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Teaching writing to exceptional children: reaction and recommendations.

Teaching Writing to Exceptional Children: Reaction and Recommendations

Currently educators are responding to the challenge of teaching children to write. This special issue is a manifestation of their concern as it pertains to exceptional children. The research reported in this issue varies in focus, resulting in a variety of recommendations for instruction. This article attempts to provide guidelines for evaluating the research base that supports those recommendations for instruction. It also presents suggestions for further research that would provide more complete instructional approaches for teachng writing to exceptional children.


A review of the articles in this issue shows the overwhelming importance of the process model as the basis for most current instruction and research. Figure 1 depicts the goals of the researc that pertain to the process model, that is, toward understanding the writing process and the instructional approaches related to it. One goal of research, understanding the composing process, emphasizes the cognitive operations engaged in by the writer. Writing is viewed as a recursive activity involving planning, drafting, and revising. These three processes are not totally discrete stages of writing, and may occur or reoccur throughout the period of composing. For example, a writer might revise by reorganizing the sequence in which topics are discussed at any point, though such revision is done more often after the composition has been drafted.

Figure 1 also shows the second goal of research--developing instructional approahces. The fruits of the second goal, of particular interest to the readers of this issue, are explored in detail here.


We believe that the recommendations for instruction associated with the process model can be understood best if two separate roles are considered--that of the teacher and that of the learner. Before discussing these roles however, it should be noted that instructional approaches frequently are offered to teachers as if they had been derived directly from research with unskilled writers and as if their effectiveness had been tested scientifically and substantiated. Usually, such is not the case. Approaches to teaching writing are derived partly from the study of competent writers in the act of composing and partly from classroom observations of writing activities. Although this information is valuable in understanding the act of writing (goal 1 in Figure 1), we need to proceed cautiously in assuming that processes or behaviors observed in an experienced writer can be transformed directly into teaching techniques for exceptional children (goal 2). The need for caution is even more pronounced when we consider that instructional approaches suggested to teachers of exceptional children are general and, for the most part, have not evolved from investigations of exceptional students.

Teacher's Role

The teaching role under a process model is characterized as active, directive, facilitative, and supportive. The active teacher both understands the nature of the writing process and is equipped with techniques to provide direction and support for the learner throughout the stages of writing. Thus, the teacher facilitates writing by providing instruction to guide student planning or revision, to increase schema building, or to encourage the student to monitor his or her own writing. The teacher knows which writing skills the child has acquired and which ones need further development.

The role of the process-oriented teacher can be clarified by contrasting it with the teaching role associated with the now-outmoded, product-oriented model of writing, which prevailed in pubic schools until the last decade. The product approach was based on the notion that students learn to write from reading and analyzing published texts and noting their stylistic and organizational features. Having read the work of others, students were given assignments to write similar types of compositions. Those compositions, or products, were critiqued by teachers; errors--usually in mechanics--were marked and grades were assigned. Usually, the initial writing effort was regarded as the final draft of the composition. Instructional feedback was minimal during writing, and no opportunities for revision were provided. Students were expected to learn to be better writers from looking at the errors marked on their papers. Teachers using the product model assumed a relatively passive instructional role in which their main activity was assigning writing tasks and evaluating, often with obscure criteria, their students' performance on those tasks.

In contrast to this passive, product approach to instruction, teaching under the process model emphasizes the interaction of teacher and learner. Interaction occurs while writing is in progress and depend on feedback in eliciting a gradually produced, multidrafted written composition. Most notable is the change in teacher expectation; that is, written products are used as drafts and feedback for revision from teacher to learner is essential to the final version. Activities such as conferencing, prompting, modeling, and dialoguing are facilitative teacher behaviors that reflect a writing environment designed to encourage the creative process and to reduce the fear that students often associate with writing (fear that may result from being taught according to the product model). Other techniques associated with the writing process are student selection of topics, daily writing, writing conferences with peers, and publication when the writer determines a piece of ready; these techniques act to make writing a comfortable and functional means of communication.

Learner's Role

As was true of the teacher's role, the learner's role in the process approach to writing can best be understood by contrasting it with the learner's dilemma under a product-oriented approach. It is generally accepted by educators that exceptional learners require extensive, systematic, structured teaching to acquire skills that others master with less effort. Problem learners often need repeated opportunities to learn, review, and practice these skills. More important, they need to believe that they are capable of succeeding, so as to remain motivated and to make the effort to learn. The product-oriented approach, which essentially left the burden of learning to write to the learner's ability to discern what was exptected, presented special difficulties for the child whose previous school experiences had resulted largely in failure and frustration.

