Expository Writing: Dynamic Assessment

If your dyslexic student is in middle school or high school, performing a dynamic assessment of his or her expository writing skills is a good way to determine your student's strengths and weaknesses in the writing process.

Specific Demands for Expository Writing

Your student will need to develop strong skills in expository writing—writing to convey information, compare and contrast, or persuade. Given the differing demands of expository writing as compared to narrative structure, many students with dyslexia lag behind. They struggle with inferential reading, working memory, and word retrieval, not to mention understanding the requirements of expository writing. They struggle to organize their thoughts and write them fluently and convincingly. Spelling and mechanics hamper their efforts as well. It is important to keep all of these demands in mind and to determine exactly where the breakdown is. This can be accomplished in the context of dynamic assessment.

The structure for expository writing varies somewhat depending on the genre and the assignment. It behooves you as the professional to obtain a copy of the assignment, grading rubric, and writing handbook (often given to high school students during orientation). This will allow you to tailor your assessment to the type of writing the student will be required to do and to determine whether the student is able to organize his writing effectively for the increasing demands of expository writing.

In general, expository writing is organized with an introduction, body, and conclusion. You will want to observe whether your student includes all of these elements. Some students jump into the body, without first hooking the reader or identifying the topic/thesis. Another common area of difficulty is developing a conclusion. The paper may grind to an abrupt halt, without tying together the topics addressed, persuading the reader, or leaving the reader with something to think about.

Many students with dyslexia are not adept at doing the research (or looking back in the text that they’ve read) required for writing an expository piece of text. They may struggle to know what terms to search, to parse out good sources of information, or to quickly skim to find information. They may also struggle with citing sources appropriately.

There are greater demands for transitions within expository writing. This is addressed further under “Cohesion.” Specific conjunctions, introductory clauses, and pronouns will be required to make the paper “flow” seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph and topic to topic.

Students have to paraphrase information that they have read. This requires strong reading comprehension and word retrieval skills to come up with specific vocabulary and synonyms for words and concepts (to avoid redundancy). An assortment of more abstract verbs, adjectives, and metaphors are brought to the undertaking of writing expository text.  Strong grammatical dexterity is required to employ a variety of sentence types and make the paper interesting.

Working memory is a requisite skill in order to simultaneously hold the information in mind while parsing it, selecting salient details, and putting them into a cogent form to articulate a particular point of view. This necessitates critical thinking skills. No longer can students regurgitate what they’ve read as was acceptable in elementary school; they have to identify a point of view and compare it, make connections with it, or refute it. These skills must be explicitly taught to students.

Dynamic Assessment of Expository Writing 

PreParation

To gather the data, instruct your student to bring several copies of recent papers, writing assignments, and his writing handbook to your first meeting. In addition to evaluating the essays in his portfolio, give an expository assignment of your own that is similar to the other assignments he has done or will do in his classes. Most students are using word processing and Internet research to complete these types of assignments, so it is beneficial to simulate these conditions during your assessment.

Also, ask your student for the names of several books he has recently read or studied, in order to keep the research component during your assessment minimal. 

Suggested tasks

Ask your student to write an essay that compares/contrasts the themes in two of the books he's read. Remember, you can reference Spark or Cliff notes online to refresh your memory or provide more specificity to your assignment.

For a more challenging task, ask the student to identify a theme and write a persuasive argument refuting its validity. For example, your student may have read To Kill a Mockingbird.  In that book, Atticus teaches his children that while people have both good and evil intentions, good will usually win. Ask your student to use current events and his own life experience to argue against this point—the “good guy” does not usually win in interpersonal or global affairs.

Alternatively, give the student a quote to use in this argument, such as, "Atticus said, 'You've a lot to learn, Jack.' 'I know. Your daughter gave me my first lessons this afternoon. She said I didn't understand children much and told me why. She was quite right. Atticus, she told me how I should have treated her-oh dear, I'm so sorry I romped on her.'" (p. 87).

Give your student access to the book, Internet, and word processing, and have him research, draft, and write for 30 minutes. You should explain, “I want to see several arguments with supporting examples that debunk this idea of good prevailing. You should have an introduction and conclusion. Don’t worry about the length, just make it long enough to be convincing. Make sure that there is a good flow to it; and that you edit it so that it is easy for me to read.”

Analysis

Take notes as your student writes and use some of that time to look over his other written pieces. You will want to assess vocabulary, grammar, organization, voice, and cohesion. By the end of the half hour assessment, you will have a good idea of your student’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. In addition to the qualitative descriptions of content, voice, organization, cohesion, and mechanics, you can quantify the data with number of spelling errors, percentage of spelling errors edited, type-token assessment of different vocabulary used, and number of complex sentences or introductory clauses. Fluency can be measured in terms of number of words written in 30 minutes.

Talk to your student about strengths that you see and areas that seem to be “harder” for him.  Ask the student what he thinks. Inquire about the process he usually uses, how long it takes, and who helps or edits. You may wish to try some assistive technology at this time (e.g., Inspiration for planning, word prediction, voice dictation, or text-to-speech software programs for editing) to determine if it may be helpful in future writing assignments.

Benefits

This type of assessment is most useful in obtaining baseline data to formulate goals to both design therapy and determine progress. It is an opportunity to develop rapport with the student, to hear his point of view about his writing abilities and challenges, and to ask what he would like to work on. In addition, and importantly, dynamic assessment helps both you and the student "get on the same page." The authentic nature of dynamic assessment increases student "buy-in." And, it offers immediate opportunity for direct teaching about the different genres of expository writing and varying requirements of each.