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Breanna Lawrence and Gina Harrison

Teacher helping a student learn to write


Learning to write presents significant challenges for children with learning disabilities (LDs) who have difficulties acquiring the basic literacy skills that are the building blocks for writing. Problems representing and manipulating sounds in oral language (phonemic processing), grasping the alphabetic principle (i.e., that sounds are symbolically represented in alphabetic languages by letters) and knowledge of letter-sound connections are all basic skills with which children with LDs struggle, impacting both reading and writing development. Writing is multidimensional, comprised of lower-level transcription (spelling, handwriting) and higher-level text generation (planning, organizing, revising) components. Due to their basic skills difficulties, children with LDs struggle with the transcription demands of writing often at the expense of communicating their ideas. Writing tasks are frustrating, onerous, and for many children with LDs, provoke significant anxiety. Struggling writers are more likely to become good writers with instruction and support during the elementary grades, before the difficulties become entrenched (Graham & Harris, 2005). The most effective writing interventions, based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model (e.g., Santangelo, Harris, & Graham, 2007), target the multiple dimensions of the writing process via a particular strategy, usually represented by a mnemonic (click here for more about mnemonics), such as POW (Pick my ideas; Organize my notes; Write and say more) with an instructional focus on the student’s affect, motivation, and regulation of the writing process. The effectiveness of SRSD interventions is related to  its systematic and structured approach in helping students break down the writing task into manageable and attainable components leading to enhanced motivation to write. Teachers scaffold students by working collaboratively, helping the student to move toward independence in applying the strategy to write.

The Supporting Research

An extensive body of research has demonstrated that SRSD consistently increases content knowledge, writing quality, strategic behaviour, self-regulation skills, self-efficacy, and motivation among students of varying ages and ability levels (Graham & Harris, 2003). Gersten and Baker’s (2001) meta-analysis summarized the research (13 experimental or quasi-experimental design studies) on improving the content of expressive writing for students in grades one to nine with LDs. The vast majority of studies were conducted with elementary-aged students. Findings from the study suggested that teaching writing strategies to students with LDs can result in considerable benefits in writing quality. Explicit instruction in transcription skills (i.e. spelling and handwriting) and teaching writing strategies was found to improve overall writing ability by a greater degree than if instruction focused on improving content quality or mechanical aspects alone (see Edwards, 2003 for a review). Research indicates that handwriting and spelling instruction is necessary to ameliorate early transcription problems and prevent future writing difficulties (Baker et al., 2003; Berninger et al., 1997). In a recent case study, Milford and Harrison (2010) provide a detailed case-study of the efficacy of an SRSD intervention with a struggling 12-year old writer. A key component of this study was the combination of the “have-a-go” spelling, which tracked the student’s improvement in text spelling over time, along with the higher level strategies for text generation. Programs focusing on transcription skills in writing are included in the Where to Learn More section below.

More recently, self-regulated strategy development has been shown to be effective with  diverse populations of elementary school aged children, including minority, rural, and other students attending urban schools primarily serving low-income families (Graham et al., 2005; Harris et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Lieneman et al., 2006; Saddler, 2006). Using a multiple case-study design, Sinclair (2014) recently reported the effectiveness of an SRSD intervention for children with epilepsy and co-occurring learning difficulties.

Implications for practice:

  • A combined focus, embedding strategies to support spelling and handwriting accuracy and fluency in combination with a focus on the recursive steps of generating writing content is critical for elementary-age children.
  • SRSD can be applied across genres as students progress from narrative to expository and persuasive texts.
  • SRSD can be combined with assistive technology like speech recognition software.
  • SRSD can be used in whole-class, small group, or on-on-one instructional contexts.

Implementing an SRSD Approach in your Classroom

There are six stages of the SRSD model that are flexible, frequently re-ordered, combined, modified, and repeated in order to meet the needs of students and teachers (Graham & Harris, 2005). Table 1 illustrates the six SRSD stages with brief descriptions (see Graham & Harris for extensive descriptions of each stage).

Table 1. Six Instructional Stages of SRSD (Graham & Harris, 2005)

Stage Description
1. Develop background knowledge Teach knowledge and skills needed to successfully understand, learn, and apply the strategy (e.g., POW, POW+TREE, CSRI, etc.) and self-regulation practices
2. Discuss it Examine current writing performance and discuss existing and new strategies. Introduce process monitoring.
3. Model it Using self-talk and self-instructions, the teacher models aloud how to use the strategy.
4. Memorize it The steps, any mnemonic (if applicable), and personalized self-statements are memorized.
5. Support it Students practice the strategy and self-regulation practices with fading levels of support and scaffolding.
6. Independent performance Students implement the writing strategy independently.

Based on the research, three areas of evidence-based instructional approaches are stressed: 1) explicitly teach the steps in the process of writing a quality essay or narrative; 2) improve quality through feedback and elaborated dialogue; and 3) teach students to understand different text structures and their relationships to genres (Baker et al., 2003).

Table 2 provides a summary of several empirically validated SRSD approaches for elementary students with LDs.

