By Jessica A. Carmichael and James B. Hale
Debunking the Myths: If You Can Talk, You Can Write
An old myth still can be heard in some schools: If you can talk (expressive language), and are taught handwriting and spelling in school, then you can also write well. For some children this may be true, but explicit instruction in handwriting, spelling, and written expression is needed for children to successfully convey their ideas in writing. As Hooper et al. (2011) note, there are many brain systems and neuropsychological factors that influence written expression competency. While some of these are related to literacy can lead to both writing and reading learning disability (LD) when impaired, other causes of writing LD, such as visual-motor integration skills and executive functions (Fenwick et al., 2015), require additional attention during assessment and instruction.
Approximately 4-6% of students have a written language learning disability (Bernstein, 2013)
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN WRITTEN EXPRESSION?
Written expression includes the basic skills of handwriting and spelling, but other important skills – related to executive (brain boss) functions, play a critical role as well. As a result, it is important to note that children with literacy problems often have problems with handwriting (e.g., comorbidity of “aphasia” and “apraxia”; Hale & Fiorello, 2004) and other children with executive function problems (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety) are likely to struggle with written expression (Mayes & Calhoun, 2006).
A telltale warning sign of writing difficulties is when a child can present her ideas well using spoken language but the writing product is much more limited or poorly constructed.
Handwriting: Visual-Tactile-Motor Connections
The physical act of handwriting may cause some students difficulty. Students with graphomotor (i.e. paper and pencil) difficulties often have signs of constructional apraxia, which can be caused by visual, tactile, and/or motor aspects of handwriting. If they have this problem, they may write less, regardless of whether they have good ideas or not. That is why an evaluation of the visual-tactile-motor functions, and the coordination of these processes, can help guide an intervention for a child (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). The following table highlights the issues at hand (pun intended!)
Basic Skill Automaticity and Written Expression Orthographic-motor automaticity is necessary to free up higher level processes for adequate written expression (Jones & Christensen, 1999)
|Sensory Problem||Integration Problem||Motor Problem|
|Students may have difficulty feeling the pressure they put on a pencil, which may cause print that is too dark (pushes too hard) or too light (pushes too little), or handwriting inconsistencies due to a kinesthetic (movement) problem. This is a touch problemStudents have print that is too big or too small, have poor spacing and/or alignment of words and letters, or produce directional errors (e.g., writing “q” for the letter p). This is a visual problem.||Students can struggle with connecting many different processes at once, like sensory and motor functions. The problem is white matter connections in the brain. These children may do better using one hand or the other, but have more difficulty when both hands are required. These children also tend to be slower at doing things quickly and efficiently, so can be slow at processing speed and fluency tasks.||Students can have difficulty with motor plans, organization, sequential motor steps, control and coordination. This apraxia problem is in the front of the brain. It can lead to problems with writing, drawing, building blocks or puzzles, tying shoes, or dressing. Students often have problems with oral expression and grammar too, because these are also motor acts from a brain perspective. These children need motor control interventions to address their poor letter formation and spacing, so you have to see if a child’s poor handwriting is due to sensory, motor, or integration.|
Spelling: Understanding and Producing Sound-Symbol Connections
Spelling is an important part of writing that many students struggle with, but there are many causes of spelling problems. There is a strong link between a student’s reading and spelling, because sound (phoneme)-symbol (grapheme) connections are needed for both (Nag & Snowling, 2013).
Although sound-symbol connections needed for spelling and reading are more related to perceiving and mapping these relationships, some students have difficulty with the motor memory of spelling (Planton, Jucla, Roux, & Démonet, 2013). Some students can read words well, but because they have difficulty with representing the orthography (visual representation) in motor memory. The practice of handwriting spelling words improves sound-symbol connections when spelling and reading (Berninger et al. 2008).
Don’t automatically provide keyboarding or computers for handwriting and spelling problems, children need to practice both to learn sound-letter connections!
Error analysis is critical for helping children learn correct spelling patterns, as noted in the table below.
|Letter Omissions||Letter Reversals||Sequencing Errors||
|“thinke” for think;“coome” for come||“gving” for giving;“blak” for black||“qast” for past;“bog” for dog||“freind” for friend;“pats” for past||“nise” for nice;“troo” for true|
Sources: Hale & Fiorello, 2004; Cassar et al., 2005.
More teachers are turning to keyboarding and computers for children with writing or spelling difficulties, which often results in improved written output (Berninger et al., 2014). While these computer skills are useful, they can actually cause more difficulties for children with sound-symbol association problems in spelling and reading if introduced too early. As noted earlier, extensive research findings show that when a child uses handwriting to spell words they often improve their word reading too (Berninger et al., 2008), so handwriting and spelling are not only important for writing, but reading as well!
