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Strengthening the Second "R"
Research Connections
Winter 2002

Helping Students with Disabilities Participate in Statewide Writing Proficiency Assessments

"Writing is an area where research-based teaching strategies can immediately be put into practice. And since special education students are included in state assessments, virtually all of which include a writing sample, it is phenomenally timely."

Russell Gersten
University of Oregon

The 1997 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that students with disabilities will participate in state and district-wide assessments, with accommodations and modifications as necessary. Many of these large-scale assessments measure achievement in writing. Emerging research is shedding light on what practitioners may do to ensure that students participate and achieve to their potential on such assessments.

Prepare Students for Large-Scale Assessments

To help teachers prepare their students for state assessments that measure writing, many states provide teachers with a rating scale and examples of essays that meet the criteria. However, that may be insufficient. "All students, but particularly those with disabilities, need teachers to make the writing task explicit," says researcher Susan De La Paz.

In the context of helping students prepare for statewide assessments of writing performance, De La Paz's research— has received OSEP support— focused on helping teachers implement the Harris and Graham SRSD approach. "Having a strategy to use when prompted to write an essay helps students feel comfortable and enables them to do their best," De La Paz points out.

In one study, De La Paz worked with teacher Bonnie Owen to prepare students for a state assessment using the writing strategy PLAN and WRITE. "The mnemonics of PLAN and WRITE are used to help students remember strategy steps," De La Paz explains. "They serve as a reminder to plan before starting to write and to reflect on qualities of good writing while composing."

Positive results were found for students with learning disabilities, as well as low-, average-, and high-achieving writers. "Research has shown that students with disabilities can be taught SRSD strategies in the general education classroom and that general education teachers can effectively teach them," De La Paz adds.

Provide Professional Development for Teachers

"Many teachers have participated in workshops on the writing process, but find themselves frustrated in their early attempts to apply what they've learned to students with disabilities," Steve Isaacson, researcher at Portland State University tells us. "Teachers want explicit strategies and clear procedures for implementing the strategies with students with diverse learning needs."

Expository Planning Strategy—

Pay attention to the prompt.
List main ideas.
Add supporting ideas.
Number your ideas.

Continue Planning Process While Composing Your Essay—

Work from your plan to develop your thesis statement.
Remember your goals.
Include transition words.
Try to use different kinds of sentences.
Exciting, interesting, $100,000 words.

Source: De La Paz, S., Owen, B., Harris, K., & Graham, S. (2000). Riding Elvis' Motorcycle: Using self-regulated strategy development to PLAN and WRITE for a state writing exam. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15(2), 101-109.

The State of Oregon assesses students on their written performance. As part of a statewide initiative to improve the writing skills and enhance the participation of students with disabilities in these assessments, Isaacson has been conducting professional development sessions for teachers on how to improve students' written performance.

Training content includes a synthesis of research on effective writing instruction for students who have difficulty writing. Modeling differentiates Isaacson's approach from traditional lecture modes of delivery. "Teachers want to see actual lessons. And, they want to see how instructional strategies look," Isaacson explains. To this end, Isaacson organizes the agenda to include a substantial amount of modeling. "I conduct actual mock lessons in which I demonstrate from start to finish how teachers might use the strategy with their students— to introduce the strategy, how to explain the steps for using the strategy, how to model the strategy, and how to support students in using the strategy," Isaacson describes. "Often teachers have the same `aha' experience as the students do when they grasp how a particular strategy can enhance writing performance."

Over the years, Isaacson has learned much about addressing teachers' needs as they relate to teaching writing. Specific tips for other trainers include

  • Addressing accommodations for students who have trouble with the mechanics of writing. Students do not learn the mechanics (e.g., spelling, punctuation, handwriting) of writing on their own, and teachers need effective ways of assisting students in overcoming any mechanical obstacles to writing. Isaacson cautions that teachers should select research-based accommodations that are suitable for the particular students. [See Isaacson and Gleason, Mechanical Obstacles to Writing, for an excellent review of accommodations.]

  • Showing teachers good examples of writing. For each genre of writing, have numerous examples to illustrate different features.

  • Encouraging teachers to write. Part of teaching writing is modeling the writing process for students. Therefore, have teachers produce written compositions during the session and engage them in a structured review of how their writings meet exemplary criteria. Have them apply strategies to their own writing.

  • Integrating basals into the session content. Many teachers use basals to teach the writing process. Although basals offer a solid base, many are inadequate to address the needs of students with writing difficulties. Therefore, it often is helpful to recommend modifications in the context of the participants' basal series, such as adding modeling to the instruction, making parts of instruction more explicitly procedural, and providing supports for helping students use strategies independently.

National Network of Writing Trainers

"We are getting excellent results with our writing strategies," says Jeanne Schumaker. "For example, in one Michigan high school, 94 percent of our students passed the state competency exam in writing, compared to the overall 75 percent average for high schools."

With OSEP support, Schumaker and Don Deschler, her colleague at the University of Kansas, developed and evaluated four written expression learning strategies appropriate at the secondary level. The writing strategies are

  • Sentence-Writing Strategy. Students learn to write four types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.

  • Paragraph-Writing Strategy. Students learn a specific process for writing expository paragraphs.

  • Error-Monitoring Strategy. Students learn how to monitor their written work through self-questioning, thus allowing them to cope more effectively with the curriculum demands related to written assignments.

  • Theme-Writing Strategy. Students learn to write themes, reports, and other products that contain several paragraphs.

Schumaker and Deschler have packaged their research on writing into a professional development program complete with a national network of trainers. For more information, contact Schumaker at: University of Kansas, 517 J.R. Pearson, 1122 West Campus, Lawrence, KS 66045, 785-864-4780.

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