Loading Add to favorites

By Jeffrey MacCormack & Nancy L. Hutchinson

Classroom of students writing

Even in our world of 140-character tweets, Snapchat™, and internet slang, we still need to write effectively to be successful. Being able to express ideas plainly with words is important for more than our social media profiles. Expressive writing is required for academic success, job applications, and for many careers. However, expressive writing presents challenges because it is not a single skill. Expressive writing is a cluster of skills that includes mental tasks such as idea creation and planning as well as mechanical tasks such as ordering words into sentences and paragraphs. These mental tasks and mechanical tasks are connected. Difficulty experienced with one task can harm the entire process.

This article is focused on components of expressive writing such as brainstorming, idea creation, and sentence structure.

Learning Disabilities & Expressive Writing

Students with learning disabilities (LDs) are more likely than their peers to struggle with expressive writing because of difficulties including (Newcomer & Barenbaum, 1991; Weintraub & Graham, 1998):

  • illegible handwriting,
  • incomplete sentences, and
  • errors in syntax, grammar, and spelling.

Students with LDs experience challenges with expressive writing because they have a hard time switching attention between mechanical tasks, such as handwriting, and mental tasks, such as idea formulation and organization (Graham & Harris, 2009). Rather than spending their mental energy composing (i.e. asking: what is the big idea here?), students with LDs are often occupied with low-level tasks like word construction.

Individuals with LDs may also have difficulties understanding how much information is required for the reader’s comprehension. When expressing ideas, they may not provide enough information because they overestimate how much the reader knows (Carruthers & Smith, 1996). Alternatively, students with LDs may provide too much information, inadvertently weighing down the text with unnecessary detail (Troia, 2011). In general, they are less able than their peers to organize content to address the needs of the intended audience.

image of a notebook and crumpled papers around itThrough the primary grades, children are taught how to form words, build sentences, and construct paragraphs. By grade four, it is usually clear which students are still having difficulty. The number of referrals of students with expressive writing difficulties typically spikes in grade four. Research suggests that by the time these students are in grade eight, they are five times less capable in written expression than their same-age peers (Datchuk & Kubina, 2012).

Students who have difficulty with writing have a much harder time succeeding academically and may also experience social difficulties (Weiner & Schneider, 2002). These challenges are widespread and can require resources and school funding. In the United States, two-thirds of the students supported by disability services have difficulty with language and expression (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2003).

How We Can Help

Before exploring the interventions that improve expressive writing, let’s look at what is generally known about helping students with LDs. Interventions designed for students with LDs should reflect their diverse needs (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998) and should be based on evidence-based approaches (Stephenson, 2006). The instruction that is helpful for other students may not be helpful for students with LDs. Students with LDs have a harder time than their peers understanding the rules for word-use and sentence construction (Troia, 2002; Viel-Ruma et al., 2010).

A series of meta-analyses conducted in the late 1990s by Swanson and colleagues (1998, 1999) showed that LDs are related to information-processing problems and are not caused by poor instruction. There is no single or universal way to help students with LDs. Many different strategies and techniques can be helpful (e.g. sequencing, drill-repetition, strategy cues). The most important thing is that the teacher chooses a method that is based on scientific evidence (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998; Swanson, 1999). The best way to help students with LDs is to provide daily instruction that directly teaches word formulation, spelling, grammar, idea organization, evaluation, and revision (Torrance & Galbraith, 2006).

Gersten and Baker (2001) conducted a meta-analysis on teaching expressive writing to students with LDs. A meta-analysis is a type of review that compares the elements of interventions to determine which are the most effective. Gersten and Baker concluded that effective writing programs for students with LDs should:

  1. present the task as a process;
  2. teach each step in the process; and
  3. provide feedback for each step.

1. Present the task as a process

The three basic steps of expressive writing - prewriting, composing, and revising - have to be taught explicitly. There are many ways to present writing as a process. One of the most common methods is the use of self-regulated strategy development (SRSD). Instruction that included SRSD approaches demonstrated the most impact (ES=1.17) in a meta-analysis of writing instruction by Graham and Perin (2007). Approaches that utilize SRSD approaches improve emotional regulation and critical thinking (Graham, Harris, & Mason, 2005).

