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Rationale and procedures for increasing productivity of inexperienced writers.

Rationale and Procedures for Increasing the Productivity of Inexperienced Writers

Some students with disabilities reach upper elementary or secondary grades without exposure to systematic, sequential composition instruction. Typically, these students demonstrate severe discrepancies between instructional reading levels and intellectual functioning; therefore, as Graves (1978) noted, reading usurps language-instruction time, leaving none for directed writing practice. Although some mainstreamed students with mild handicaps receive composition instruction in regular English classes, many others are pulled out of such classes into resource rooms where writing time is inadequate and instruction is not likely to be based on invention and arrangement of original text (Graham & Harris, 1988).

Greenberg (1987) argued that, regardless of the disabilities that may underline writing problems, the factor common to students with handicaps is lack of writing experience. The combination of disabilities and inexperience can produce writers whom Graham and Harris (in press) described as "unable to produce even one coherent sentence" (p. 18).

Such a writer--a 10th-grade student in a learning disabilities program--laboriously developed the sample presented at the end of this paragraph. The student's instructional reading level was third grade. He had received no composition instruction requiring him to generate original text. This is the longest of 3 essays elicited in 50-minute sessions on three successive days; his paper is followed by the version he read into a tape recorder:

Pluth Pollution Smock ploting the smoke is polluting are the air truble weth brting trouble with breathing we hting are sfers we're hurting ourselves we plowt are sety we pollute our city have no ret do ta we have no right to do that

Students like the one who wrote this paper demonstrate such limited productivity that they do not profit from substantive composition instruction. Their immediate need is to increase output in a communication-centered program that takes advantage of their oral fluency to build basic written statements, while initially bypassing spelling and punctuation conventions. This article describes such a productivity program for inexperienced writers who, given adequate time and the opportunity to select a topic, typically produce less than a half-dozen clauses.

The writing-productivity program is based on current composition theory and tested practices. Writing experts supports the following elements of the program.

1. Building discourse units systematically from the ground up, extending invention from the clause through combining clauses to build paragraphs.

2. Using student-generated language as material for all instructional activities.

3. Incorporating self-evaluation procedures throughout daily writing practice.

The next section discusses each of these points; a procedures section then describes how to organize small-group instruction.


Although part-to-whole approaches to both reading and writing carry a number od disadvantages (Moran, in press), the problems are associated with beginning at the relatively meaningless alphabet or word level. In contrast, the productivity program described herein begins with the proposition--a more meaningful unit. A proposition is a statement that can be judged as either true or false.

Focusing on larger discourse segments (i.g., an entire essay rather than a sentence) reflects current linguistic theory (Shuy, 1986). But according to Kaufer, Hayes, and Flower (1986), expert writers plan and execute larger portions of text than do novices. Just as chess masters conceptualize global patterns of games, so experienced writers deal with broader patterns of prose than can beginners. The challenge is to move writers systematically to successively larger units of discourse.

Building Discourse Units

Clauses. Clauses are appropriate base units for beginners because "an idea unit is usually a single clause" (Gere & Abbott, 1985, p. 367). Also, studies of writing process have determined that clause boundaries are points of the most frequent pauses; such breaks are assumed to be related to planning (Kaufer et al., 1986). Moreover, construction breakdowns have shown that errors are most likely to occur at clause boundaries (daiute, 1984).

Thus, evidence from research supports the salience of the clause for writers. Why this is so is not yet clear. Kaufer et al. (1986) hypothesized alternative connections with long-term memory and production capacity; writers may both retrieve and encode in clause-like chunks, or they may retrieve in larger chunks but encode in units no larger than clauses. Assuming instead an association with short-time memory, Daiute (1984) called the clause a meaningful perceptual unit and "the basic unit of sentence planning" (p. 207).

T-units. Combining clauses into T-units instead of sentences permits focus on segments bounded by language as distinch from those bounded by nonlinguistic markers. The T-unit, defined by Hunt (1970, p.4) as one independent clause plus any dependent clauses subordinated to or embedded within it, is considered apart from initial capital letter and end punctuation. Therefore, the unit is determined on internal criteria--how meaning holds the parts together--but not on external criteria--where the capitalization and punctuation markeings are applied.

T-units avoid the problem of determining what is and is not considered a sentence by writers who fail to mark boundaries. "For such students, the notion of 'sentence' is far from obvious or simple. . . . It is subtle structural pattern easily confused with others that resemble it" (DeBeaugrande, 1984, p. 362). Products by secondary learning disabled writers have shown that they can formulate sound T-units but fail to use boundary markers to signal conventional sentence patterns (Moran, 1987a).

Paragraphs. Teaching the paragraph as the next largest unit is justified because it represents a conventional way of chunking written information. Theorists have distinguished relationships among adjacent sentences, termed cohesion, from the conceptual unity of a text, called coherence. The paragraph is the smallest unit that can be said to demonstrate coherence across multiple statements (Fahnestock, 1983).

