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Process-oriented writing: instructional implications for mildly handicapped students.

Process-Oriented Writing: Instructional Implications for Mildly handicapped Students

For several years I had the opportunity to observe and collaborate with several special education resource teachers and their learning disabled and emotionally handicapped students, as they changed their writing curriculum from one of practicing specific skills focusing primarily on grammar, spelling, and handwriting, to one that highlights the process of composing and the importance of sharing the message with an audience. This paradigm shift, in many ways, is reflective of the shift that is evident in the field of writing (Hairston, 1982). It stresses a student-centered instructional approach, emphasizes an interactive model of composing, relies on descriptive analyses of the composing process in conjunction with the generated products, and places value on establishing "authentic" purposes for learning and writing. In our study (Bos, 1987), which focused on using a process-oriented approach to writing, we found ourselves attempting to answer a number of questions. Two of these questions form the framework for this article: (a) What are the theoretical bases for a process-oriented approach to teaching writing? and (b) What are the critical features of a process approach for teaching writing to exceptional students?



Process-oriented approaches to teaching writing are built on an interactive model of composing. Research on the composing process of both novice and expert writers indicates that writing is undertaken in overlapping and recursive stages. Although these stages have been defined differently, researchers agree that the stages include some amount and type of planning, drafting, revising and editing, and sharing or publication (Florio-Ruane & Dunn, 1987).


During planning, writers appear to engage in cognitive activities that allow them to select topics, consider purposes and goals for writing, identify their audience, decide upon voice, and generate provisional frameworks for their pieces. These provisional plans can be informal in that little is written to reflect the occurrence of these activities. For some writers and in some instances, however, the planning stage is relatively formalized by the use of written outlines or frames, lists of ideas, and themes or topic sentences. Instructional implications for this stage of the composing process include the importance of providing students time to plan, modeling the cognitive processes involved in planning, and establishing writing activities that have genuine purposes.


The second stage, drafting, involves the process of "putting ideas into visible language" (Flower & Hayes, 1981, p. 373). Drafting, however, does not preclude continued planning and revising of plans. Most expert writers engage in extensive revision of their plans as they write. During drafting, authors juggle numerous demands, including continued planning and constructing of meaning; selecting vocabulary to express meaning; using conventions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling; and executing motor tasks of writing or typing. To the degree that conventions of writing and motor tasks are at an automatic level, authors have more attention to devote to the constructive processes involved in writing (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Instructionally, teachers can assist writers by encouraging them during first drafts to focus on writing their ideas and reducing their attention to writing conventions. Teachers can also provide adequate time and support for students to revise and edit after drafting.

Revising and Editing

The third stage, revising and editing, deals with readying the text to share with an audience. Emphasis should be placed first on revising the ideas to make the piece more coherent and clear. Then, editing for writing conventions should follow (Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983). In the revision process, sharing the written piece with others is important because it assists the author in realizing the readers' understanding of the piece. During this stage, it is not uncommon to teach grammar and spelling concepts, but this instruction tends to be more effective if taught in the context of the author's actual text and purposes for writing (Kean, 1983). The tacit implication for instruction is that editing for writing conventions represents only one part of the writing process. Yet writing curricula in special education classes tend to make instruction in these writing conventions the major if not exclusive focus of instruction.

Sharing and Publication

The fourth stage in the composing process, sharing and publication, gives value and worth to the entire process. It provides students the opportunity to receive feedback and to perceive themselves as authors responding to an audience (Graves & Hansen, 1983).

Theoretically, process-oriented approaches to writing are based on the interactive nature of cognitive processes. It is assumed that the stages in the writing process are recursive and that metacognitive processing (as discussed by Englert & Raphael, 1988) allows the author to orchestrate the development of written pieces. Process approaches to writing have direct implications for writing instruction. The next section addresses those instructional features and relates them to teaching writing to exceptional students.



Graves (1983) provided an instructional framework for using process-oriented writing in elementary schools. Using this framework, Bos (1985, 1987) observed and collaborated with three special education resource room teachers over a 2-year period as they adapted this approach with a group of 14 fourth through sixth graders who were experiencing difficulty with written expression. Of these students, 10 were identified as learning disabled or emotionally handicapped. The purpose of this research was threefold.

