Bridging the Writing Skills Gap

How do I teach my students to write?

Many teachers enter the profession with the goal of helping students become effective learners. Some even focus specifically on the skill of writing. Once there, we soon realize how difficult the task is and quickly find ourselves tirelessly trying to address the needs of a widening skill chasm. There are no shortcuts for teaching writing, but there are clear paths that ensure our teaching has maximum effect.

I have traditionally told teachers to initially help their students focus on content rather than spelling and grammar. While there is good reason to do so, I was often sending teachers back to classrooms ill-prepared to guide their students across the Bridge to Writing Fluency. Spelling and grammar is foundational for effective written expression, and to pretend it is not is educational negligence.

The typical classroom

One major barrier to special education students’ classroom writing is their inability to spell correctly. Rather than producing and developing written content, a large portion of time is spent trying to “get right” a number of skills including 1) trying to sound out words, 2) asking a teacher how to spell a word, or 3) waiting for someone to help them write a word. At the end of this lesson, the student has developed little or no skills, but has written 1-2 perfectly spelled, teacher-directed sentences. The result: perpetual skill and output discrepancies compared to their non-disabled peers.

If none of these barriers exist, a fourth issue may rear its head: the student ignores spelling and grammar rules altogether. Once a student says they have finished writing for the day, they have a page full of writing with few words spelt correctly. This writing is often indiscernible to an independent reader, again resulting in significant learning gaps, ill-preparing them for life-after-school.

From kindergarten to academia, the skill deficit in writing is enormous. We cannot continue like this.

How to develop writing fluency:

1. Explicitly teach children how to spell sight words and phonetically correct words- It starts when they are young, and there is no other way. Here is some good news: just 100 words comprise 50% of what we read and write, and 1000 words make up about 90%. If we can master most of these words, our students will have better writing fluency… instantly.

2. Teach students how to develop content- Use a classroom/genre framework, rubrics, pictorial/mnemonic strategies, and explicitly teach how to use these. For students in special education, your strategy or strategies must generalize across different genres and incorporate connections to the child’s schema.

3. Write and write a lot- When basic spelling skills are mastered and students can create a short piece of coherent writing, the only way to improve is by doing it more.

We may not solve all of our students’ problems, but we will help many cross The Bridge to Writing Fluency.

Inspired by: Graham, S. (1999). Handwriting and spelling instruction for students with learning disabilities: A review. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 78–98. doi:10.2307/1511268