Once you have completed the assessment, it is time to identify your student’s relative strengths and weaknesses in the area of writing. It is just as important to measure, describe, and report your student’s abilities for writing as his or her disabilities. This goes a long way towards establishing competency. Several questions you want to ask yourself as you are prioritizing goals for the student include:
- What are her writing strengths?
- What are her barriers when approaching a written task?
- What types of writing does she need to do at this grade level?
- How independently is she able to produce a written piece?
- What should the final product look like?
- How effortful is the writing process?
Once you have answered these questions, you can pinpoint the student’s goals and learning objectives. If your student has an IEP, the writing goals should describe the type of writing (e.g., expository, narrative, persuasive, etc.) and level of independence to be achieved. Although there is a separate page for accommodations and supports on the IEP, it is a good idea to specifically mention them in your goal. Below are two examples:
- Samantha will independently compose a personal narrative.
- Kelly will independently edit a persuasive essay using assistive technology.
While it is advantageous to write a goal for your student to achieve mastery or independence, you may have a beginning writer who will need more direct instruction and guidance. You may have to address this in your goal. For example, Amanda will draft a book review with minimal cues to access and use her visual organizer for planning. Once again, this goal identifies the type of writing, level of independence, and the accommodations.
Each goal may have one or more learning objectives. These are the specific sub-skills that need improvement. For the above goals, the learning objectives may address organization, content, voice, or mechanics. It is helpful to refer back to the writing assessment to determine what area(s) need to be addressed. Several examples for each area are listed below:
- Samantha will write a compelling introduction in her personal narrative.
- She will demonstrate the use of emotion for emphasis within her personal narrative.
- She will use paragraphs with introductory sentences to organize her narrative.
- Samantha will include a moral in her personal narrative.
- She will use a title to create interest in her narrative.
- Samantha will “explode a moment” through detailed descriptions in her narrative.
- Kelly will show a sense of audience in his persuasive essay.
- Kelly will incorporate rhetorical questions in his essays.
- Kelly will summarize the evidence in his persuasive essay.
- Kelly will use consistent verb tense throughout his essay.
- He will use standard spelling in his essays.
- Kelly will use punctuation such as quotation marks, semi-colons, and parentheses to strengthen his persuasive essay.
Measurement should be consistent with that used in the classroom. If your student is an elementary or middle school student, chances are the teacher has a rubric to evaluate written assignments. Not only does this qualitatively describe the expectations of the student’s writing, it quantitatively assigns points to each area. Involving the classroom teacher in goal setting and measurement will lead to more continuity and collaboration (which often yields greater dividends in the student’s rate of progress).
If your student is in high school grading rubrics may or may not be utilized; however, some schools use writing handbooks that delineate writing expectations and offer examples. The assignment is generally posted electronically (or hard copies are provided) with specific criteria for the assignment.
Effective writing intervention is predicated on a thorough assessment, as well as appropriate and measurable goals. Once you have delineated your learning objectives, you may choose to use a formal writing program or more of an individualized approach. Regardless of what you choose, you will likely be working on multiple aspects of writing within your intervention. Next, we will walk you through each of these sub-skills of writing. In addition, several formal writing programs will be reviewed.
Story Cohesion Your student will benefit from explicit instruction for story cohesion (i.e., what it is and what elements contribute to story cohesion). Meta-cognitive exercises will help your student to become more aware of her use of story cohesion. Finally, addressing story cohesion in isolation (in the editing process) will allow your student to concentrate her efforts on this aspect of writing, without worrying about story grammar, spelling, word retrieval, punctuation, etc.
To begin intervention, you should define story cohesion. You may ask, “Do you think your story is smooth and sticks together or is it bumpy and confusing in places?” Provide a list and explanation of elements of cohesion: transition sentences, sequence words, clear pronouns, and sticking with the same idea throughout the story. Direct your student to compare a story that demonstrates cohesion to one that does not. Ask her to identify a couple of places in her story that need to be smoother. Then have your student examine a piece of writing that she has completed and add transition sentences with the following conjunctions (in the same way, however, consequently, nonetheless, in addition, or for example). More explicit sequence words may need to be added such as: first, after that, next, and finally. Edit any pronouns that may be unclear. Review your student’s writing for any details that do not “belong” to the main idea of the story. Provide a written template to use when drafting her next narrative. The template should include a definition of cohesion and the following sub-skills (with examples and key words):
- Transition words and sentences
- Sequence words
- Pronouns and referents
- Topic maintenance
Grammar It is important to target grammar with your student regardless of age. Morphology develops a great deal in late elementary and early middle school to incorporate multi-syllabic words (using prefixes and suffixes). By middle school, students should use a variety of sentence types and have good control of syntax for clear and smooth writing.