The SRSD approach teaches the student to use self-monitoring checklists while working. The self-monitoring checklists might be mnemonic devices in which the first letter of each word spells out a memorable catch-phrase. For example, for the development of expository paragraphs, students can use the strategy TREE to: (a) develop a Topic sentence; (b) list Reasons to support; (c) Examine the quality of reasons; and (d) provide an Ending (Wendling & Mather, 2009). Strategies like these checklists have been shown to be particularly effective for instructing students with LDs (Ortiz, Lienemann, Graham, Leader-Janssen, & Reid, 2006).

Click here to access the article Combining Writing and Self-Regulation Strategies: The SRSD Approach.

The POW+TREE strategy supports learners for composing persuasive writing tasks by providing strategies for thinking as writing skills (Conderman, Hedin, & Bresnahan, 2013). POW+TREE stands for:

(P) Pick an idea,

(O) Organize notes,

(T) Topic sentence

(R) Reason

(E) Explanation

(E) Ending

(W) Write and say more

Teachers should take the opportunity to teach self-regulation strategy development steps as part of POW+TREE. For example, students benefit when they have an opportunity to discuss what components make an argument more persuasive (e.g. clear topic sentence, on-topic explanations) and how to develop those components. The POW+TREE mnemonic strategy has been evaluated and has been shown to improve persuasive content and quality of composition when coupled with direct instruction (e.g. Mason, Kubina, & Taft, 2011).Image of COPS Strategy

These strategies (COPS, SCOPE, POW+TREE) are examples of strategies that are useful for editing expressive writing.

COPS stands for:

(C) Capitalization

(O) Overall Appearances

(P) Punctuation

(S) Spelling


Click here to access LD@school’s template for the COPS strategy.

SCOPE represents:

(S) Spelling

(C) Capitalization

(O) Order of Words

(P) Punctuation

(E) Express a complete thought

Strategies for handwriting can be developed and applied for handwriting skills as well.

Click here to access the article Mnemonics.

Click here to access the article Cognitive Conditions and Self-regulated Learning.

2. Teach each step in the process

Direct instruction has consistently been shown to improve expressive writing for students with LDs (Keel & Anderson, 2002; Walker et al., 2005). The explicit instructional approach includes strategies task analysis, scripted lessons, and choral response (Stein, Carnine, & Dixon, 1998). In essence, direct instruction breaks complex tasks into smaller skills which can be quickly taught and tested.

How to teach expressive writing (Adapted from Graham and Perin’s (2007) recommendations):

  1. Teach strategies for every step of writing and reading summaries.
  2. Encourage cooperative writing activities.
  3. Explicitly teach the goals of writing.
  4. Encourage the use of assistive technology.
  5. Teach students to write complex sentences.
  6. Provide teachers with professional learning opportunities.
  7. Use examples of good writing to teach style.

Different instruction may be needed for students with LDs than for typically developing students. For example, lessons designed to improve grammar and usage are often ineffective or unnecessary for typically developing students (Graham & Perin, 2007) but may be effective for students with writing deficits (Rogers & Graham, 2008). When interventions are designed to reflect the nuanced needs of learners with LDs, the results can be quite dramatic.

3. Provide feedback for each step

Students with LDs need to get feedback at every step to be successful. It is not enough to provide feedback through the end-of-task assessment. Students need dynamic feedback on multiple intervals through each of the three steps of writing.

Vaughn and Bos (2009) recommend that teachers provide consider the following questions at regular intervals:

How does the student respond to the activity?
(Can the student complete the tasks? If so, can the student explain the steps? If not, what tasks are causing the difficulty?)

How can I (the teacher) make the task easier?
(e.g. Should I simplify the task? Provide more guidance? Use a different method? Encourage the student to work with a peer? Provide a checklist?)

From Start to Finish

As previously mentioned, writing includes three steps:

  1. prewriting,
  2. composing, and
  3. revising.

Students need to know that while writing involves these steps, the process of writing is also circular. As students start writing, they may need to loop back and gather more information and do more work at the prewriting step.


The first challenge for students is to pick a topic. Depending on the student, choosing a topic can be a major hurdle. Students with LDs may not know what they know. For students having difficulty choosing a topic, give them a piece of paper and say, “You know lots of things about many topics. When you are talking to your friends you have no problem talking about things you know. Take the next 10 minutes and write down a list of things you could share with others.” When the students have their list, have them share their ideas with other students.