Written Expression: Most Complex of All Academic Tasks
Written expression is the most complex academic task, but little time is spent on it during classroom instruction (Hooper et al., 2011). One thing that written language requires is what is known as brain boss skills or executive functions.
During writing tasks, students must:
- Brainstorm main and supporting ideas
- Plan and organize their ideas so they are presented in logical order
- Write sentences that include nouns and verbs that logically convey ideas
- Monitor their writing to ensure sentences are grammatically correct
- Evaluate their sentences in terms of grammatical accuracy, and in relation to the initial plan
- Revised the writing draft to ensure an optimal error-free final product, something seldom accomplished by children with writing disabilities
The myth that if you can handwrite, spell, and use expressive language that you will write well has now been dismissed. Direct instruction in written expression is critical, especially for children with executive function problems (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety), who are likely to have significant written expression LDs (Mayes & Calhoun, 2006). These children may have excellent ideas, but translating them into writing is a struggle. Interventions that foster metacognitive (i.e., thinking about thinking) competency (Harris, Graham, Brindle, & Sandmel, 2009) may be quite helpful.
Executive functioning (EF) in Writing – the process of planning, organizing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, and changing the writing sample a student produces.
THE BRAIN AND WRITING
Written expression requires the whole brain, but the frontal-lobe circuits are most important, as they coordinate motor, internal and internal executive control, and decision/error monitoring (see table below).
|Anterior Cingulate Circuit||
|Dorsolateral Prefrontal Circuit||
|Supplementary Motor Cortex||
|Left Parietal Lobe||
|Right Parietal Lobe||
|Left temporal Lobe||
|Right Temporal Lobe||
INTERVENTIONS FOR HANDWRITING, SPELLING, AND WRITTEN EXPRESSION
Given that there are a number of cognitive processes that can cause writing difficulties, it is important to tailor interventions based on individual student needs. The following section discusses various evidence-based strategies that can be implemented, but targeted interventions should address individual child needs.
STRATEGIES FOR LETTER FORMATION AND SPACING
GOAL – Have students learn to write using appropriate letter size, shape, and spacing.
Cognitive Instruction (Zwicker & Hadwin, 2009)
- Cognitive approach includes letter identification, directional modeling, imitation, discussion, practice, and evaluation effective
- Skills targeted: Motor coordination, visual-motor integration, and directionality of handwriting
- Target age group: Grades 1-2
- Student Alphabet Warm-Up for mapping sounds and letters
- Teacher modeling of directionality and steps for producing letter parts (e.g., Berninger approach)
- Student traces letters following teacher model (imitation)
- Teacher and student discussion of similarities/differences of letter formation
- Student names letter, directional steps, and then writes; repeats without arrows, then copies
- Student circles best formed letter (visual discrimination required)
Handwriting Letters/Words Critical Writing
Hoy, Egan & Feder, (2011) note handwriting of actual letters/words is critical; sensory-motor interventions without handwriting are ineffective
à Practice Makes Perfect!
Graph Paper (Hale & Fiorello, 2004)
- A simple strategy that uses graph paper as a tool to guide appropriate writing
- Skills targeted: Motor coordination and visual-motor integration of handwriting
- Target age group: Grades 1-5, older children with spatial handwriting disability
- Provide student with graph paper instead of lined paper during writing tasks
- Have the student fit each written letter into one square of space on the graph paper
- Have the student use one square of space to indicate a space between words
- Over time and with increased accuracy, use increasingly faded graph paper until the student is able to write appropriately sized/spaced letters and words on regular lined paper
STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVING SPELLING ACCURACY
GOAL – Increase spelling accuracy and sound (phoneme) – symbol (grapheme) correspondence
Cover-Copy-Compare (Skinner, McLaughlin, & Logan, 1997)
- An intervention that increases spelling proficiency through training and repetition
- Skills targeted: accuracy, fluency, and maintenance of spelling
- Target age group: Grades 2+
- Student looks at a correctly spelled word
- Correctly spelled word is covered
- Student spells the word from memory
- The correct spelling of the word is unveiled for the student to compare with their spelling
- If the student spelled the word correctly, they move on to a new word; if the student is incorrect, they repeat the cover-copy-compare method with the same word again
Since oral and written language brain areas are close in structure/proximity, linking oral and written spelling can be useful in facilitating both (Hale & Fiorello, 2004). Having children say words aloud while writing could facilitate greater automaticity of word recognition and subsequently better spelling accuracy.
