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Teaching Expressive Writing To Students
The ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC/OSEP Digest #E590
Authors: Russell Gersten, Scott Baker and Lana Edwards
A recent meta-analysis (Gersten & Baker, 1999) highlights
research-based instructional approaches for teaching written
expression to students with learning disabilities, including ways
to teach students how to analyze material learned in the
classroom and how to write personal narratives, persuasive
essays, and other genres. All of the instructional interventions
studied improved the quality of students' written products, and
there was evidence of positive impact on students' self-efficacy,
i.e., their senses of being able to write.
Expressive writing was defined as writing for the purpose of
displaying knowledge or supporting self-expression (Graham &
Harris, 1989a). This analysis asked, "Given a group of studies
designed explicitly for the purpose of improving the writing of
students with learning disabilities, which interventions and
components were found to be most effective, and what is the
strength of their effects?" This definition and research question
led the analysis to include studies of a various interventions.
Virtually all of the interventions studied were multifaceted.
Three components stood out as ones that reliably and consistently
led to improved outcomes in teaching expressive writing to
students with learning disabilities:
Adhering To A Basic Framework of Planning, Writing, and
- Adhering to a basic framework of planning, writing, and
- Explicitly teaching critical steps in the writing process
- Providing feedback guided by the information explicitly
Teaching students to write requires showing them how to develop
and organize what they want to say and guiding them in the
process of getting it down on paper. Most of the interventions
used a basic framework based on planning, writing, and revising.
These steps are part of a recursive, rather than linear, process,
i.e., each step may be revisited during the writing process, and
the steps do not always proceed in the same order. In these
studies, each step was taught explicitly, with several examples
and often supported by a "think sheet," a prompt card, or a
Explicitly Teaching Critical Steps in the Writing
Explicitly teaching text structures provides a guide for the
writing task, whether it is a persuasive essay, a personal
narrative, or an essay comparing and contrasting two phenomena.
Different types of writing are based on different structures. For
example, a persuasive essay contains a thesis and supporting
arguments, while narrative writing may contain character
development and a story climax. Instruction in text structures
typically includes numerous explicit models and prompts. Although
different writers may proceed with the structures in a different
order, good writing involves what Englert & Mariage (1991) called
"overlapping and recursive processes." These processes do not
proceed in a particular order, and one process may inform another
in such a way that the author returns to previous steps to update
or revise on a regular basis. Again, a plan of action is helpful.
The plan makes text structures more visible to students and helps
to demystify the writing process.
Providing Feedback Guided by the Information Explicitly
A third component common to these successful interventions was
frequent feedback to students on the overall quality of writing,
missing elements, and strengths. When feedback is combined with
instruction in the writing process, the dialogue between student
and teacher is strengthened. Giving and receiving feedback also
helps students to develop "reader sensitivity" and their own
Wong et al. (1997) hypothesized that interactive dialogues, which
led students through multiple cycles of reflection, realization,
and redress of problems, helped students "see" their thoughts and
write from another's perspective. Across the studies of
successful writing instruction, teachers and students had an
organizational framework and language to use in providing
feedback on such aspects of writing as organization, originality,
and interpretation. Wong and her colleagues modeled procedures,
for students and teachers, providing feedback so that they would
attend to the surface features of writing (e.g., spelling and
punctuation) as well as to the presentation of ideas.
Numerous methods for teaching written expression incorporate
these three common principles. Two examples are Self-Regulated
Strategy Development (SRSD) (Graham & Harris, 1989b) and
Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing (Englert et al., 1995;
Englert & Mariage, 1991).
The SRSD technique involves self-directed prompts that require
the students to (a) consider their audience and reasons for
writing, (b) develop a plan for what they intend to say using
frames to generate or organize writing notes; (c) evaluate
possible content by considering its impact on the reader; and (d)
continue the process of content generation and planning during
the act of writing.
Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing includes brainstorming
strategies for preparing to write, organizing strategies to
relate and categorize the ideas, comprehension strategies as
students read and gather information for their writing, and
monitoring strategies as they clarify their thoughts and the
relationships among their items of information. All of these
strategies are applied prior to the actual writing.