Although some experts characterize paragraphs as either arbitrary units based on spatial breaks or as meaningful units based on word cues, Bond and Hayes (1984) concluded that both spatial and semantic cues signal paragraphs as psychological entities. Viewed as structures, as meaningful units built from propositions and transitions, paragraphs lend themselves to thinking in more global terms about relations among ideas.

Although instruction in extended discourse should follow it, the writing productivity program is designed to conclude with paragraphs. Applebee (1981) found that only 10% of English classtime, and 3% in other secondary courses, was devoted to writing of even paragraph length. Therefore, paragraphs appear to meet basic classroom writing expectations.

Using Student-Generated Language

The literature is clear about the value of student invention of original text over contrived samples (i.e., writing prepared by teachers for correction or revision by students). Research has shown low relationships between making correct changes in contrived samples and the ability to use those same structures appropriately in original writing (DeDeaugrande, 1984).

For similar reasons, research results argue against grammar instruction except to provide criteria for final editing. Hillocks (1986) summarized findings without qualification: "The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger" (p.248).

A writing program is more effective if it begins with writers' own oral language (DeBeaugrande, 1984). Although schools may demand a literary, rather than colloquial, register for most writing, Elbor (1985) has pointed out that oral language is a useful beginning register for writers. Starting with oral language can prevent a hypercorrect, stilted, unnatural tone among novice writers (Rubin, 1987).

Incorporating Self-Evaluation

Simple techniques for self-checking of progress should be taught along with the most basic writing experiences for at least two reasons. First, inexperienced writers do not spontaneously edit on the basis of principles governing written language (Hull, 1987). Second, if writing problems result not only from lack of criteria for judgments but also from writers' perceptions that they cannot solve their own writing difficulties, then reducing reliance on teacher feedback should help writers take active control over their efforts (McCarthy, Meier, & Rinderer, 1985).

One effective means of self-evaluation is a set of questions writers can ask themselves as they compose. Questions applied during writing are more effective than those asked after the writer perceives completion (Benton & Blohm, 1986). Self-questioning during writing has been successfully incorporated into strategies for adolescent learning disabled students (Graham & Harris, 1987).

According to DeBeaugrande (1984), teacher-formulated checking systems applied by students should be used until writers develop internalized concepts of what constitutes effective writing. Such standards develop through writing experience; students move from relying on intuition toward testing their constructions against known rules (Hull, 1987). Studies have not yet established development stages for internalizing types of standards, but the number of criteria applied increases with age and writing experience (Hilgers, 1986).

Although self-questioning appears to engage the most active involvement, other types of self-evaluation are also successful. "Scales, criteria and specific questions which students apply to their own or others' writing . . . are two times more effective than free writing techniques' (Hillocks, 1986, p. 249).


Methodology for the recommended writing productivity program incorporates the three major points presented in the previous section. Building discourse units requires a progressive expansion of meaningful units. Instead of asking students to break down contrived model structures into their component parts (analysis), teachers help students build structures from their own oral language (synthesis). The progression begins with the smallest meaningful syntactic unit, the independent clause (proposition); expands to the boundary-free T-unit; and culminates in alternative arrangements of T-units to form paragraph according to patterns dictated by expressive, descriptive, narrative, expository, or persuasive purpose.

Using student-generated language means that neither contrived models nor grammatical terms such as subject, predicate, noun, or verb are employed. Students are never asked to identify parts of clauses, T-units, or paragraphs. The productivity program incorporates specific pattern practice, but examples of patterns are organized without labels. Students with disabilities formulate original text without having to write it down, allowing them to separate composing from the laborious handwriting or keyboarding (along with concern for spelling and punctuation) that can reduce productivity in early composition instruction (Moran, 1987b).

Students use self-evaluation techniques to test their original clauses for completeness and independence, T-units for complexity, and paragraphs for coherence. Self-questioning allows a measure of writer independence from instructors during drafting, yet provides the structure that makes the program more effective than free writing practice.

Constructing and Testing Clauses

In small groups, writers orally mention some person, object, place, or idea they know something about. Teachers print student-dictated topics on a chalkboard or an overhead transparency projector, toward the left side of the field. Next students tell somthing they know about each topic. For example, students who generated the topics "my friend Gloria," "a Porsche," "school" and "keeping promises" produced the comments "lives next door," "is the best car," "is boring," and "keeps friends," respectively. Compound topics and comments are built the same way, followed by varied phrase headers such as gerund and infinitive topics combined with increasingly stronger comments in the forms of action verbs to replace "is" and "has" status terms.