For a brush up on grammar, we recommend Louisa Moats’ reader-friendly book Speech to Print: Language Essential for Teachers.
Vocabulary It is very important to help your students learn to use descriptive vocabulary and non-literal language when writing. To do so, they need to have repeated exposure to sources rich with vocabulary. Dyslexics will often simplify their word choices due to difficulties with spelling or word retrieval. Some of these students settle for generic words, like things, stuff, is, and people. They benefit from revision of their writing, replacing these words with more accurate nouns and more active verbs. Provide a model text with vibrant verbs, such as Bullfrog Pops! by Rick Walton (Putnam and Grosset Group, 1995). Your student may incorporate some of the verbs encountered in the story into her own narrative.
Teach your student to elaborate using adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. Provide a piece of poetry as an example. Once the student has selected a topic or a story to tell, help her with the planning stages. By breaking the writing process into more manageable steps, your student will be able to focus exclusively on semantics.
- Brainstorm key words to describe the character, setting, and feelings.
- List similes and metaphors that convey the problem (Nivel was flailing like a cat in water).
- Introduce or reintroduce your student to the thesaurus (preferably the one on her computer if she types her papers).
- Provide templates to help your student describe things adequately. A structured curriculum that features a multi-sensory approach for improved oral and written language is Franklin, or the savvy Co-Writer software, which predicts words based on first letters and grammatical structure. Co-Writer can be customized to the writer by adjusting the writing level and specific dictionaries (i.e., a dictionary of medical terms or history vocabulary can be selected).
Voice It is virtually impossible to teach this writing element in a vacuum. Model texts and essays are highly recommended to provide a strong model of how an author’s voice can be conveyed.
You may ask the student to compare two pieces of writing, one that is bare-bones and run-of-the mill with one that is fresh and engaging. Ask your student which story she would rather read.
“Voices in the Park” by Anthony Browne (D.K. Publishing, 1998) is a narrative that explores voice and different points of view (like four blind men describing an elephant). The reader is treated to a variety of highly stylized stories with engaging and unusual illustrations.
Helping your student tap into her own voice may not be as simple as showing good models; however, you may unlock her voice through directly teaching writing elements that will allow her to express herself with more texture. Examples of these elements are below:
- Figurative language: metaphor, similes, clichés, expressions, and personification
- A variety of writing formats: flashbacks, scene changes, chapters, and different characters narrating
- Action verbs
- Adjectives and adverbs
- Emotional appeal
- Questions to engage the reader
- Conversational tone
- A moral or reflection
In addition, you may help your student think about his audience and write appropriately for that group of people. This may necessitate some theory of mind, to look at a topic or story from another’s point of view. It may help to say, “Talk to me like you would talk to your best friend. Now tell me that story again as if I were your teacher.” You may write a couple of quotes from this to have your student capture in his essay.
Since many students with dyslexia struggle with the multi-faceted task of writing, voice is often sacrificed. Assistive technology might enable your student to focus more on his voice in his writing. You will likely help your student a great deal by going back to a piece of writing and adding the “interest” after the draft has been completed. Alternatively, you may wish to do this in the planning stages. The important point is to break down the essay into less overwhelming tasks.
Story Grammar Since story grammar follows a developmental sequence, your evaluation should have determined what stage your student is at and what the next element is that she should learn. Maryellen Rooney Moreau has developed assessment tools and curriculum based on the development of story grammar. This is a multi-sensory program and is easily adapted for all age groups and ability levels.
Once again, explicit instruction of the story grammar feature is key. For example, you may talk about how a good plot is comprised of a problem, how the character feels, and what he plans to do about it. A model text may be introduced after this pre-teaching occurs.
- For younger students, “A Day’s Work” by Eve Bunting (Clarion, 1994) would illustrate all of these elements. The problem is that the grandfather chooses a job that he is not qualified for because he needs the money. He makes a mistake and finds out that he weeded the flowers rather than the weeds. Consequently, the grandfather feels ashamed. His plan is to teach his grandson an important lesson on integrity when he insists on returning to his job and making amends.
