideas that were not included in students' preplanning notes.

Other cognitive changes that were noted following instruction in the strategy included students' responses to the questions on the metacognitive interview. For three of the students, their perceptions of what good writers do shifted from a concentration on the mechanical aspects of producing text to emphasizing substantive procedures for planning and content generation. In addition the repertoire of planning and writing strategies identified by two of these students expanded to include all of the basic procedures incorporated in the target strategy. Two students also extended their answers following strategy instruction by indicating that not only can adults serve as a source of assistance when writing difficulties are encountered, but that students can help themselves.

Because the process of goal setting has been shown to facilitate self-evaluation (Schunk, 1989), we expected that the students' perceptions of their writing competence (self-efficacy) would be more accurate following mastery of the strategy. A growing body of research indicates that students with learning disabilities have difficulty predicting or assessing their capabilities (Alvarez & Adelman, 1986; Graham & Harris, 1989b; Graham et al., 1989). In the present study, three of the four students clearly overestimated their abilities to execute cognitive processes considered central to effective writing, while two students were overconfident of their capabilities to respond successfully to common writing tasks; their responses were equal to or higher than those of students without disabilities, of the same age (Graham et al., 1989). For the most part, instruction in the use of the strategies resulted in changes in the self-efficacy of these students in the predicted direction. A slight decline was found in the confidence of the two students who initially overestimated their abilities to respond to common writing tasks. Furthermore, two of the students who were overconfident in their abilities to execute important writing processes were much more realistic following strategy instruction.

It is interesting to note that instruction in the strategy had a significant effect on only one of the participating students' attitudes toward writing; this student became more positive about writing. The other students were initially positive and remained equally so after learning how to use the target strategy. Nonetheless, strategy instruction resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of effort exerted by students; total amount of time spent composing essays increased by almost 170% following instruction.

The present study also examined generalization of instructional effects to a second genre, story writing. While the strategy used in this investigation was designed to be applicable to a variety of writing tasks, students received no direct practice in applying it to different writing genres. During the course of training, they only discussed how the strategy might be used with other writing assignments.

Evidence on the transfer effects of instruction to story writing were mixed. One student used most of the components of the strategy to compose stories; and the resulting compositions were longer, more complete, and of higher quality. Another student used only the note-generation component of the strategy' though changes in schematic structure were not noted, this student's stories became longer and were judged to be of higher quality than those written during baseline. The other two students showed no overt evidence of using the strategy. Although some changes were noted in their stories (e.g., increased length), the quality of their compositions remained about the same or became worse. Consequently, three of the students participated in an additional session, in which they received practice in applying the strategy to the writing of stories. Following the booster session, students almost always used some or all of the strategy steps. In addition, the quality of their stories improved, and they consistently included all, or all but one, of the basic story parts in their papers. Thus, practitioners and clinicians who are interested in using this strategy would be well advised to provide students with specific practice in independently applying these procedures to the different writing genres and the product goals of interest.

Actual use and any possible modification of the strategy were assessed by analyzing the planning notes developed by the students and examining anecdotal comments written by the instructors. The students consistently used the strategy following instruction, providing further confirmation that the instructional manipulation was, in fact, responsible for changes in students' writing behavior. Nonetheless, each of the students appeared to have modified the strategy by dropping out one or more of the basic steps. For example, hard evidence that students tested their goals after writing was often not obtained. It is possible that students completed the "missing" steps covertly; but this study, along with the results from Graham and MacArthur (1988), suggest that more attention needs to be directed at what students internalize and how they use the inculcated strategy.

Finally, it is possible that these results could, in part, be due to students' becoming more comfortable and adept at using the computer while the study was in progress. We think this is unlikely, however, because the instructors reported that students' facility in using the computer or speed of writing remained relatively constant following the initial typing and word processing instruction delivered during preteaching.


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STEVE GRAHAM (CEC Chapter #263) is an Associate Professor, CHARLES MACARTHUR (CEC Chapter #246) is a Faulty Research Associate, SHIRLEY SCHWARTZ is a Faculty Research Assistant, and VICTORIA PAGE-VOTH is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Special Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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Author:Graham, Steve; MacArthur, Charles; Schwartz, Shirley; Page-Voth, Victoria
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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