Writing Instruction for Special Needs Students

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Pencils incessantly tapping on desks, feet swishing back and forth, bodies in constant motion… fidget, wiggle, and squirm… Writing time for a special education student can be less than productive – and extremely frustrating.  Just putting their name on the paper can often be considered an achievement for an LD student or one who has difficulty attending to the task at hand.  As teachers, we differentiate instruction across content areas for special needs students. However, when it comes to writing, how do we break down these crucial skills into manageable tasks for struggling writers?

We all know that one effective strategy is to break down a task into smaller, more manageable tasks. Teachers often segment a five paragraph essay, by asking students to ‘just write the introduction.’ But it’s the word ‘just’ that’s almost laughable. (In fact, do you ever notice how anytime the word ‘just’ precedes a task, it’s usually in attempt to make a difficult process appear easy?)  “Just writing” an introduction can be so overwhelming and anxiety-producing for a special ed student that they simply shut down.   The question becomes HOW to teach these skills.

Research has shown that focusing on the discrete skills and aspects of the writing process produces higher student achievement and success rates than writing taught with a holistic focus on product. When not overwhelmed with having to ‘fill’ an entire page of lined paper, special needs students, after direct instruction that includes teacher modeling and guided practice, can celebrate being successful at writing an interesting beginning for a story, or writing an enticing lead for an expository piece.  A segment of elaborative detail, or of suspense.  Small successes along the way encourage them and build confidence. 

The consistent use of straight-forward graphic organizers than can be easily internalized is essential. Empowering Writers’ Narrative Writing Diamond and Expository /Informative Pillar both illustrate a logical and sequential organizational framework for genre-specific writing.  Special needs students also gravitate toward tangible strategies that they can follow with ease.  Writing an entire story or piece can seem very abstract for a student with a learning disability.  Steve Graham, Professor of Literacy at Vanderbilt University and senior editor of What Works for Special Needs Learners, suggests that teachers be very organized in their instruction. “Be systematic and explicit. Give a model. Talk about it, show it, and do it.” For a student who has trouble accessing or processing language, the most powerful strategy we can give them is to assign language to their thoughts and actions through teacher modeling and shared writing.