- For older students, apply the concepts of plot and embedded plots in the book they have read for Language Arts. (Note: it is recommended that you select a book that the student has completely read, or it may be hard to analyze the plot).
After the pre-teaching and model text, the student may retell this story in her own words, using the story grammar for a plot. This may be incorporated into a book review, or modified (with a creative twist that the student adds for a different outcome).
Students may benefit from a graphic or tactile reminder for each of the story elements (again, this is incorporated into the Story Grammar Manual and materials referred to above). This gives the student the opportunity to visualize, move a manipulative, and verbalize or write the outline of a story. This is useful for retelling (reading comprehension) and planning (written expression) activities involving narrative text.
Spelling Students with dyslexia may require systematic and explicit instruction in one or more of the five foundational skills (phonemic awareness, mental orthographic images, phonics knowledge, morphology, and semantic knowledge).
Spelling objectives that are specific are necessary for explicit instruction and progress monitoring (i.e. Jack will accurately spell words with “silent –e” and “vowel teams” [two vowels that make one sound] in his reports.). You will likely have multiple areas of spelling that you are addressing simultaneously (i.e. orthographic knowledge/phonics, and phonemic awareness) and it is helpful to have separate learning objectives for each one.
With that said, it is often most efficient to target multiple linguistic goals within a given task. For example, you might complete the following activities with a student to address both phonics and phonemic awareness:
- Begin by having a student listen to the phonemes, "f-I-J-I-t" and say, "fidget."
- Then you can have the student spell it with letter tiles, and noting that "j" is spelled with the letters "d" and "g".
- You may ask the student to think of other words with “j” in the middle or at the end. The list might include: bridge, sage, wedge, widget, cage, and arrange.
- Ask your student to divide the words into two groups, those with "j" spelled with "g" and those spelled with "dg".
- Direct your student to guess why some words are spelled with "g" and the others are spelled with "dg". This process of engaging the student in the learning process and discovery is key. (You may, however, scaffold through questions by asking, for example, "What do you notice about the vowel sounds in each group of words?")
- Reinforce the effort and what is correct. “That’s right, the words with the "dg" have short vowels before the "j" sound and the other words have a long vowel before the 'j' sound."
- Summarize through a rule, "So, we could say 'short needs support and long is strong'". The words with short vowels need a 'd' and a 'g', but the words with long vowels only need a 'g' to make the 'j' sound."
- Test it out on other words.
- Encourage the students to write a short story or journal entry using as many of these words as possible. Spelling in context is key!
Explicit instruction is what struggling spellers need most. This means teaching spelling rules and skills with multiple exposures and exemplars. The student should have opportunity for mastery. If the student can teach the rule/concept back to you, then you are ready to add on to that knowledge (perhaps with an exception to the rule).
While his peers have implicitly learned phonics, phonemic awareness, and sight words from reading, the student with dyslexia has not. The earlier the intervention the better; this is so that the underlying skills for spelling and decoding are in place for later stages of “reading to learn.” In this stage, students are expected to be able to decode and spell words that they have only been exposed to in print. However, if a student with dyslexia does not decode it accurately, he will not understand it or be able to spell it later, and the learning gap widens exponentially. Hence, early and explicit instruction is paramount!
To begin intervention, determine the student’s learning style and incorporate that in your lessons. For example, if you are teaching phonemic awareness to a visual learner, colored blocks or papers might help her to visually represent each sound/phoneme. On the other hand, a kinesthetic learner might do better using his fingers or pencil to tap for each sound he hears. Auditory learners may enjoy playing a game that requires them to segment the last sound of a word and produce a word of their own with it. This can be played in a Round Robin fashion.
In the same way, phonics skills can be taught to the dominant learning style or in a multi-sensory way for a student. A kinesthetic learner might learn best from having paper plates with each “vowel team” written on it. When the student steps on that plate, she has to verbalize the sound the vowel team makes and two words containing that vowel team. A visual-kinesthetic learner might benefit from drawing fun pictures (e.g., a sailboat on the sea) that incorporate the targeted vowel teams. Verbal learners might enjoy a silly little song to remember the short vowel sounds.
