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Instructional recommendations for teaching writing to exceptional children.

Instructional Recommendations for Teaching Writing to Exceptional Students

Learning to write is a particularly complex process. It involves much more than simply adding special knowledge and skills to already existing oral language abilities. As Bereiter and Scardamalia (1982) have eloquently argued, the shift from conversation to composition involves a radical conversion. The developing writer must master the process of generating language in the absence of a conversational partner; learn to activate relevant memories without having memories triggered by what someone else says, develop units of text larger than what is generally included in one conversational turn; and cultivate the ability to view what is produced from the perspective of both the sender and the receiver.

Excluding gifted learners, students labeled by schools as exceptional generally have difficulty making the transition from conversation to composition (Graham & Harris, in press). Despite the difficulties these students have in learning to compose, little attention has been directed to improving their writing skills, and current instructional procedures frequently appear to be inadequate (Graham, 1982). Exceptional students, therefore, could benefit greatly from recent advances made in the teaching of writing. In this article, 10 instructional recommendations designed to serve as a framework for developing writing programs for exceptional students are presented. The recommendations are based on recent conceptualizations of the process of writing, principles of effective writing instruction, and current knowledge of exceptional students' writing abilities.


Allocate Time for Writing Instruction

Although writing is an important communication skill and a commonly used tool in school-related tasks, teachers rarely devote a sufficient amount of instructional time to its mastery. Leinhardt, Zigmond, and Cooley (1980) reported, for example, that learning disabled (LD) students spent less than 10 minutes a day actually composing. Students can learn and develop as writers, however, only by writing. As a result, failure to allocate a sufficient amount of time to writing instruction can have a profound impact on exceptional students' writing development. We recommend that students write at least four times a week. Simply having students write, though, will not result in improved writing performance (Graham, 1982). The development of writing not only is dependent on the opportunity to write, but requires proper motivation, well designed and carefully sequenced instruction, and guidance and practice in developing relevant skills and strategies.

Expose Students to a Broad Range of

Writing tasks

The selection and development of writing activities for exceptional students requires careful consideration of students' immediate and future needs. This includes the selection of activities that will (a) encourage interest in writing, (b) result in the development of the cognitive processes necessary for good writing, (c) promote the acquisition of skills essential to the successful completion of school assignments, and (d) enable students to use writing to meet social, recreational, and occupational needs. Whenever possible, writing should be aimed at an authentic audience and be designed to serve a real purpose. Although it is easy to find school contexts that support the use of writing for the purpose of displaying knowledge or supporting self-expression, it may be more difficult to identify conditions that support purposeful writing to convince, inform, and entertain (Selzer, 1984). To develop skills of this nature, teachers might use problem-solving activities, writing games, or other activities designed to create the desired goal condition.

One time-honored means for improving students' writing has been to involve them in expressive writing activities such as journal writing or personal narratives (e.g., How I spent my summer vacation), or to allow them to choose their own writing topics. While such activities may promote fluency and interest in writing, they appear to have a restricted impact on other important writing skills (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1982). Expressive writing may be easier than other types of writing because it makes fewer demands on the higher-level processes involved in composing; content is usually readily available and students may need to do only a minimal amount of intentional framing or goal-related planning since what is to be written may be adequately presented in memory (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Similarly, self-selected topics usually make fewer demands on students' processing capacity since students are likely to select familiar topics. While self-selected and expressive writing activities are an important component of an effective writing program, the kinds and levels of writing abilities they can be expected to foster are limited.

Writing activities that present highly structured problem-solving situations (e.g., describe one of five birds so that another student can identify the bird after reading the description) provide one means for improving performance and abilities on a variety of writing tasks (Hillocks, 1984). Activities of this nature focus attention on strategies for dealing with different types of writing problems and require students to think i the same ways the good writers do. Regardless of the type of writing activity selected, performance is enhanced if the activity or task has a clearly defined objective (Hillocks, 1984). It is important that students are aware of what they are trying to accomplish and that they receive feedback concerning their success.

