Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed in State and District Writing Assessments
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC/OSEP Digest #E625
Author: Cynthia Warger
While writing poses significant challenges for many students with disabilities, good teaching can help them overcome these barriers. The writing of students with disabilities typically contains more mechanical errors than that of their nondisabled peers and is less polished, expansive, coherent, and effective. Difficulties may exist because students with disabilities tend to
To help students with disabilities perform at their best on writing assessments, teachers can use the following techniques:
Use the Three Principles of Effective Writing Instruction
Research shows that students with disabilities can be taught to write and to write better. This conclusion was borne out in a meta-analysis of research on teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities (Gersten, Baker & Edwards, 1999). [Meta-analysis is a way of quantitatively analyzing the results of many studies on a single topic in order to obtain an overall picture of research results on the topic.] Virtually all the interventions analyzed were multifaceted and involved students writing every day. Three principles were identified as being critical to effective writing instruction:
One of many interventions that follow these principles is Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD). Although researchers Karen Harris and Steve Graham designed SRSD for students with learning disabilities and other severe learning difficulties, students in general education also have been found to benefit. With SRSD, students are explicitly taught writing strategies and self-regulation procedures (e.g., goal-setting, self-monitoring, self-instruction, and self-reinforcement).
The goals of the SRSD approach are to
Because many students have developed negative attitudes about their ability to write, teachers address student attitudes first. They help students understand that while writing does require effort, making the effort to learn and use the strategy will enable them to write. Then teachers follow a sequence to introduce and integrate the strategy and self-regulation components of SRSD:
SRSD is not a pre-packaged model. It can be individualized for students and should be regarded as part of a total writing program. Harris and Graham offer suggestions for teachers using SRSD:
More than 20 empirical studies have shown that SRSD helps students become better writers.
Prepare Students for Assessments
All students, but particularly those with disabilities, need to have teachers explain the writing task clearly and fully. A rating scale and example essays are not sufficient. Having a strategy to use when prompted to write an essay helps students feel comfortable and enables them to do their best.
In one study (De La Paz et al., 2000), the writing strategy PLAN and WRITE was used to prepare students for a state assessment. This expository writing strategy is as follows:
PLAN attention to the prompt; List main ideas; Add supporting ideas; Number your ideas.
WRITE from your plan to develop your thesis statement; Remember your goals; Include transition words; Try to use different kinds of sentences; use Exciting, interesting, $100,000 words.
The mnemonics of PLAN and WRITE remind students of the strategy steps, to plan before starting to write, and to reflect on the qualities of good writing while composing. Positive results were found for students with learning disabilities as well as low-, average-, and high-achieving writers.
Use Assistive Technology in Instruction and Testing
Within a strong writing program, technology can provide many different types of accommodation to help students overcome challenges related to their disabilities. Research is identifying potential roles for these new technologies, such as easing the physical processes involved in writing, helping to manage planning and revising processes, and supporting social interaction and communication. Promising technologies are
For example, students with writing disabilities might use speech recognition technology for dictation. For students with learning disabilities in the upper elementary and middle school grades, dictated compositions are substantially longer and qualitatively superior to compositions written by hand or word processor. MacArthur and Cavalier (1996) found that students with learning disabilities produced better essays when dictating to either scribes or speech recognition systems than when they wrote by hand.
Despite the benefits, speech recognition systems place specific demands on students. Users must be trained to speak clearly without extraneous sounds, pronounce punctuation, and correct errors, all of which may interfere with their ability to compose.
Teachers can avoid difficulties by making sure that students
Provide Test Accommodations
Assessment accommodations are alterations in the way a test is administered or the way a student provides responses that are designed to redress the student's disability. Appropriate accommodations do not provide an unfair advantage. Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams make decisions about which accommodations and test modifications are appropriate for a student. Types of accommodation include changes in the time allocated for the test, when or where the test is given, presentation of the test (how the assignments are given), and how the student responds.
Accommodations for writing should address the student's particular need. For example, if a student writes very slowly due to a physical disability, accommodations may entail extended time, dictating to a scribe, or using assistive technology. Pencil grips, taping the test paper onto the desk to prevent it from moving, or replacing the answer booklet with wider-lined paper may be appropriate accommodations for a student who has difficulty with handwriting.
In general, no testing accommodation should be recommended for a student unless that student has had an opportunity to use it during instruction. Ideally, to be fair to the student and to get the best measure of proficiency, instructional accommodations and test-taking accommodations should correspond.
ASPIIRE and ILIIAD Projects (2000). Making assessment accommodations: A toolkit for educators. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
Center on Accelerating Student Learning, http://www.vanderbilt.edu/CASL
De La Paz, S., Owen, B., Harris, K., & Graham, S. (2000). Riding Elvis's motorcycle: Using self-regulated strategy development to PLAN and WRITE for a state writing exam. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15(2), 101-109.
ERIC EC Digest E590, Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities. http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e590.html
Gersten, R. & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Elementary School Journal, 101(3), 251-72.
Graham, S., Harris, K., & Troia, G. (2000). Self-regulated strategy development revisited: Teaching writing strategies to struggling writers. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(4), 1-14.
MacArthur, C. (1996). Using technology to enhance the writing processes of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(4), 344-354.
MacArthur, C. & Cavalier, A. (1999). Dictation and speech recognition technology as accommodations in large-scale assessments for students with learning disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.doe.state.de.us/aab/DSTP_research.html (attachment #11)
National Center on Educational Outcomes, http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/ (for information on large-scale testing and accommodations)
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education