One goal was to study the writing processes, products, and perceptions of mildly handicapped students when they are placed in an instructional setting that provides them opportunity for sustained writing. To address this goal the students and classroom patterns were observed, and three mildly handicapped students were studied intensely to provide case study data (Bos, 1987). Students' written expression performance and perceptions and knowledge concerning the writing process and their competence as writers were assessed using a pretest-posttest format. Results from these data (Bos, 1985, 1987) indicate that increases were evident in the length and structural complexity of the written pieces, the amount and quality of planning, and students' perceptions concerning their competence as writers. Students also made gains in written expression performance with the most evident gains in the areas of thematic maturity, vocabulary, and overall coherence and organization of their written pieces. Only minimal gains were made in spelling.

A second goal was to study how teachers' beliefs and instructional strategies changed as teachers adopted a process-oriented approach. For purposes of this study, one teacher was studied using a case study approach. This teacher was considered an "excellent" teacher by her fellow teachers, with a strong skills orientation. This orientation fit well with the philosophy of the school. For this teacher, adopting and using a process-oriented approach was somewhat contradictory to her educational belief system. Data regarding teacher change were collected through observations during teaching, interviews, and weekly problem-solving meetings held by the researchers and resource teachers. Results from these data (Bos, 1987) indicate that for approximately two-thirds of the first year she used a strong process-oriented approach. After this time, however, she began to integrate some aspects of a skills orientation. This was best reflected by the "skills" lessons she and her colleagues developed and taught twice a week, but these skill lessons contained more modeling of the writing process than was previously reflected in her teaching prior to the study.

A third goal, the one addressed in this article, was to identify features of a process-oriented approach that seemed particularly salient to exceptional students in the context of their learning environment. These features can serve as instructional scaffolding for designing effective writing programs (Applebee, 1986). Six instructional features seem necessary for implementation of process-oriented writing approaches with mildly handicapped students; these features are discussed next.

Provide Opportunities for Sustained Writing

Important to a process approach is the creation of an environment that provides time to think, reflect, and write. This is contrary to typical practice in many regular and special education classrooms. For example, DeFord (1986) found that first-grade children were expected to generate an idea and complete a written product in 30 to 40 minutes. Langer and Applebee (in press found most writing in content classes involved producing short paragraphs for the purpose of measuring content knowledge rather than quality of writing. In observing 11 self-contained classrooms for learning disabled students, Leinhardt, Zigmond, and Cooley (1980) found that students spent less that 10 minutes per day composing.

After studying a process-oriented writing approach used with third and fourth graders, Calkins (1986) suggested that students should be given at least 45 minutes per day to write. Students should also be encouraged to work on the same piece of writing across writing sessions. In our study, students attended the resource room for 50-minute writing periods, 4 days per week. From observations early in the study, we found that students were concerned if pieces were not finished by the end of each session. If they were finished before the end of the session, they were reluctant to start another piece explaining that, "My work is done." By late fall of the first year, however, students appeared less bound by time constraints in that they were spending as little as 20 minutes on some pieces and up to 4 weeks on others.

Establish a Writing Community

Graves (1983) suggested that a studio setting provides an atmosphere for building and shaping a writing community. One aspect of establishing a writing community is to create an atmosphere in which students feel a sense of independence so that they can function as productive members of the community. The environment should be arranged to enable students to operate with limited teacher direction. The resource teachers in our study incorporated the use of individual writing folders that contained the students' current writing projects, a list of finished pieces, ideas for future topics, writing goals, and mechanical aids such as individual spelling dictionaries. They also kept writing materials, trade books, and magazines in consistent places. This allowed students to enter the resource room and begin writing without having to request teacher assistance.

Second, the teachers felt that to develop a sense of community, a support system was needed that did not put them at the focal point. One solution they used to create such an environment was to assist students in becoming known for their areas of expertise (Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1985). For instance, one student was the expert speller, while another was good at planning a mystery, and another could help figure out the plot to an adventure story. These areas of expertise were established through several means. Students developed a sense of who was the expert through listening to and reading each others' written pieces during individual conferencing and group sharing. For example, one fifth-grade learning disabled student was the first student to read a draft of a mystery story during group sharing. Students reacted positively to her story, and subsequently othe students in the class began to write mysteries. As they were planning their mysteries, they collaborated with the "expert" about "how to write a mystery."