Create a Social Climate Conductive to

Writing Development

When "writing" is mentioned, one typically envisions a single author working alone in the confines of an office or study. For school-age children, however, much of their writing takes place in the context of a school classroom populated with adults and other students. Since the social conditions of learning can have a profound impact on behavior and performance (Graham, 1985), it is important that teachers develop a supportive, pleasant, and nonthreatening environment.

To create a climate conductive to writing development, teachers need to be accepting and encouraging. Praise should be used to emphasize the positive aspects of exceptional students' writing, and children's successes should be dramatized through charts, graphs, and other means of public posting (Graham, 1982). In addition, high-interest activities and tasks should be used whenever possible. Teachers should try to develop a sense of community during the writing period by promotin student sharing and by frequently requiring collaboration among students. Activities that help facilitate a sense of community include students reading their compositions to one another in small groups or pairs, students editing each others' compositions, collaborative brainstorming on a topic, and the use of assignments designed to promote interaction (e.g., class newspaper). Finally teachers should strive to be active participants in the writing community. They should share their writing endeavors with their classes and collaborate with students on specific types of writing assignments. For instance, students and teachers could conjointly develop a dialogue journal. This involves the establishment of a pattern of journal entries and responses by the participants.

Integrate Writing with Other Academic Subjects

Though writing can occur as a self-contained activity (e.g., writing a story) or for the purpose of developing specific writing skills, it also plays an incidental and contributory role to other school activities. It is the primary means by which knowledge is demonstrated and an important tool for exploring throughts and recording ideas (Graham, 1982). It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the writing done in schools is incidental to other activities, such as taking a test or preparing a written summary of a book chapter (Applebee, 1981). Consequently, procedures for improving the contributory functions of writing across the curriculum are a critical component of an effective writing program.

Although it is commonly recommended that instruction in the language arts be integrated, it should be pointed out that general instruction in an area such as reading or oral language does little to improve exceptional students' overall writing skills (Graham, 1982). This should not be interpreted to imply that writing should be treated apart from other language tasks. For instance, selected language activities such as assigned readings or oral discussion before writing begins can exert a positive influence on specific aspects of writing performance, such as content generation (Graham, 1982). Conversely, having students complete a related writing activity before reading has been shown to improve the recall of poor readers (Marino, Gould, & Haas, 1985). The careful integration of writing and other language arts activities can result in more writing and serve as a bridge for developing writing skills.

Aid Students in Developing the Processes

Central to Effective Writing

Recent conceptualizations of writing have emphasized the cognitive nature of the composing process. Hayes and Flower (1986) stressed that effective writing is goal-directed and that writers use three recursive processes to accomplish their goals: (a) planning--generating and organizing ideas into a writing plan; (b) sentence generation--production of formal sentences; and (c) revising--attempting to improve what is written. Although the literature is not yet complete enough to develop an integrated picture of exceptional students' composing behavior, it appears that they are not adept at executing the cognitive processes critical to good writing (Graham & Harris, in press).

One means for helping exceptional students develop the processes central to writing is to divide the composition process into a series of relatively discrete staes. This is the basic concept behind the "pre-write, write, and re-write" model so popular in composition classes today. During the "pre-write" stage, various techniques (e.g., brainstorming, oral discussion, etc.) are used to help the student generate ideas and a writing plan. Once this is accomplished, the "pre-writing" material is used to develop the written text. Finally, the text produced during the "writing" stage is rewritten or revised. This approach has been criticized because it does not take into account the recursive nature of the writing process (one cognitive process may interrupt or inform another), but it does provide a procedure for making the writing task more manageable and for reducing cognitive strain (Graham, 1982)--and this approach may be particularly useful for beginning writers.

Educators can also help exceptional students gain competence in the processes central to good writing by teaching them appropriate task-specific and metacognitive strategies. Thus, we have developed self-instructional strategy training procedures that combine training in the use of composition and self-regulation strategies, knowledge about the significance of such strategies, and training for maintenance and generalization of strategic behavior (cf. Graham & Harris, 1987a; Graham, Harris, & Sawyer, 1987; Harris & Graham, 1985). For example, fifth- and sixth-grade LD students were taught to independently use a strategy designed to facilitate advanced planning and promote the generation of writing content commonly found in short stories (Graham & Harris, 1987b). Before writting, students responded to a series of self-generated questions concerning the setting of the story, the main character's goals and efforts to achieve the goals, the ending, and the main character's reactions or emotional responses. The information generated was used as a blueprint for the students' compositions. Following training, students' stories contained a significantly larger number and variety of story elements and received significantly higher quality ratings, and the observed gains were maintained and generalized to a new setting. Further stories written after training were indistinguishable from those written by normal achieving, competent writers.

