As with reading, writing is another key skill that only becomes more demanding once students reach high school.
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.
Regardless of the cause of the difficulties, students who have difficulty with writing have a much harder time succeeding academically and may also experience social difficulties (Weiner & Schneider, 2002). 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 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). It also helps to break down and explicitly teach each of the three steps in the writing process: prewriting, composing and revising.
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).
Figure 1. Example of a concept map
Figure 2. Example of circular process map
Figure 3. Example of linear connections map
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.
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 that 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.”
These are just some of the many different strategies that teachers can use to improve writing skills in students with LDs. To learn more about supporting students with LDs as they develop their writing skills, consider reading the guide Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively, developed by the National Centre for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance at the Institute of Educational Sciences. It is a practical guide for educators working with students between grades 6 and 12. The guide incorporates the use of graphic organizers, guiding questions, mnemonic devices and heuristics, diagrams, and modelling activities that have been proven effective in improving the writing skills of students with LDs.