Handwriting Not all dyslexics have difficulty with handwriting, but for those who do, poor handwriting can give the wrong impression about ability. Teachers should create opportunities for students with dyslexia to practice typing skills and use word processing whenever possible.
Punctuation is generally taught explicitly in elementary school, but thereafter is quite often learned implicitly (through reading or feedback on papers). Many good writers have difficulty knowing when to use commas, not to mention semi-colons versus colons. Direct instruction is necessary. A specific goal will capture the types of punctuation that are omitted or need to be introduced for more mature writing.
Meta-cognition is the first step to teaching punctuation. It answers the question, “Why does it matter if I use a comma or not?” Often it is effective to show your student a sentence that can be interpreted two ways depending on the punctuation. This can be a fun exercise (just search on the Internet for “ambiguous headlines”). Perhaps the student can draw a picture to represent two interpretations of the following phrases: “Complaints about NBA Referees Growing Ugly,” “Eye Drops off the Shelf,” or “Milk Drinkers are Turning to Powder.”
Another introductory activity is to read and discuss “Punctuation Takes a Vacation” by Robin Pulver (Holiday House 2003). This can help students to realize the importance of using correct and effective punctuation in their writing.
The following tips are offered for teaching punctuation to students over the course of several sessions:
- Systematic rules for when to use each type of punctuation should be directly taught, one at a time.
- Examples should accompany each rule. Give the student the opportunity to “edit” someone else's writing for incorrect usage or omission of a particular punctuation mark.
- Give feedback and praise, “Great job! You helped correct 9 out of 10 commas. Take a look at the third sentence again.”
- Ask the student to compose several sentences of her own while referring to the examples. Provide specific feedback on these sentences.
- Tell the student that she is ready to put her knowledge to the test by editing a piece of her own writing for punctuation.
- Repeat this process for all of the types of punctuation that need remediation.
- Develop a reference sheet (that the student can refer to when she is writing) with all of the rules and examples you have practiced.
Help your student understand that writing is a process and that good writers revise their work over and over again.
Specific Demands for Expository Writing
The structure for expository writing varies somewhat depending on the assignment. Therefore, you may want 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 make your intervention curriculum-relevant. Once you have determined specific goals for your student’s expository writing you are ready to begin intervention.
Organization: To save on time, you may wish to commence work in the area of organization by simply revising a paper that has already been composed. Another approach is to begin intervention after the student has completed her research.
If your student jumps into the body without first hooking the reader or identifying the topic/thesis that he will write about you will want to begin with a meta-cognitive exercise. This should be a discovery process rather than didactic.
- You may choose to use a Socratic method: What would happen if we went to a website and it just started talking about the specifics of a new iPod...without first telling you what it was or why it is different from the previous generation? Would that be easy to read? Would it make sense? Would you continue to read the rest of the article without knowing what it was about?
- You may prefer to use a hands-on activity and then discuss it. Cut out several articles and remove the titles. Then cut off the first paragraphs. Instruct your student to match the article with the correct introductory paragraph. (A similar type of meta-cognitive task is recommended if your student struggles with writing a conclusion.) This will be more challenging if the articles are about similar topics. Ask your student to tell you about her experience reading something without an introduction. Teach the components of a good introduction: a hook to grab the reader’s attention, and a thesis or main idea to be discussed in the body of the paper. Help her to reverse engineer a template by looking at these pieces. Alternatively, refer to the assignment or writing handbook to determine the structure that is required. The template for an introduction may be as follows:
1. A hook: Find a quote, statistic, or ask a question to draw the reader in.
2. Transition: Tie the “hook” to the topic that will be discussed.
3. Thesis: Make your argument and list the supporting points that will be in the body of the paper. A list works well for this, e.g., Compared to tap water in the U.S., bottled water is not good for us, our wallets, or the environment.
Instruct your student to identify her main arguments and to write an introductory sentence for each argument, followed by supporting details. Once again, a template or outline can streamline this process. Encourage your student to get the ideas down, rather than agonizing over the specific wording, since that can be revised later. Tell your student that her argument will stand if she has an adequate structure and the correct content in her essay, much like a building made with quality materials and a sound framework.