The second challenge is to organize the information. Students with LDs may have difficulty connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge, identifying main ideas, developing supporting details, and organizing information by topic (Graham & Perin, 2007). Graphic organizers are a heuristic that can help students organize their knowledge visually. See the Figures below for examples of graphic organizers. The use of graphic organizers can help students with learning disabilities increase vocabularies and improve comprehension of information (Dexter & Hughes, 2011).

Web of linked thought bubbles demonstrating an example of a concept map.

Example of a concept map

Circles arranged in a cycle with arrows pointing from one circle to the next to represent an example of a circular process map.

Example of circular process map

Boxes with arrows in between pointing in one direction representing an example of a linear connection map.

Example of linear connections map

Click here to access the article Visual Representation in Mathematics.

Click here to access the article Math Heuristics.

Click here to access the article Graphic Organizers.


Unfortunately, many students with LDs don’t spend the necessary time completing the pre-writing task. Students with LDs may skip pre-writing entirely and begin with composing. To compensate for prewriting that might have been missed, teachers should embed review strategies in the composing stage. One evidence-based strategy for embedding review strategies is cue cards. Cue cards can be an effective tool for students with LDs because cue cards work as reminders of the strategies and thinking processes required for purposeful writing (De La Paz, 1999). For example, a cue card could be used to remind the student of the structure of a paragraph:

First sentence: answer the question as simply as possible

Second sentence: write your first piece of evidence

Third sentence: write your second piece of evidence

Fourth sentence: summarize the main idea and wrap it up

Students with LDs will also benefit from sharing their work with others during the composing step. Sharing their work by reading it aloud to others will help them to smooth out choppy sentences. Vaughn and Bos (2009) recommend that sharing times are opportunities to teach students to avoid common verbs such as was, went, and said. Instead, students should be encouraged to use more interesting verbs such as existed, hurried, and confided.


By the time that students with LDs have reached the revising step, they may have lost some of the momentum they had earlier in the writing process. Revising is hard work. Sometimes students with LDs are tempted to fix surface errors without trying to remedy larger issues. When students treat revision as “housekeeping” —a phrase coined by MacArthur, Graham, and Schwartz (1991) to describe surface revisions—less than half of the changes they make actually improve their writing.

Vaughn and Bos (2009) recommend that teachers use strategies like box-and-explode to improve students’ writing. When students use the box-and-explode technique, they draw a ‘box’ around a sentence which needs more information. The students ‘explode’ the sentence by providing more details. For example in the following section, the second sentence could be boxed and exploded. The student may want to create a picture in the mind of the reader by describing the range of artifacts and objects found.

The explorer made his way up the winding staircase to the heavy door. Behind the door, he found dusty artifacts and golden objects. He closed the door behind him and started to work.

Assistive Technology for Expressive Writing

Technologies such as text-to-speech and word prediction help students with learning disabilities by reducing the mental energy required for tasks such as spelling and key entry (Zhang, 2000). Cullen, Richards, and Frank (2008) found that the use of writing software that included text-to-speech and word prediction software increased the quantity and quality of writing. For more information about assistive technology in general, click here.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Interventions for Students with Writing Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Writing Interventions for Children in Grades One to Six with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Writing Interventions for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Narrative Story Writing.

Click here to access the article Strategies to Assist Students with Writing Difficulties.


Carruthers, P. & Smith P. (eds). 1996. Theories of Theories of Mind. Cambridge University Press.

Conderman, G. Hedin, L., & Bresnahan, V. (2013). Strategy instruction for middle and secondary students with mild disabilities: Creating independent learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Cullen, J., Richards, S., & Frank, C. (2008). Using software to enhance the writing skills of students with special needs. Journal of Special Education Technology, 23, 33-44.

Datchuk, S. & Kubina, R. (2013). A review of teaching sentence-level writing skills to students with writings difficulties and learning disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 34, 180-192.

De La Paz, S. (1999). Teaching writing strategies and self-regulation procedures to middle school students with learning disabilities. Focus on Exceptional Children, 31, 1-16.

Dexter, D. & Hughes, C. (2011). Graphic organizers and students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34, 51-72.

Engelmann, S., & Silbert, J. (1991). Reasoning and writing–Level C. Chicago: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Gersten, R. & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 101, 251-272.

Graham, S. & Harris, K. (2009). Almost 30 years of writing research: Making sense of it all with The Wrath of Khan. Learning Disabilities Research, 24, 58-68.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 445–476.