Emerging Issues in Writing Instruction for Students with
Gersten and Baker (1999) identify some issues in which research
is expected to blossom in coming years. The first group of issues
concerns the mechanics versus the content of writing. Early
evidence suggested that writing instruction that focused more on
content would better capitalize on the strengths of students with
learning disabilities. When asked to write about complex ideas,
students with learning disabilities often showed conceptual
performance beyond that which would be expected on the basis of
their performance on lower-level skills such as capitalization,
punctuation and spelling (Goldman, Hasselbring, & The Cognition
Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1977).
More recent research indicates that dictating to a scribe can
eliminate mechanical difficulties and result in a longer,
higher-quality composition (e.g., De La Paz & Graham, 1997).
While students must evenutally learn to do their own writing,
these findings suggest a possible bridge to higher performance.
Gersten and Baker point out that daily writing instruction should
include time devoted to both the mechanics and the process of
writing. Problems with the mechanics of writing must be addressed
in expressive writing instruction; there is a reciprocal
relationship between mastery of transcription skills and growth
in the quality of writing. When students have mastered the
mechanics, their cognitive resources can be devoted to planning,
composing, and revising their work.
According to Gersten and Baker, another issue that is likely to
be the focus of expressive writing research is the transfer of
writing skills and the spontaneous use of the strategies involved
in writing to other subject matter areas to raise the student's
overall level of academic achievement. In the meta-analysis
reported here, few investigated the transfer of writing skills.
Those that did found mixed results. Wong called for instruction
to promote transfer of skill. When students are provided such
opportunities, she says, transfer will be greatly enhanced.
Based on Teaching Expressive Writing To Students With Learning
Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis by Russell Gersten and Scott Baker,
DeLaPaz, S. & Graham, S. (1997). Strategy instruction in
planning: Effects on the writing performance and behavior of
students with learning difficulties. Exceptional
Children, 63(2), 167-181.
Englert, C.S., Garmon, A. Mariage, T. Rozendal, M. Tarrant, K. &
Urba, J. (1995). The early literacy project: Connecting across
the literacy curriculum. Learning Disability Quarterly,
Englert, C.S., & Mariage, T. V. (1991). Shared understandings:
Structuring the writing experience through dialogue. Journal of
Learning Disabilities, 24(6), 330-342.
Englert, C.S., Raphael, T.E., & Anderson, L.M. (1992). Socially
mediated instruction: Improving students' knowledge and talk
about writing. Elementary School Journal, 92, 411-449.
Gersten, R. & Baker, S. (1999). Teaching expressive writing to
students with learning disabilities: a meta-analysis. Eugene,
OR: University of Oregon.
Goldman, S.R., Hasselbring, T.S., and The Cognition Technology
Group at Vanderbilt (1977). Achieving meaningful mathematics
literacy for students with learning disabilities. Journal of
Learning Disabilities, 30(2), 198-208.
Graham, S. and Harris, K.R. (1989a). Components analysis of
cognitive strategy instruction: Effects on learning disabled
students' compositions and self-efficacy. Journal of
Educational Psychology, 81, 353-361.
Graham, S. and Harris, K.R. (1989b). Improving learning disabled
students' skills at composing essays: Self-instructional strategy
training. Exceptional Children, 56 (201-214).
Wong, B.Y.L., Butler, D.L., Ficzere, S.A., & Kuperis, S. (1997).
Teaching adolescents with learning disabilities and low achievers
to plan, write and revise compare-contrast essays. Learning
Disabilities Research and Practice 9(2), 78-90.
Wong, B.Y.L., Butler, D.L. Ficzere, S.A., & Kuperis, S. (1996).
Teaching low achievers and students with learning disabilities to
plan, write, and revise opinion essays. Journal of Learning
Disabilities, 20, 197-212.
ERIC/OSEP Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This digest was prepared with funding from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0026. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OSEP or the Department of Education.
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