If your student lacks smooth transitions, help her to identify these and edit a completed paper by adding conjunctions, sequence words, and clarifications. Adding sentences to bridge together ideas is also beneficial. Ideally, you will collaborate with your student, provide some instruction, make a plan, and then assign the last bit for homework (to ensure mastery and carry-over). This can be reviewed in a subsequent session.
Content: Many students with dyslexia struggle with paraphrasing the information that they have read. Strong reading comprehension and word retrieval skills are required to come up with specific vocabulary and synonyms for words to avoid redundancy. An assortment of more abstract verbs, adjectives, and metaphors are brought to the undertaking of writing expository text. This type of writing requires strong grammatical dexterity to facilitate the use of a variety of sentence types.
Once you’ve identified which of the aforementioned areas to target, you should select an assignment to focus on. Previously completed assignments work well, particularly if the focus is on refining the semantics and sentence structure.
Ask your student to highlight key words that are overused and then use the thesaurus to add variety. You may need to point out overly-used sentence types and then provide examples of other compound or complex sentence structures. Help your student revise several of her sentences and then orally reread the essay. Ask if she likes the sound of the first version or second version better and why. This gets your student into the habit of self-appraisal rather than relying on a teacher for assessment.
It is likely that your student will also struggle with paraphrasing what she has read or researched. Now that she has some tools from the previous assignment (using a thesaurus and changing the sentence types), use these for paraphrasing a new assignment.
Ask your student to identify the main idea and to “put it in her own words.” You will probably have to model this a time or two by “thinking aloud”. (“Let’s see, this article is pretty complicated, but it seems like it’s mainly talking about when Hawaii became a unified state and not just a bunch of individual islands. I think the most important details are…”) Highlighting key words and using the structure of the text may also help your student to extract the salient information.
Working memory is a requisite skill to simultaneously hold the information in mind while parsing it, selecting salient details, and then 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; they have to identify a point of view and compare it, make connections with it, or refute it. This is not something that you can look up in a book and it is rarely explicitly taught to students.
This is by far the most challenging part of teaching writing. Fortunately, many strategies are now available to help with the working memory component. Audio recording and voice dictation are at the top of the list. An important strategy for the student who struggles with working memory is to provide a writing process that allows her to focus on the smaller sub-skills of writing. Below is one example of a writing process for completing a draft of an expository essay:
- Brainstorm a topic and narrow it down to a specific argument/aspect
- Research that particular area
- Highlight key words and points
- List main arguments/points
- Formulate 3-5 topic sentences
- Add supporting details or examples to each topic sentence
- Draft a thesis sentence with all of the main arguments
- Identify a quote, brief story, or question to capture your reader’s interest
- Compose a transition sentence between the “hook” and thesis sentence
- Restate the thesis (in slightly different words) for the conclusion
- Add a reflection to the conclusion
- Reread the essay and add transition sentences and sequence words as needed
- Edit draft using text-to-speech (to listen and read it at the same time)
- Revise writing at another time (paying attention to the organization, voice, mechanics, and content).
- Ask someone else to provide feedback.
Since this may be such an iterative process, your job as the professional is to help your student estimate how many days this may take and to schedule that time in her planner. In addition, it may be appropriate to help your student self-advocate to receive more advanced warning for writing assignments (of any length) and extended time to complete them.
Assistive Technology can give students with dyslexia access to writing. It can ameliorate stress and frustration associated with the writing process, and it can empower students to add their unique voice to the world. Technology is readily available to help with every stage of writing:
- Planning/Organization: Kidspiration, Inspiration, and Draft Builder
- Drafting and Spelling: Co-Writer, Dragon, Franklin Electronic Speller, Kurzweil 3000
- Editing: Text-to-speech, Ginger software, and word processing tools (thesaurus, dictionary, spelling, and grammar check),
You, as the professional, are uniquely positioned to make writing a manageable task for your students. With explicit instruction, meta-cognitive tasks, and assistive technology you equip your students with a skill that they will need throughout their lives. You may also provide education to family members and faculty about writing. Perhaps your student body would benefit if assistive technology were made available in the classroom. Your knowledge and advocacy can help to make this a reality. Success starts here!
More on Writing Intervention
- Read LD Online's Mechanical Obstacles to Writing: What Can Teachers Do to Help Students with Learning Problems?
- Learn from LD Online how to give feedback on student writing
- Read LD Online's Extended Writing-to-Learn Strategies