Graham, S., Harris, K. & Mason, L. (2005). Improving the writing performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy of struggling young writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development. Contemporary Education Psychology, 30, 207-241.

Hammill, D. D., & Larsen, S. C. (1996). Test of written language-3. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Keel, M., & Anderson, D. (2002). Using ‘Reasoning and Writing’ to teach writing skills to students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Journal of Direct Instruction, 2, 49–55.

MacArthur, C., Graham, S., & Schwartz, S. (1991). Knowledge of revision and revising behavior among students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 14, 61-73.

Mason, L., Kubina, R. & Taft, R. (2011). Developing quick writing skills of middle school students with disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 44, 205-220.

Newcomer, P. L., & Barenbaum, E. M. (1991). The written composing ability of children with learning disabilities: A review of the literature from 1980 to 1990. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24, 578–593.

Ortiz Lienemann, T., Graham, S. Leader-Janssen, B. & Reid, R. (2006). Improving the writing performance of struggling writers in second grade. The Journal of Special Education, 40, 66-78.

Rogers, L. A., & Graham, S. (2008). A meta-analysis of single subject design writing intervention research. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 879–906.

Swanson, H. & Hoskyn, M. (1998). Experimental intervention research on students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis of treatment outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 68, 277-321.

Swanson, H. (1999). Instructional components that predict treatment outcomes for students with learning disabilities: Support for a combined strategy and direct instruction model. Learning Disabilities Research, 14, 129-140.

Stephenson, J. (2006). Response cards: Increasing individual responding during whole-class teaching. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11, 57-62.

Stein, M., Carnine, D., & Dixon, R. (1998). Direct Instruction: Integrating curriculum design and effective teaching practices. Intervention in School & Clinic, 33, 227–235.

Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2006). The processing demands of writing. In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 67–80). New York: Guilford Press.

Troia, G. (2011). How might pragmatic language skills affect the written expression of students with language learning disabilities? Top Language Disorders, 31, 40-53.

Troia, G. A. (2002). Teaching writing strategies to children with disabilities: Setting generalization as the goal. Exceptionality, 10, 249–269.

U.S. Department of Education. (2003). Twenty-fifth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Office of Special Education Programs.

Vaughn, S. & Bos, C. (2009). Strategies for teaching students with learning and behaviour problems (7thed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson.

Viel-Ruma, K., Houchins, D., Jolivette, K., Fredrick, L. & Gama, R. (2010). Direct instruction in written expression: The effects on English speakers and English language learners with disabilities. Learning Disability Research & Practice, 25, 97-108.

Walker, B., Shippen, M. E., Alberto, P. A., Houchins, D. E., & Cihak, D. F. (2005). Using the expressive writing program to improve the writing skills of high school students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20, 175–183.

Weiner, J., & Schneider, B. (2002). A multisource exploration of friendship patterns of children with and without LD. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30, 127–141.

Weintraub, N., & Graham, S. (1998). Writing legibly and quickly: A study of children’s ability to adjust their handwriting to meet common classroom demands. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 13, 146–152.

Wendling, B. & Mather, N. (2009). Essentials of evidence-based academic interventions. A. S. Kaufman & N. L. Kaufman (Eds.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Zhang, Y. (2000). Technology and the writing skills of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32, 467-478.

horizontal line teal

Photo of Jeffrey MacCormackJeffrey is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, Queen's University, with a focus on cognition. He is a teacher certified by the Ontario College of Teachers with 9 years of experience teaching elementary school. He worked as an instructor at Queen's University and has taught and authored online courses for educators. He is currently conducting research on several topics including learning disabilities, autism, emotional well-being, and youth development.

Nancy L. Hutchinson is a professor of Cognitive Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Her research has focused on teaching students with learning disabilities (e.g., math and career development) and on enhancing workplace learning and co-operative education for students with disabilities and those at risk of dropping out of school. In the past five years, in addition to her research on transition out of school, Nancy has worked with a collaborative research group involving researchers from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia on transition into school of children with severe disabilities. She teaches courses on inclusive education in the preservice teacher education program as well as doctoral seminars on social cognition and master’s courses on topics including learning disabilities, inclusion, and qualitative research. She has published six editions of a textbook on teaching students with disabilities in the regular classroom and two editions of a companion casebook.