Areas of expertise were also established by the teacher. The resource teachers were regularly observed suggesting that students consult another student on a specific matter (e.g., topic selection, rules for writing dialogue) before they ask a teacher for assistance. This notion of experts appeared to be supported throughout the school year; when interviewed at the end of the year, the students agreed as to the areas of expertise for themselves and for the other students.

A third aspect of fostering a writing community is creating an atmosphere for listening, questioning, observing, and writing. If students are to understand the writing process, they need opportunites to listen to good writing, ask questions of their writing and others' writing, and watch and think with others as they compose and write.

A fourth aspect in developing a writing community is establishing an environment in which students can take risks. During group sharing, students read their work to get comments and feedback. Of concern to the teachers was an emotionally handicapped student who tended to insult and ridicule other students. The resource teachers incorporated two suggested strategies for sharing (Graves, 1983). First, they discussed and modeled positive and helpful feedback during sharing. As a group, the students and teachers established rules for providing feedback (i.e., start with having a student retell the piece; continue with positive feedback; make several helpful suggestions). Second, the author sharing his or her piece directed the process by selecting the person on whom to call.

Before these procedures were initiated, 80% of the emotionally handicapped student's comments were negative (e.g., "It's a stupid story." "The part after the robbery is dumb."). After initiating the procedures, the other students began not to call on the emotionally handicapped student. When he was asked to provide feedback, his comments began to change in tone to positive, so that within 3 weeks over 75% of his comments were positive and he was again becoming a regular participant during sharing.

Let Students Choose Their Topics

Topic choice is the core of success in writing (Graves, 1985). Students write most comfortably about topics for which information is readily available and in which they have a personal interest. Scardamalia and Bereiter (1986) suggested that self-selected topics make fewer demands on students' organizational and planning processes, thereby limiting the types and levels of writing abilities students will develop. In our study this was most evident at the beginning of the first year. For instance, when two particular students were discussing what to write, one of the students, a learning disabled student with organizational as well as mechanical writing difficulties, would discard suggested topics because "I don't know enough about that." At the beginning of the year, students limited to both the topics and the type of text structure (e.g., narrative--true story, narrative--fantasy, descriptive expository).

By the second semester of the first year, however, most students were using several types of narratives and expositions and were selecting topcis for which they needed to "do research" before they wrote. This change may relate to two factors. First, students oftentimes selected topics and text structures that other students were already using. For instance, after one student wrote the first mystery in early spring, five students were writing mysteries within 3 weeks, and discussions during group sharing and skill lessons focused on how to deal with this unique type of narrative.

Second, writing on various topics and different text structures was modeled by the teachers. For example, during the spring several students were assigned to write a descriptive report for their regular class. The students decided that they should write these reports in the resource room. Based on this lead, during individual conferences the teachers helped the students organize their thoughts about the topics using expository frames or semantic organizers (Englert & Raphael, 1988; Pehrsson & Robinson, 1985). These planning devices provide a means for students to organize their ideas about a topic using a visual representation. During a skill lesson one of the teachers also demonstrated how to use the frames by modeling how to organize thoughts on a topic. When information was not known or unclear, the students generated solutions to this problem including "read more about the topic."

Model the Writing Process and Strategic Thinking

Cognitive training models have stressed the importance of modeling thought processes in conjunction with observable behaviors for exceptional students (Meichenbaum, 1977; Schumaker, Deshler, & Ellis, 1986). Graham and Harris (1987) have incorporated cognitive modeling as an integral component in their Self-Instructional Strategy Training used with learning disabled students. Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing (Englert et al., 1987) uses think-alouds to model cognitions that underlie each writing subprocess as well as to model the steps in the specific strategy being taught.

Teacher and peer modeling played an important role in our study. Early in the study one of the resource teachers demonstrated how to plan a narrative. She sat at the overhead projector with a narrative "brainstorm sheet" projected on the screen. She began by using a think-aloud procedure that explained not only procedural information but also rationales for her actions. For instance, directing the students' attention to the "setting" space on the Brainstorm Sheet, she commented, "Next, I need to think about the setting--who was in the story and where and when it took place. Well, the characters in the story are Dad and I, Bob--my brother, Mom, and the horses. So I'll write that beside where it says 'who.' I don't need to write whole sentences, just ideas, so that I'll remember to include this information when I write my first draft."