Table 2. Current Peer reviewed research on SRSD writing strategies for elementary students with LDs

Strategy Description Genre How it helps Research Findings
Ask, Reflect, Text Ask – answers to WWW, W=2, H=2.Reflect – students sketch or paint ideas for their story.Text – students write the text of the story. Story Provides students with a means to develop story ideas, organize them into a story-structure sequence, and produce elaborate text addressing WWW, W=2, H=2 acrostic questions. Dunn et al. (2010) found fourth, seventh and eighth grade student use of the strategy to increase motivation to write and to lead to more elaborate story content. Dunn et al. (2011) found second graders use of the strategy helped students better address the main components of a story and produce more elaborate text for second graders. Dunn et al. (2012) found fourth graders level of improvement with story content (but not with story quality) with use of the strategy.
STOP and DARE Suspend judgment, Take a side, Organize ideas, Plan more as you write, Develop your topic sentence, Add supporting ideas, Reject at least one argument for the other side, End with a conclusion. Persuasive A mnemonic to remind students to plan in advance, set writing goals, generate, organize, and evaluate content, and lastly to write a complete essay. Ennis et al. (2013) found third to sixth grade students increased the number of essay elements and quality of written work (categories included focus development, organization, fluency, and conventions) and total words written.
Cognitive Self-Regulation Instruction (CSRI) Pre-planning and revising writing strategy. Compare/Contrast Develops knowledge and motivation to use, without external prompting or support, cognitive strategies for planning, drafting, and revising texts. Fidalgo et al. (2008) suggested strategy-focused instruction delivered to sixth-grade students results in an increased tendency to pre-plan and in improvement in text quality that persists until at least eighth grade (did not increase revising texts).
Three steps strategy General planning strategy with three steps – plan, write, revise. All genres Helps students guide and organize their writing activities and integrate them into a structure. Glasser et al. (2007) found that with explicit strategy instruction and the deliberate practice of self-regulation activities, students were better able to use their knowledge when planning and revising a story.
POW Pick my ideasOrganize my notesWrite and say more All genres Guides students to decide what to write about, organize possible writing ideas in a plan, and modify and upgrade while writing. See below in combination with other strategies.
POW +WWW, What=2, How = 2 Involves answering questions prior to writing. Each question focuses on a particular element commonly found in stories, such as “Who are the main characters?” Story Helps students generate possible ideas for a story. Graham et al. (2005) found third grade, struggling writers (majority of whom were low-income, minority students) wrote qualitatively better stories than peers in a comparison group. SRSD instruction had a positive impact on students’ knowledge about writing but students’ self-efficacy was not enhanced. Harris et al. (2006) found second grade struggling writers (urban sample) wrote more complete stories but not longer or higher quality compared to a peers in a comparison group. Lienemann et al. (2006) found providing SRSD instruction to second grade students at risk for writing failure (rural sample) helped students to write more complete and higher quality stories. The SRSD instruction in writing also resulted in improvements on readings tasks for the majority of the students.Saddler (2006) found second grade students with LDs to write more complete stories in terms of story elements, improved story length, and overall higher quality with SRSD interventions.Saddler et al. (2004) found second graders with writing difficulties benefited from early and extra instruction in how to plan and write stories. Following SRSD instruction, overall students’ stories become more complete, longer, and qualitatively better.Lane et al. (2008) found second graders (rural sample) with poor writing skills and at risk for behavioural problems to improve story completeness (number of elements), length and quality after SRSD instruction.Lane et al. (2010) found second graders with limited writing skills and internalizing or externalizing behaviours to demonstrate improvements in the use of story elements and, for the majority of the participants, length and quality.Zumbrunn and Bruning (2013) found first grade students to write more complete, and on average, longer and higher quality stories. Researchers also observed that students gained more knowledge about writing and writing strategies.
POW+TREE Involves responding to a series of questions or prompts focused on the most basic elements of a persuasive paper, such as Tell me what you believe!? and give three Reasons why do I believe this?!” Examine each reason and End it. Persuasive Helps students generate possible ideas for a persuasive essay. Graham et al. (2005) found third grade, struggling writers (majority of whom were low-income, minority students) wrote qualitatively better persuasive papers than peers in a comparison group. SRSD instruction had a positive impact on students’ knowledge about writing but students’ self-efficacy was not enhanced. Harris et al. (2006) found struggling writers in second grade (urban sample) wrote longer, more complete, and qualitatively better persuasive papers compared to the comparison group who did not receive SRSD instruction. Lienemann and Reid (2008) found fourth and fifth grade students with ADHD wrote more complete, longer, and increased quality essays after SRSD instruction. Researchers also found self-monitoring to have an effect on persistence.Little et al. (2010) found SRSD instruction had a positive impact on increasing the elements, length, and quality of persuasive essays written by second graders with writing difficulties and internalizing and externalizing behaviours.

Where to Learn More

Helpful book for teachers with lesson plans: Harris, K.R., Graham, S., Mason, L. & Friedlander, B. (2008). Powerful writing strategies for all students. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Two interactive tutorials on SRSD are available through Vanderbilt University. Click here to access the first tutorial. Click here to access the second tutorial.

