What should Ms. Lin know in order to provide effective writing instruction?
Page 2: Prerequisites for Written Expression
If students are to become successful writers, they must develop the ability to communicate effectively. Effective written communication involves two prerequisite skills:
To become successful writers, students must also regulate their writing behavior and learn the prerequisite skills. Students who struggle with these skills will find writing to be a frustrating undertaking. Those who have to concentrate on transcription or grammar may be unable to think about higher order skills during the writing process.
In the context of writing, transcription is the process of transferring one’s thoughts and ideas into words and putting those words on paper. Transcription skills are basic writing skills—primarily handwriting and spelling—and proficient writing requires a mastery of them.
Steve Graham has researched the factors that contribute to the emergence of writing difficulties. In the audio below, he explains how students develop transcription skills (time: 0:57).
Steve Graham, EdD Professor and Currey-Ingram Chair of Special Education Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
There’s two ways in which transcription skills are developed. One is by explicitly teaching. The second part is fluency: how fast you can do this.
So for example, with handwriting, we typically teach kids how to form individual letters. We try to make sure that they have a pencil grip that is not killing the pen. They position their papers correctly because that determines the slant, and they’re concerned about various aspects of neatness. Those things can be taught directly. Fluency mostly develops as a result of writing and writing a lot. So the more you write, the more fluent you become with handwriting skills.
Spelling is the same kind of thing. It develops in two different ways. One is by explicitly teaching skills. The way that we typically do that is teach kids to spell correctly the words that they’re most likely to use in their writing. The other aspect of development in spelling is incidental or informal. As kids read, they pick up the spellings of some words.
If students have not yet mastered the mechanics of writing and need to concentrate on putting their language on paper—for instance, if they need to concentrate on how to write the letter “h”—they might have difficulty attending to higher level skills, such as planning and organizing their compositions. In order to promote effective and efficient composition skills, teachers may need to adjust demands on their students’ transcription skills. This can be accomplished by:
Word-prediction software programs are used to assist users with text entry on computers. Word-prediction software packages predict the word being typed as well as the following word, based on the construction and frequency of the words used. These programs often include spell-checking, speech synthesis, and short-cut keys, which may be used for recurring words.
Telling students not to worry about handwriting and spelling on the first drafts
Allowing students to write shorter compositions
Providing additional instruction that is explicit and systematic (modeling how to write a paragraph without addressing handwriting and spelling problems in the first draft)
The ability to use proper grammar is necessary if students are to communicate effectively through written language. Students must understand:
The order in which words occur
The way words change according to their relationship with other words
How words are built up into units (e.g., sentences)
Students who have not yet mastered the formal structure of language will find it difficult, if not impossible, to construct coherent written compositions. Imagine trying to write a story in a foreign language of which you are unfamiliar. Even if you understood the meaning of words in that language, it would be very difficult to write a coherent story unless you had mastered its grammar.
Teachers who use explicit instruction (modeling, providing feedback and ample time for practice) can effectively demonstrate grammar skills to their students. For example, teachers can model how to revise compositions by combining simple sentences into complex ones. “The wind was blowing. There were branches all over the yard” might become, “The wind blew branches all over the yard.” Teachers can model additional examples to support students as they learn this skill. Students can then continue to practice with their teachers’ help; eventually, they can work with peer partners to practice sentence combining. Finally, teachers can instruct the students to go back to their compositions and look for places where they can combine simple sentences to form complex ones.
In order to preserve the purpose of this writing simulation, please do not use a word processor; instead, use a piece of paper and a pencil or a pen. The objective is to write two essays. This activity should take approximately 10 minutes. For each essay, you will receive 30 seconds for planning and 3 minutes for writing.
Topic: A Favorite Summer Vacation
Planning Time (30 seconds)
Time to Write (3 minutes)
fifteen seconds left
For the next part of this writing simulation, use the same piece of paper. This time however, there are some adapted grammar rules you need to follow. Click on the rules button to begin the process. First, the rules will be displayed. Then you will hear the prompt to begin planning. Finally, you will receive a prompt to begin writing.
Click the rules button to begin.
In this writing exercise, follow these adapted grammar rules:
Count up the number of words written during each 3-minute time period. In the first story, notice whether or not you used proper capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
In the second story, did you use the adapted grammar rules correctly?
Include a period after every fifth word.
Use a comma after every a, and, or the.
Put quotation marks around every verb.
Capitalize every five-letter word.
Spell every four-letter word backward.
Ask the following questions:
Which writing sample was longer? Which was of higher quality?
What were you thinking about during the first writing exercise?
What were you thinking about during the second writing exercise?
How did you feel during the second writing exercise?
How hard was it to remember the rules during the second writing exercise because they were not provided as a reference? How did posting the rules during the last portion of the exercise impact your performance?
How do you think these activities relate to effective and struggling writers?
How do you think a lack of automaticity in basic writing skills (handwriting, spelling, capitalization, punctuation) affects generating a high-quality composition?
How can you use your understanding from this exercise to help students in the classroom?
If writing tasks were always as difficult as the second exercise, how would you feel about writing at school?
Natalie Olinghouse, PhD Assistant professor of teacher education/ counseling, educational psychology, and special education Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Click to listen to Natalie Olinghouse offer feedback about the writing activity above (time: 0:59).
These two activities were to show you how low-level writing skills can impact the writing process. For example, low-level writing skills, or basic writing skills—which are handwriting, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and sentence structure—they’re really important. In the first writing activity, you could focus all of your cognitive resources on high-level writing skills, like planning, generating ideas, language at the sentence and text levels, and reviewing what you wrote so that your composition was coherent. In the second activity, you needed to spend much of your cognitive resources on the low-level skills because you struggled to remember all those unfamiliar rules and you had to write with your nondominant hand. You might have felt frustrated yourself in the second activity as you tried to remember unfamiliar spelling and sentence-construction rules while writing with your nondominant hand. Imagine how a student feels doing writing tasks in your classroom if he or she is experiencing similar problems.
So what can you do as a teacher? It’s important to know that effective writing instruction integrates both high-level skills—such as planning, revising, and thinking about language—and low-level writing skills, which are handwriting, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and sentence structure. For example, a lack of automaticity in these low-level writing skills means a student may not be able to write fast enough to keep up with his or her thoughts. In addition, they might have to attend to basic writing skills that interrupt the planning process. Thinking about how to spell a word or structure a sentence makes it difficult to remember what you were going to write next. Also, students who struggle with spelling or sentence-construction skills might use a restricted written vocabulary or a simple sentence structure. That can result in poor writing quality. Another problem could be that written compositions with a lot of errors or illegible handwriting are consistently judged lower in quality, even though the ideas in the composition might be good. And, students who have difficulties with low-level writing skills might not have motivation to write, avoiding writing both at school and at home. Ideally, your program should include instruction on basic writing skills and a student’s knowledge about writing, strategies for writing, and motivation for writing. A good writing program should work towards automatizing low-level skills so that cognitive resources can be allocated to high-level skills. This requires that low-level and high-level skills are taught together. For students who are struggling with basic writing skills, you may need to add explicit and supplemental instruction embedded in meaningful activities.