Clause Tests. Tests for completeness--to determine whether both critical clause parts are present--are modified from procedures developed by DeBeaugrande (1984). Teachers model asking oral who/what questions such as "Who lives next door?" and "What keeps friends?". Teachers point out that the part of the statement that can be substituted for who or what is one essential part; the other words in the question, beginning with an action or status word, make up the second essential part of a clause statement.

Next, the measure of independence is whether the resulting statement meets the test of a proposition. Students are taught to ask the question: "Can this statement be called either true or false?" This question distinguishes between independent clauses and dependent clauses or phrases. The statement "I walk home from school" can be either true or false and is thus a proposition that can stand alone, but "When I walk home from school," a dependent clause, or "Walking home from school," a phrase, cannot be judged as to truth or falsity. This self-test permits students to discard or rewrite fragments, yt retain their drafts of independent clauses.

Clause Patterns. From examples dictated by students at the chalkboard or projector, teachers organize independent examples into patterns. Aides then type sample propositions without capital letters or periods (and without the predicate-variation labels provided here in brackets) according to clause patterns as follows:

1. my friend Gloria lives next door [intransitive verb]

2. he didn't finish his homework [transitive verb, direct object]

3. a Porsche is the best car [be plus predicate nominative]

4. some teachers are unfair to us [be plus predicate modifier[

5. the assembly is next week [be plus adverbial phrase]

6. he showed them the car [indirect object]

7. they voted Bill class president [object complement]

8. she made the test too hard [object adjective]

These eight predicate patterns do not exhaust the possibilities, but most student-generated clauses fit into this classification system, permitting teachers to develop notebook models that foster imitation of a variety of forms. At the top of each page of clauses the works Who? What? Action? Status? Stand Alone? remain students to check each new clause they produce during daily practice, to assure completeness and independence.

Lesson Stages. Daily lessons feature student dictation of topic and comment parts, which are printed on cards by teachers or aides and arranged into clauses by students. Between classes, resulting independent clauses are typed and placed in students' notebooks. Thus, each student's own clauses, organized into patterns in a notebook, remain available as models to imitate and to check against. Over time, students gain confidence as they generate multiple clauses that conform to their own models.

The second stage of the program emphasizes related clauses. Students mention a who or what part, then dictate 10 or more comments about that topic. This activity prepares them to move into clause combining with related text as raw material for T-unit construction. Also at this time, content materials from mainstream classes are used to generate related clauses to show students that clause generating can help them summarize information for study. Teachers or aides again print topics and comments separately on cards to be arranged by students.

The major goal of this program is productivity, but a subgoal demands variety to prevent inadvertently fostering stereotyped statements. The criterion for moving beyond the single-clause portion of the program is independent arrangement of at least five clause types of five words or more during 20-minute pattern practice over each of 3 successive days.

When students reach this criterion they have demonstrated that they can arrange clauses on demand. Therefore, they now handwrite in cursive or manuscript, or they keyboard the final products they generate during the T-unit and paragraph portions of the program; the volume has become too heavy to permit teachers or aides to continue to do so. Moreover, students must gain the feel of putting their own material on paper or screen as a step toward mastering some conventions of written language.

Combining Clauses into T-units

Before they develop T-units, students select their intended readers and the type of discourse they want to practice. Studies show that by at least secondary level, students adjust syntactic complexity so that more complex structures are written for adult audiences than for best-friend audiences (Stotsky, 1986). Writing purpose--expressive, descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive--has been shown to affect complexity for inexperienced writers (Shaughnessy, 1977).

Using the related clauses dictated by students during prior sessions, teachers arrange models of complex T-units (one independent clause plus one or more dependent clauses) to place in student notebooks. Teachers also prepare on individual index cards a set of subordinating terms such as because, when, after, and the relative prounouns who, which, and that to demonstrate how students can combine their own clauses into complex T-units.

Following models in their own notebooks and using the subordinating terms and pronouns provided, students then work alone or in small groups to arrange their own clauses into complex T-units with subordinated or embedded clauses, testing complexity through self-questioning. After arranging clauses in various T-units, students record final formulations in their notebooks without capital letters or periods. The criterion for moving to the next step of the program is reached when participants arrange examples of at least five combining patterns (O'Hare, 1973) in 20-minute pattern practice over each of 3 successive days. The time required to write or keyboard products for notebooks is unrelated to this criterion; students take the time they need to transcribe T-units into permanent products.

Combining T-units into Paragraphs

According to Bond and Hayes (1984), prototypical paragraphs are two to five sentences long, with units connected by a variety of cohesive ties. Data are inconclusive, however, about whether semantic or syntactice cues contribute more than sentence length and number of sentences in determining where to break paragraphs.

Therefore, teachers combine students' T-units into multiple model paragraphs using all four types of cues: semantic, syntactic, T-unit length, and number of T-units. That is, teachers try to arrange the same student-generated T-units into more than one paragraph organization. The objective is to demonstrate to students that there is almost always more than one way to arrange related information at this level of organization.