In a second illustrative study, Graham and MacArthur (1987) taught fifth- and sixth-grade students a strategy for revising essays composed on a word processor. The strategy included the following self-directed prompts: (a) Read your essay; (b) Find the sentence that tells what you believe--is it clear? (c) Add two reasons why you believe it; (d) SCAN each sentence (Does it make sense; Is it connected to my belief; Can I add more; Note errors); (e) Make changes on the computer; and (f) Re-read the essay and make final changes. Following training, students made two to five times as many revisions and their essays improved in overall quality. It is important to note that in addition to improving composition performance, strategy training can also result in higher levels of task engagement, a stronger sense of self-efficacy, and more accurate self-evaluations (Graham & Harris, 1987b; Harris, Graham, & Freeman, 1988; Harris, 1985, 1986a, 1986b).

Automatize Skills for Getting Language

onto Paper

For exceptional students who have not mastered the mechanical requirements of written language consciously attending to the lower level skills of getting language onto paper may interfere with higher order cognitive processes, such as content generation and planning. Although normal fourth- through sixth-grade students' mastery of mechanics appears to be sufficiently developed so that interference and cognitive overloaded are not a serious problem (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986), this is not the case for most exceptional students.

One way that teachers can minimize interference from production and mechanical factors is to provide direct instruction aimed at making the skills of getting language onto paper so fluent and automatic that they require little conscious attention. It is important to note that the development of production and mechanical skills should not be undertaken at the expense of composition time; instead, they should be taught at a separate time (Graham, 1982), Students also need to establish intentional control over sentence and paragraph production. Sentence combining, the practice of building more complex sentences from simpler ones, has been found to be highly effective (Hillocks, 1984). Procedures for promoting paragraph construction skills have been described by Graham (1982) and Moran, Schumaker, and Vetter (1981).

A second approach for minimizing interference from production and mechanical factors is to circumbent the problem. Students can simply be instructed not to pay attention to mechanics and sentence structure during writing, or text can be developed via oral dictation. MacArthur and Graham (1987), for example, found that when the mechanical requirements of composing were removed via dictation, LD students in the upper elementary grades composed better stories. Although both forementioned procedures are often used to develop first drafts, they represent only a short term solution to the problem.

Help Students Develop Explicit Knowledge About

the Characteristics of Good Writing

To successully respond to a specific writing assignment, students need to activate and use knowledge relevant to the kind of writing require. The development of a written argument, for instance, requires an understanding of the purpose, content, conventions, and strategies of the gene. At present, little is known about exceptional students' knowledge of different types of writing. They appear to have at least a minimum understanding of the type of content appropriate to a particular genre, as evidenced by their ability to develop compositions containing at least some of the structural elements common to the type of writing tasks they are assigned (Graham & Harris, in presss). They have difficulty, however, using their existing knowledge of a particular genre while writing and frequently lack important information (Graham et al., 1987). A writing program for exceptional students, therefore, should provide instruction aimed at increasing knowledge of the characteristics of different types of genres (narrative, expository, etc.) and making implicit knowledge of writing explicit.

The most common means by which students learn about writing comes from exposure to examples, either reading or teacher presentation of models that embody a specific pattern. Teachers should not assume, however, that exceptional children will be able to extract and apply knowledge obtained from reading. Models, either written or live, provide a more direct means of promoting exceptional students' conceptual and functional knowledge, but should be used judiciously (Hillocks, 1984). Whether written or live, the model must clearly embody the skill or style to be imitated. Practice and feedback in imitating the model are critical (Graham et al., 1987).

Another approach that has been used to increase students' knowledge about writing involves direct instruction in the structural elements representative of a particular genre. Students who have access to formal genre patterns or other discourse shema have pre-fabricated plans that can be used to structure and shape their compositions (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Fitzgerald and Teasly 1986), for instance, found that writers who received instruction in narrative structure (i.e., specific story elements and their interrelations) improved both the organization and quality of their compositions.

