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How to Help Your Students Write Well: An Interview with Steve Graham

By: Dale S. Brown
Three research based practices help students with learning disabilities improve their writing. Read this interview with Steve Graham, author of Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School who explains how you can help your students succeed in communicating through the written word.

Three research-based practices are particularly helpful to students with learning disabilities, according to Steve Graham, professor and the Currey Ingram chair in special education at Vanderbilt University. Teachers should a) explicitly teach students how to plan, revise, and edit their text, b) assign students specific and achievable goals for each assignment and c) teach students word processing and allow them to use it for assignments. These recommendations are three of eleven recommendations made in a newly released report titled Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School, which was written by the Alliance for Excellent Education . Graham, first author of the report, explained that the research showed that students with learning disabilities benefited from the same strategies as all students, but particularly benefited from the three recommendations.

For example, over twenty five studies pointed to improvements in writing skills when teachers explicitly taught students to plan, revise, and edit their work.

"The 'once and done' model doesn't work for these kids," he explained. "We found in some of the control groups, the teacher presented it once to the class and the kids didn't get it. Kids with learning disabilities need extra help or what we call scaffolding. You need to go over it and be sure they understand."

Graham suggested that general education teachers, most of whom have students with learning disabilities in their class, be very organized in their instruction. "Be systematic and explicit. Give a model. Talk about it, show it, and do it. Tell them exactly what you want. For example, it might be better to give a topic for a paper or several choices for a topic than to have some students choose their topics. Otherwise, they'll get lost in choosing."

He pointed out that instruction that helps students with learning disabilities generally improves the performance of the entire class. Word processing is an example. It is helpful for everybody. But students with learning disabilities find that typing is easier on motor skills than hand writing. Spellcheckers help students with dyslexia.

However, some instruction does need to be individualized. For example, he suggests that students might receive fifteen extra minutes three times a week on handwriting skills. The teacher could ask them to copy a sentence using the letters they are learning. When they do it correctly, they could be asked to copy it as many times as they can in three minutes. Then, they could be asked to do it a little faster (about ten percent faster than before.)

The goal, he explained, is to be sure that they continue to write legibly while improving their speed. A special education or resource room teacher could work with a student on these types of exercises.

Many examples of strategies and exercises that can be used by all educators are in "Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School." The report is designed to make it easy for teachers and parents to find and use these techniques.

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Dale S. Brown (2007)

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