Under a process model, the learner is provided with opportunites to write often, about a variety of topics, many of which are self-selected, with the level of structured guidance necessary to elicit a product. Writing is a tool for self-expression and thought generation. Most significantly, the child is not threatened with failure if initial efforts are inadequate. For all children, but especially for exceptional children, producing a first draft is a complex task, drawing on many different skills. The process model assumes that a first draft is not a finished product; learners review their writing, make decisions about what they read, and make modifications. As learners gain writing experiences, they attempt the different types of writing that are required for different communication tasks.

Unresolved Issues in Defining the Teacher and

Learner Role

In the previous section we presented, in rather global terms, the potential of the process model for shaping the role of both teacher and learner. The articles in this issue makes a valuable start in offering a research base for these teaching approaches. However, we also believe that there are many unanswered questions and unexplored implications that become evident as one closely considers the teaching advice. Four domains of questions regarding the advice about instruction offered in this issue are discussed.

The first set of questions surrounds the mechanics of writing: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, usage, and handwriting, which are particularly burdensome for exceptional children. The authors of these articles suggest that teachers circumvent these mechanical problems by giving them a low priority, by automatizing them, or by having children use other technologies to compose. These recommendations give the teacher a new perspective on the role of mechanics but do not address the issues from the learner's perspective. Should the learner be taught the teacher's priorities and thus view mechanics as unimportant? Should practice on mechanics be separate from other writing instruction?

A second issue surrounds the advised use of peer conferencing, in which students read one another's writing and comment on it. Though peer conferencing appears to be a valuable procedure, quesions exist; for example the text written by a peer might be terse, confusing, or incomplete, making reading and drawing inferences a difficult task for any reader. Moreover, social perceptiveness and tact, attributes often lacking in exceptional children, are required if peer interaction is to be fruitful. Seemingly, exceptional children need instruction in the reading, inferential thinking, and social behavior necessary to perform such tasks adequately. Teachers require guidance about how to incorporate instruction in these skill areas into the writing program.

Third, it is often suggested to teachers that they have their students engage in free writing, selecting their own topics and genres. In this type of writing, sometimes called journal writing or expressive writing, one simply expresses oneself without regard to schema, purpose, or audience. On the other hand, the teacher also is advised to teach students processes, including planning, considering an audience, and so forth. According to Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987), in expressive writing, the student is simply piling up whatever ideas occur, rather than responding to any concerns for planning. The student writing this way may be more fluent and more interested in a topic, but also may create more sentence errors and show less concern for an audience. Which approach is more appropriate for exceptional children and under what circumstances is one approach more constructive than another?

The fourth question concerns how the teacher's conceptions of what constitutes progress or improvement in writing influences his or her interactions with students. These conceptions are similar to those described by Mosenthal (1988) as models of research. For example, the teacher's assumption that a child is writing a story and the teacher's conceptualization of what constitutes a good story influences the conference session and prompts the child to organize his or her writing into a better story. The benefit of such teacher prompting is that the child is taught to write a story, no left undirected to guess at the type of product the teacher expects. A disadvantage is that the writer may have wished to create an alternate type of composition and may have been guided away from his or her original intentions. The teacher's idea about what constitutes improvement in a pupil's writing is an important element in instruction, and it is not clear how to make teachers aware of the impact of their assumptions.

We do not mean to suggest that the advice offered to teachers is wrong, but we are concerned that some suggestions may seem contradictory or unclear to the teacher who seeks to plan an instructional program.


We are aware of the thoroughness with which the contributors to this issue have culled the relevant researcher. Their work makes it relatively simple for us to identify areas that require additional study. First is the obvious need for research done with handicapped learners. In reviewing the articles in this issue, we count only 18 published citations, studying a total of roughly 400 subjects, with group size varying from 2 to 99, on which data were collected from exceptional children. Clearly this dearth of research constitutes a potentially perilous situation. Although it is perfectly appropriate to generate instructional strategies from theory and from research with normally achieving children, such strategies must be subjected to validation studies; that is, their efficacy must be tested through large-scope research with exceptional children. Until extended research in special education classrooms is conducted, we must be careful not to translate available information into practice prematurely.

Recommendations for instruction for exceptional children must be viewed as tentative, because we may learn that instructional approaches based on theory or on research with small or narrowly defined samples are inappropriate or counterproductive. In so stating, we are reminded of the results of our latest study of learning disabled children (Barenbaum, Newcomer, & Nodine, 1987). In the course of this study, we learned, contrary to our belief, that learning disabled children were distracted from story writing, rather than aided, when they drew pictures about the topic before they began writing.