Help Students Develop the Skills and Abilities

to Carry Out More Sophisticated

Composing Processes.

To progress as writers, exceptional students need to pursue goals that are slightly beyond their current capabilities. This requires helping students make maximum use of the resources they have as well as facilitating the development of more nature and complex composing behaviors. The realization of this task requires the use of several different support systems.

One procedure that has been used to help young writers carry out more sophisticated composing processes is conferencing. During conferences, teachers act as collaborators giving hints and prompts on either what to say or what to do. The goal of conferencing should be to help students internalize the planning and evaluation processes that go on during the student/teacher exchanges.

A second possible support is procedural facilitation. This refers to providing external support aimed at easing the executive burden of the writing task, allowing students to make fuller use of the knowledge they already posses. A simple example of procedural facilitation would be to choose an item a list of discourse elements, write a sentence relevant to the item, choose another directive, write a sentence, and so on. The procedure provides a mechanism for switching back and forth between text generation and planning (see Bereitter & Scardamalia, 1982, for other examples).

A third method for helping students develop and use more mature composing processes is strategy instruction. Exceptional students can learn to independently use strategies to search appropriate memory stores for writing content, develop a general writing plan in advance of writing, and edit and revise written text (cf. Graham & Harris, 1987a, in press). In a study by Harris and Graham (1987), for instance, LD students were successfully taught a three-steps strategy for planning and writing opinion essays: (a) Think, who will read this and why am I doing this? (b) Plan what to say using TREE (note Topic sentence; note Reasons; examine Reasons; note Ending); and (c) Write and say more. To help students learn and employ specific composition strategies, self-instructional strategy training procedures should be individually tailored to students' cognitive and language capabilities, emphasize interactive learning between teacher and student, and be based on instructional procedures (Graham & Harris, 1987a). Strategy instruction appears to hold promise as a direct method of helping exceptional students adopts more sophisticated composing processes.

Assist Students in the Development of Goals for

Improving Their Written Products

One way to facilitate improvement in writing performance, while at the same time promoting the development of the cognitive processes characteristic of good writing, is to help exceptional students develop and actualize specific and realistic goals. Students who are aware of what they are striving for and how successful they are in obtaining it are more likely to develop the cognitive processes necessary for competent performance (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Similarly, having students evaluate their own or others' writing according to specific criteria can have a powerful effect on writing performance (Hillocks, 1984). Peer evaluation may affect students' internalization and use of the evaluation criteria as goals for their own writing.

Whereas goal setting (or self-determined criteria) has not received much attention as a means for improving exceptional students' composing behavior, at least two studies have used goal setting as part of their instructional regime. In a study by Harris and Graham (1985), LD students set goals related to the amount and type of vocabulary items they would include in their compositions. After each writing period, students graphed performance, evaluated their success in reaching goals, and established a new goal for the next writing assignment. In another study (Graham & Harris, 1987b), LD students used these same procedures, but focused on the structural elements commonly included in narrative writing. Though Graham and Harris found that goal setting did not significantly augment meaningful strategy instruction, students in both studies were able to accurately monitor and evaluate progress and selected the goal setting procedures as one of their favorite aspects of training.

Avoid Instructional Practices That Do Not

Improve Students' Writing Performance

One of the most prominent beliefs in the history of writing instruction is that the systematic teaching of grammar and usage is an essential component of writing instruction. Research conducted in the last 80 years, however, has failed to validate this assumption (Graham, 1982; Hillocks, 1984). Knowledge of grammatical concepts is not a necessary prerequisite for skillful writing and instruction in traditional grammar exercises (e.g., diagramming sentences) does not improve students' writing performance. Nevertheless, current writing texts continue to emphasize exercises devoted to grammar and usage (Bridge & Hiebert, 1985). Instead of having students complete the standard word-and sentence-level exercises included in most writing texts, skills in grammar and usage are best developed within the context of real writing tasks.