Say-Trace-Write Model (Graham & Freeman, 1986)
Uses oral language to assist with the learning of motor scripts
- Have the student say the word out loud
- Student writes the word
- Student checks their word against a model to determine accuracy
- Student traces the model and says the word aloud
- Student writes the word from memory
- Student checks their word against the model to determine accuracy
Self-Correction with Verbal Cues (Gettinger, 1985)
- An intervention that uses verbal self-talk to enhance written spelling accuracy
- Skills targeted: accuracy, fluency, and maintenance of spelling
- Target age group: Grades 2+
- Teacher trains students in spelling self-correction methods, followed by practice tests with teacher feedback
- Spelling pre-test with 5 words each session.
- Check work and correct errors. Student given flash cards to compare to spelled words (8 steps)
Spelling post-test administered, flash cards used by student to check accuracy
STRATEGIES FOR PROMOTING WRITTEN EXPRESSION
GOAL – Increase written output/word count and improve quality of ideas in the written product.
Sentence Combining (Saddler, 2005)
- Kernel sentences1 are developed into more diverse and complex sentences using direct instruction
- Skills targeted: Flexibility and complexity of thought conveyed in sentences, more interesting writing
- Target age group: Grade 2 and higher
1A kernel sentence is a simple, active, affirmative declarative sentence with only one verb.
- Teacher provides sentence-combining examples using think-aloud approach.
- Students given kernel sentences, usually in pairs or small groups
- Students use multiple kernels to combine words and phrases using connecting words, isolating and expanding key points
- Eventual metacognitive brainstorming of related ideas leads to word or phrase additions
- Guided practice, then independent practice.
Students with writing problems often write simple sentences that lack syntactic maturity (Robinson & Howell, 2008). Unlike traditional grammar instruction, having students expand kernel sentences improves both sentence complexity and diversity, and more interesting written language product.
Teacher-Directed Strategy Instruction (Troia & Graham, 2002)
- Teacher-directed strategy instruction of goal-setting, brainstorming, and organizing
- Skills targeted: Provides purpose/direction, increasing content/complexity, and organization to convey
- Target age group: Grade 4 and higher
- Pre-instruction in SPACE (setting, problems, actions, consequences, emotions) and DARE (Develop position statement, add supporting arguments, report/refute counterarguments, end conclusion)
- Direct instruction in the STOP & LIST (Stop, Think of Purposes, List Ideas, Sequence Them) approach to planning the writing sample
- Process approach to writing (drafting, revising, proofreading, editing, publishing) for guided practice and then independent practice
Integrated Writing Instruction (MacArthur, Graham, & Schwartz, 2005)
- Authentic sentences about life experiences to increase student engagement and motivation
- Skills targeted: Authentic writing with peer feedback and integration fosters writing motivation
- Target age group: Grade 6 and above
- Status-Checking Teacher checks with students about writing goals for day
- Mini-Lesson Teacher provides mini-lesson on writing process with writing strategies offered
- Student Writing Students draft authentic sentences based on self, group, or teacher topic ideas
- Peer & Teacher Conferences Feedback from peers and teachers leads to revision and improved product
- Publishing/Group Sharing Students share revised passages in group discussion, bulletin board, or approved computer website
PLEASE (Welch, 1992)
- Metacognitive strategy for idea generation, organization, composition, and editing
- Skills targeted: Metacognitive brainstorming of ideas, planning and organizing, writing, and revising
- Target age group: Grade 6 and higher
Adapting these strategies for younger students. Young children do not typically write essays, but these metacognitive strategies can be adapted to suit the narrative writing tasks of early curricula.
PLAN and WRITE (De La Paz, 1999)
- Metacognitive strategy that helps students plan/organize their ideas
- Helps students refer back to the goal of the assignment to aid in the writing process
- Skills targeted: planning, writing expository essays, and goal-directed writing
- Target age group: Grades 6-12
TOWER WITH COPS (Mercer & Mercer, 2001)
- Skills targeted: planning, organization, monitoring, and revision of written work using TOWER and COPS techniques
- Target Age Groups: Grades 1+
Helpful for ALL Students and ALL Ages! These interventions are easily implemented for all beginning writers. Posting one or more of these mnemonics in class for all students to refer to during writing assignments is a great class-wide strategy for writing success!
- Intervention Central: http://www.interventioncentral.org/response-to-intervention
- What Works Clearinghouse: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/
- Dolch/Fry Word Lists: http://www.k12reader.com/dolch-word-list/
Great resource to use when choosing words to use in spelling interventions
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