Having noted our concern over the general lack of research with exceptional children, we direct the reader's attention to several specific research needs of interest to us.


First, we are concerned with the problem of fluency among exceptional writers. We know very little about how to increase the comparably small amount of writing these students produce. Is their problem one of lack of fluency of ideas, or of words, or of sentence units? Or have they lacked opportunity to write because their teachers either concentrated on other types of instruction or were unclear as to how to teach writing? A related problem area is our lack of knowledge of the relationship between fluency and the mechanical demands of writing--the lowerl level skills, such as spelling, handwriting, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation. Does the minimal amount of writing produced by an exceptional child provide too few opportunities for improving their mechanical skills? Or does the poverty of mechanical skills cause the students to produce very little writing? Are there effective methods for circumventing some aspects of these problems such as sentence modeling and mechanical devices? We do not have a research base for understanding the interrelation of these two problems, nor for recommending instructional approaches.

In voicing our concern about mechanics, we recognize that the teaching of writing has traditionally focused excessive attention on mechanical skills. Existing research shows the failure of this focus. The emphasis of this special issue reflects the current concern with higher level cognitive operations associated with the writing processes (e.g., planning, revising, monitoring). Clearly, this shift in focus was needed and is similar to the movement in reading instruction away from a preoccupation with phonics toward emphasis on comprehension and metacognitive skills. Still the problems stemming from poor mechanical skills must be addressed.

Functions of Writing

Our second recommendation for research deals with the functions of writing and the impact of differences in writing tasks. Writing is sometimes treated as a monolithic skill, with exceptional students judged as having less of it than do regular students. But whata is it that they have less of? We know very little about exceptional children's schemes for composing or their knowledge of the functions of writing, since protocol analyses have been done with children in regular classrooms. Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, and Roen (1975) described the devastating effect on students' understanding of writing caused by their conception of the teacher as evaluator, rather than as interested reader. In contrast, these authors discussed how students were able to increase their knowledge of subject matter through writing when their teachers focused attention primarily on the content of their compositions. Exceptional students are rarely, if ever, encouraged to use writing as a tool for understanding content such as social studies or mathematics. Possibly, they would benefit if writing were not viewed exclusively as a problem area requiring improvement, but also as a means of developing thought and understanding. Instruction reflecting the latter conception could become a valuable source of research data.

Additionally, the consensus of this special issue is that children must receive specific instruction in various types of writing. Particular knowledge of the form and audience for each type of writing must be taught. These recommendations suggest the need for research answering the following questions: Are some types of writing easier for children to learn (e.g., stories, opinion essays, persuasive letters)? Are certain types easier for exceptional children to learn?

Operations employed in writing a particular type of composition (i.e., the operations of planning, drafting, revising when writing a story) may transcend one task and be applicable in many types of writing. Because exceptional students often show an inability to generalize skills from one task to another, determining exactly what skills differ or remain the same for different writing tasks is critical information. Another researchable issue then pertains to the generalizability of writing processes for both normal and exceptional learners.

Effects of Instruction

The third avenue of research derives from our discussion of instruction from the perspective of the teacher's role and the student's role. The interactive, facilitative role of the teacher suggests the use of a variety of prompts and classroom strategies for the student learner. We need research to determine how efficiently various types of exceptional learners internalize different instructional strategies.


Usually, in an article of this type we would close with an uplifting statement about the state of the art. Realistically, however, we realize that we have available very little solid information about handicapped students' writing skills: We are at the beginning. This special issue provides the reader with food for thought--ideas worthy of attention. We urge teachers to encourage pupils to write, and to apply the components of the process model that seem appropriate. Also, we hope you write and tell us about what you have learned and perhaps send us some of your students' work.


Barenbaum, E., Newcomer, P. L., & Nodine, B. (1987). Children's ability to write stories as a function of variation in tasks, age, and developmental level. Learning Disability Quarterly, 10, 175-188.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., & Rosen, H. (1975). The development of writing abilities (pp. 11-18). London: Macmillan Education Ltd.

Mosenthal, P. (1988). Three approaches to progress: Understanding the writing of exceptional children. Exceptional Children, 54, 497-504.

PHYLLIS NEWCOMER is Professor, Education Department, and BARBARA NODINE is Professor, Psychology Department, Beaver College, Glenside, Pennsylvania. EDNA BARENBAUM is Assistant Professor, Education Department, Cabrini College, Radnor, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Newcomer, Phyllis; Nodine, Barbara; Barenbaum, Edna
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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