Using this procedure, sample paragraphs for expressive, descriptive, narrative, expository, and persuasive modes are created from students' T-units. These paragraphs serve as models for daily practice until students are ready to move from formula arrangements into creating novel paragraphs from scratch.

With these models, students develop parallel paragraphs, using other sets of their own simple and complex related T-units. As much as possible, students arrange and rearrange prewritten T-unit strips cut from their notebooks rather than laboriously handwriting or keyboarding (and spelling) alternative paragraph arrangements. This practice permits more time to be spent on composing than on transcribing. After self-questioning to test their products, students transcribe only the final version of each paragraph as a permanent product for notebooks. At transcription time, teachers decide whether to show writers how to mark T-units with sentence boundaries of capital letters and periods, or to demand conformity with conventions.

Students move from formula imitation to writing original paragraphs as integrated text by meeting a criterion: imitative arrangements of previously developed T-units into at least three paragraphs, each of a different discourse mode, within 50-minute sessions over 3 successive days. When they can do so, they are ready to produce original text for the five discourse types they have been practicing.

Discourse modes represent only one possible classification of paragraphs. As Fahnestock (1983) pointed out, students also need to learn how to develop paragraphs according to other taxonomies, such as inductive and deductive systems, or comparison and contrast. Furthermore, writers must be led into more global planning through activities such as those suggested by D'Angelo (1986) toward developing inclusive statements called macropropositions (p. 437). Moreover, inexperienced older writers must be moved beyond egocentrism to the decentered concepts that comprise academic writing (Stotsky, 1986).


Some writers with disabilities cannot profit from advanced composition instruction, yet many can be led through systematic growth in productivity with attendant progress toward planning larger discourse units. Students can go through the program described here without premature concern about either grammar or writing conventions. Writers are thus freed to create and to enjoy the benefits of inventing original text. They can use written language to share information or organize studies and, most of all, to set down their ideas for reflective examination of their minds and their experiences.


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Benton, S., & Blohm, P. (1986). Effect of question type and position on measures of conceptual elaboration in writing. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 98-108.

Bond, S., & Hayes, J. (1984). Cues people use to paragraph text. Research in the Teaching of English, 18, 147-167.

Daiute, C. (1984). Performance limits on writers. In R. Beach & L. Bridwell (Eds.), New directions in composition research (pp. 205-224). New York: Guilford Press.

D'Angelo, F. (1986). The topic sentence revisited. College Composition and Communication, 37, 431-439.

DeBeaugrande, R. (1984). Forward to the basics. College Composition and Communication, 35, 358-367.

Elbow, P. (1985). The shifting relationships between speech and writing. College Composition and Communication, 36, 283-303.

Fahnestock, J. (1983). Semantic and lexical coherence. College Composition and Communications, 34, 400-416.

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

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (1988). Instructional recommendations for teaching writing to exceptional students. Exceptional Children, 54, 506-512.

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

Graves, D. (1978). Balance the basics: Let them write. New York: Ford Foundation.

Greenberg, K. (1987). Defining, teaching, and testing basic writing competence. Topics in Language Disorders, 7, 31-41.

Hilgers, T. (1986). How children change as critical evaluators of writing. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 36-55.

Hillocks, G. (1986). Research on written composition. Urbana, IL: National Conference on Research in English.

Hull, G. (1987). The editing process in writing. Research in the Teaching of English, 21, 8-29.

Hunt, K. (1970). Syntactic maturity in school children and adults. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 35(134), 1-44.

Kaufer, D., Hayes, J., & Flower, L. (1986). Composing written sentences. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 121-140.

McCarthy, P., Meier, S., & Rinderer, R. (1985). Self-efficacy and writing. College Composition and Communication, 36, 465-471.

Moran, M. (1987a). Individualized objectives for writing instruction. Topics in Language Disorders, 7, 42-54.

Moran, M. (1987b). Options for written language assessment. Focus on Exceptional Children, 19, 1-10.

Moran, M. (in press). Facilitating literacy in the primary grades. In R. Schiefelbusch & L. McCormick (Eds.), Early langauge intervention (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

O'Hare, F. (1973). Sentence combining. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Rubin, D. (1987). Divergence and convergence between oral and written communication. Topics in Language Disorders, 7, 1-18.

Shaughnessy, M. (1977). Errors and expectations. New York: Oxford Press.

Shuy, R. (1986). Changing linguistic perspectives on literacy. In J. Orasanu (Ed.), Reading Comprehension (pp. 77-87). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stotsky, S. (1986). On learning to write about ideas. College Composition and Communication, 37, 276-293.

MARY ROSS MORAN is Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Kansas, Lawrence.
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Author:Moran, Mary Ross
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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