A second common instructional practice that should be avoided is overemphasizing students' writing errors. Intensive evaluation may make students more aware of their limitations and less willing to write, resulting in poorer writing performance (Graham, 1982; Hillocks, 1984). In examining students' compositions, only one or two types of errors should be pinpointed at any one time. Furthermore, priority should be given to errors that occur frequently and obstruct the reader's understanding of the text. Feedback students receive from teachers should be explanatory, be specific, and include suggestions for making corrections.


Not only learning to write, but teaching writing is a demanding and complex task. Teachers must help young writers learn the conventions of written English, the stylistic requirements of various forms of written discourse, and the mechanics of text production. They must also help students learn to monitor and orchestrate the cognitive activities involved in the process of composing. The recommendations presented in this article provide a framework for teachers seeking to help exceptional students master these important tasks.


Applebee, A. (1981). Writing in the secondary school: English and the content area. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1982). From conversation to composition: The role of instruction in a developmental process. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1-64). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bridge, C., & Hiebert, E. (1985). A comparison of classroom writing practices, teachers' perceptions of their writing instruction, and textbook recommendations on writing practices. Elementary School Journal, 86, 155-172.

Fitzgerald, J., & Teasley, A. (1986). Effects of instruction in narrative structure on children's writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 424-432.

Graham, S. (1982). Composition research and practice: A unified approach. Focus on Exceptional Children, 14, 1-16.

Graham, S. (1985). Teaching basic academic skills to learning disabled students: A model of the teaching-learning process. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18, 528-534.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (1987a). Improving composition skills of inefficient learners with self-instructional strategy training. Topics in Language Disorders, 7, 66-77.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (1987b). A components analysis of cognitive strategy training: Effects on learning disabled students' composition and self-efficacy. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (in press). Cognitive training: Implications for written language. In J. Hughes and R. Hall (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive behavioral approaches in educational settings. New York: Guildford Publishing Company.

Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Sawyer, R. (1987). Composition instruction with learning disabled students: Self-instructional strategy training. Focus on Exceptional Children, 20, 1-11.

Graham, S., & MacArthur, C. (1987). Improving learning disabled students' skills at revising essays produced on a word processor: Self-instructional strategy training. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Harris, K. R. (1985). Conceptual, methodological, and clinical issues in cognitive-behavioral assessment. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 13, 373-390.

Harris, K. R. (1986a). The effects of cognitive-behavior modification on private speech and task performance during problem solving among learning disabled and normally achieving students. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 14, 63-67.

Harris, K. R. (1986b). Self-monitoring of attentional behavior versus self-monitoring of productivity: Effects on on-task behavior and academic response rate among learning disabled children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19, 417-423.

Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (1985). Improving learning disabled students' composition skills: Self-control strategy training. Learning Disability Quarterly, 8, 27-36.

Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (1987). [Improving learning disabled students' skills at generating essays: Self-instructional strategy training]. Unpublished raw data.

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., & Freeman, S. (1988). The effects of strategy training and study conditions on metamemory among LD students. Exceptional Children, 54, 332-338.

Hayes, J., & Flower, L. (1986). Writing research and the writer. American Psychologist, 41, 1106-1113.

Hillocks, G. (1984). What works in teaching composition: A meta-analysis of experimental treatment studies. American Journal of Education, 93, 133-170.

Leinhardt, G., Zigmond, N., & Cooley, W. (1980). Reading instruction and its effect. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Boston.

MacArthur, C., & Graham, S. (1987). Learning disabled students' composing under three methods of text production: Handwriting, word processing, and dictation. Journal of Special Education, 21, 22-42.

Marino, J., Gould, S., & Haas, L. (1985). The effects of writing as a prereading activity on delayed recall of narrative text. Elementary School Journal, 86, 199-205.

Moran, M., Schumaker, J., & Vetter, A. (1981). Teaching a paragraph organization strategy to learning disabled adolescents. (Research Report No. 54). Lawrence: University of Kansas Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1986). Research on written composition. In M. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Selzer, J. (1984). Exploring options in composing. College Composition and Communication, 35, 276-284.

STEVE GRAHAM is Associate Professor, and KAREN R. HARRIS is Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park.
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Author:Graham, Steve; Harris, Karen R.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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