This modeling seemed to be not only a powerful tool for student learning but also for changing teacher beliefs about teaching writing. In our next teacher's meeting, this teacher commented, "What a change this is for me. I'm really teaching the process of writing rather than having students write and then correct their work. I think I am changing my views about how to teach writing."

Develop Reflective Thinking and

a Sense of Audience

When teachers are the sole audience for students' writing, students believe that writing involves matching the teachers' standards of rightness and that writing is a type of test-taking (Raphael, Kirschner, & Englert, 1986). The process approach to writing works to counteract these beliefs by utilizing peer collaboration and consulting, group sharing, and publication. During these activities, students have the opportunities to talk about their work with persons who are not considered experts and to listen to their questions and comments (Graves, 1983). We found that one technique used in group sharing seemed to assist students in developing reflective thinking and a sense of audience. After a student shared a piece, he or she called on someone to retell the piece. Over half of the students in the project reported that they liked this procedure because "it was good to hear what others thought you had said."

Author's chair (Graves & Hansen, 1983) was another means used to encourage reflective thinking and a sense of audience. Once students considered their pieces finished, they could share them with other students using a type of public forum. In this forum, students would read their pieces aloud as the other students listened. After reading, students would comment on the aspects of the piece they "liked," and ask the author questions. At first the questions students asked were somewhat superficial in nature (e.g., "What part did you like best?"). But as the study progressed, student questioning appeared to require more reflection on the part of the author (e.g., "How did you think of the topic?" "How did you figure out the chase scene in the story?").

Ownership and Control

In conceptualizing process instruction, one feature should be the transfer of control (Applebee, 1986; Morocco & Neuman, 1987). Over time, students should take more responsibility for controlling their writing progress and should internalize and take ownership of the strategies and routines they have developed. Graham and Harris (1986) had learning disabled students set goals related to specific story grammar features and found that students were able to monitor and evaluate progress.

In gaining ownership and control of writing strategies, students adapt and adopt these strategies (Langer & Applebee, in press; Montague & Bos, 1986). For example, one of the resource teachers taught some of the students a mnemonic to assist them when planning a narrative. Students were instructed to use this mnemonic with a narrative brainstorm sheet. During the next several weeks we observed students using the mnemonic to assist them in planning. Within several days, two students adapted the mnemonic by using it in conjunction with the expository brainstorm sheet. When questioned about the change, the students reported that it worked better with this sheet because it showed them what they wanted to write.


Process approaches to writing hold promise for the development of writing skills with exceptional students. However, much classroom research is yet to be conducted before definitive conclusions can be drawn concerning its effectiveness with mildly handicapped students. The limited research that has been conducted using process-oriented approaches with exceptional individuals, for the most part, has been descriptive in nature. Although such research provides rich descriptions of the contexts for teaching writing, it does not provide for systematic study of specific instructional methodologies or component analysis of the various aspects of process-oriented approaches. Therefore, researchers and teachers working with exceptional students should be encouraged by process-oriented approaches for teaching writing, but at the same time should see the need for systematic research.


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Hairston, M. (1982). The winds of change: Thomas Kuhn and the revolution in the teaching of writing. College Colposition and Communication, 33, 76-88.

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Langer, J. H., & Applebee, A. H. (in press). The uses of writing in academic classrooms: A study of teaching and learning (Research Monograph Series). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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Montague, M., & Bos, C. S. (1986). The effect of cognitive strategy training on verbal math problem solving performance of learning disabled adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 26-33.

Morrocco, C. C., & Neuman, S. B. (1987). Teachers, children and the magical writing machine: Instructional contexts for word processing with learning disabled children (Grant No. G008400647, Final Report). Newton, MA: Education Development Center.

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Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1986). Research on written composition. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 778-803). New York: Macmillan.

Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., & Ellis, E. S. (1986). Intervention issues related to the education of LD adolescents. In J. K. Torgesen and B. Y. L. Wong (Eds), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities (pp. 329-365). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

CANDACE S. BOS is Associate Professor, Division of Special Education and Rehabilitation, University of Arizona, Tucson.
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Author:Bos, Candace S.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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