Instructional resources for transcription:

  • CASL Handwriting program (Grade 1) complete program with lesson plans available through Vanderbilt University. Click here to access the program.
  • Berninger, V. & Abbott, S. P. (2003). Process Assessment of the Learner: Research-Based Reading and Writing Lessons.  PsychCorp.


Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Graham, S. (2003). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: Research-based applications and examples. J Learn Disabil, 36, 109-126.

Berninger, V., Vaughn, K., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., Rogan, L., Brooks, A., et al. (1997).

Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 652–666.

Dunn, M. W. (2011). Ask, reflect, text: Illustrating story plans with art. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 25(4), 376-389.

Dunn, M. W. (2012). Response to intervention: Employing a mnemonic-strategy with art media to help struggling writers. Journal of International Education and Leadership, 2(1), 1-12.

Dunn, M. W., Tudor, D., Scattergood, C., & Closson, S. (2010). Ask, reflect, text: A narrative story-writing strategy. Childhood Education, 87(2), 98-105.

Edwards, L. (2003). Writing instruction in kindergarten: Examining an emerging area of research for children with writing and reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36 (2),136-148.

Ennis, R. P., Jolivette, K., & Boden, L. J. (2013). STOP and DARE: Self-regulated strategy development for persuasive writing with elementary students with E/EB in a residential facility. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(3), 81-99.

Fidalgo, R., Torrance, M., & Garcia, J. (2008). The long-term effects of strategy-focused writing instruction for grade six students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33, 672-693.

Gersten, R., & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching expressive writing to students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 101(3), 251-272.

Glasser, C., & Brunstein, J. C. (2007). Improving fourth-grade students’ composition skills: Effects of strategy instruction and self-regulation procedures. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 297-310.

Graham, S. & Harris, K. R. (2003). Students with learning disabilities and the process of writing: A Meta-analysis of SRSD studies. In Swanson, H. L., Harris, K.R., and Graham, S. (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (p. 323-344). New York: The Guilford Press.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (2005). Writing better: Effective strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

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

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., & Mason, L. H. (2006). Improving the writing, knowledge, and motivation for struggling young writers: Effects of self-regulated strategy development with and without peer support. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 295-340.

Lane, K. L., Harris, K., Graham, S., Weisenbach, J. L., Brindle, M., & Morphy, P. (2008). The effects of self-regulated strategy development on the writing performance of second-grade students with behavioural and writing difficulties. J Spec Educ, 41, 234-253.

Lane, K. L., Graham, S., Harris, K. R., Little, A., Sandmel, K., & Brindle, M. (2010). Story

writing: The effects of self-regulated strategy development for second-grade students with writing and behavioural difficulties. Journal of Special Education, 44(2), 107-128.

Lienemann, T. O., Graham, S., Leader-Janssen, B., & Reid, R. (2006). Improving the writing performance of struggling writers in second grade. Journal of Special Education, 40(2), 66-78.

Lieneman, T. O., & Reid, R. (2008). Using self-regulated strategy development to improve expository writing with students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Exceptional Children, 74(4), 471-486.

Little, M. A., Lane, K. L., Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (2010). Self-regulated strategies development for persuasive writing in tandem with schoolwide positive behavioural support: Effects for second-grade students with behavioural and writing difficulties. Behavioural Disorders, 35, 157-179.

Milford, T. & Harrison, G. L. (2010). Using the PLEASE strategy with a middle school writer with a disability.  Intervention in School and Clinic, 45, 326-332.

Santangelo, T., Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (2007). Self-regulated strategy development: A validated model to support students who struggle with writing. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 5(1), 1-20.

Saddler, B. (2006). Increasing story-writing ability through self-regulated strategy development: Effects on young writers with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 29(4), 291-305.

Saddler, B., Moran, S., Graham, S. & Harris, K. R. (2004). Preventing Writing Difficulties: The Effects of Planning Strategy Instruction on the Writing Performance of Struggling Writers, Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal, 12(1), 3-17.

Sinclair, K. (2014). The effectiveness of an SRSD writing intervention for students with epilepsy. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1828/5222.

Zumbrunn, S., & Bruning R. (2013). Improving the writing and knowledge of emergent writers: The effects of self-regulated strategy development. Read Writ, 26(91), 91-110.

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Breanna Lawrence has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology and is currently a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Victoria (UVic). She teaches undergraduate prerequisite courses for the counsellor education programs at the University of Victoria and works with children and youth in a community mental health setting. Breanna has worked at the local Learning Disabilities Association with children and at UVic as a learning specialist with university students. Breanna's doctoral research explores the comorbidity of learning difficulties and anxiety among adolescents.

Dr. Gina Harrison is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Victoria, and a Registered Psychologist. Dr. Harrison has been working with children and adults with learning disabilities for over 20 years. She served on the executive of the Saskatchewan Learning Disabilities Association, and has recently partnered with the South Vancouver Island chapter of the LDAC, with doctoral student Breanna Lawrence,  to implement a writing intervention for children with LD. Dr. Harrison’s research examines the cognitive and linguistic aspects of reading and writing disorders in children and adults, second language literacy acquisition, and effective academic intervention approaches.