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by Dr. Gina Harrison, Breanna Lawrence, Kelly McManus, and Denise Goegan

Learning to write presents significant challenges for children with learning disabilities (LD) 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 LD 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 LD 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 LD 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

The most effective writing interventions, based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) model target the multiple dimensions of the writing process via a particular strategy, usually represented by a mnemonic, 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.

Adolescents with learning disabilities (LD) invariably experience writing difficulties. For many of these students, problems with spelling and handwriting fluency persist from childhood, impeding basic transcription skills. Persistent difficulties with transcription can reduce the cognitive resources students have to devote to the higher-level aspects of generating and organizing their ideas coherently in text. Some students have primary language impairments that interfere with the content and structure of written texts, but have less difficulty with fluent spelling and handwriting. Writing difficulties can be especially frustrating for adolescents who typically are assessed for their curricula content knowledge through writing. While many high school students receive accommodations for their writing difficulties (e.g., extended time, use of the computer to write), without intervention their difficulties will persist into adulthood, limiting success in higher education and in the workplace.

To date, the most widely researched and effective approach to support writing in students with LD is intervention based on the self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) model. Within this model, the teacher’s role is to support the application of a writing strategy in guided practice, and to support the student’s progress towards independent self-regulated use of that strategy. The SRSD approach also targets motivation and positive self-statements that emphasize the student’s problem solving agency.

The focus on becoming a more self-regulated writer is particularly relevant for adolescents, who are often overwhelmed by the complexity and the sophisticated skill set required to write effectively at the secondary level. Through explicit, collaborative instruction, the teacher demonstrates the purpose and procedure for using a strategy, usually presented as a mnemonic (e.g., POW – Pick my idea, Organize my notes, Write and say more). Gradually, the student practices and adapts the strategy with teacher guidance, as needed, until they develop independence in using the strategy to complete the writing task.

Research indicates that this approach can help students engage in the cognitively demanding task of writing in a more coordinated and consistent way.