Help for Reluctant Student Writers and Student Writers with Learning Disabilities

For most students, writing is a mysterious process, a laborious, sometimes even agonizing exercise that conduces to little but a sense of incompetence. Students complain, “It’s totally random.” Consequently, most students including many students shamed and frustrated by learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, and other learning issues including ADHD have become reluctant or even resistant writers.

This is the first in a series of blogs focused on teaching strategies that help reluctant students and students with learning disabilities become confident and successful writers. These techniques are research-based and have been successfully used in the classroom, during one-on-one tutorials, and at home. All of these techniques have proven as effective with fifth graders as with twelfth graders.


Why Students Hate to Write

While responsibility for student writing failure is typically borne by the student, to a large extent, students’ aversion to writing assignments is the result of inadequate instruction. After teachers distribute the graphic organizers and outline templates, typically, a student’s entire curriculum of school writing instruction is delivered in the form of hastily scrawled marginalia delivered in the form of cryptic abbreviations such as “punc,” “awk,” “elab,” “nc,” “sp,” “proof,” and “wc,” all written with or without exclamations points. Not only do these scribbles ram home student incompetence, but these dashed off notes suggest to students that effective writing is a test of a kind of performance; in other words, the necessary accomplishment of an assigned, rule-bound task measured against preset and known standards of accuracy, completeness, cost, and speed, the fulfillment of which releases the performing student from all liabilities under the student-teacher contract. So important is the importance of avoiding error in the minds of most student writers that “good” writing has come to mean “correct” writing and nothing more.

There are many other problems with this sort of instruction; I’ll mention only a few here. First, as mentioned, the marginalia suggest to students that writing is simply a matter of correct punctuation. If only the student had put a comma where she errantly put a semi-colon, the essay would have been brilliant and she would have received an A. Why then, after correcting all violations of punctuation rules, does the student, when allowed to resubmit the paper for a better grade, receive only an endnote on the returned essay that reads “still not clear” instead of an A?

Second, the proofs, puncs, and sps, etc., call the student’s attention to her errors not her successes. This practice, what I call deficit instruction, simply doesn’t succeed in producing the desired result, putatively better writing. Although this kind of instruction may assuage an uncertain English teacher’s concerns about his own competence or lack thereof, these notes just make students feel miserable especially when they are unaccompanied by any direct positive comments and constructive suggestions. Why worry about a writing assignment when upon completion, the student knows that she will submit her essay to a relative stranger whose primary if not exclusive purpose is to seek out and expose flaws?

Another problem. By directing a student’s attention to the “top” of the writing, the surface of the writing, the code, the writing’s clothing if you will, we contribute to her sense that writing is little more than a right-answer test. All you need to do to improve your writing is to memorize and apply the rules and off you go to writing success.

The Heart of the Problem

Perhaps the most unfortunate problem with deficit instruction, though, is that it in no way addresses the problem evidenced in most student writing. Let me explain. Writing is about thinking. Writing is a representation of our thinking. In fact, as experienced writers know, writing is 99% thinking. When we compose our ideas in order to show what they are in words, we are thinking. Writing is not a test of obedience or conformity to rules. Writing is about thinking and what we see in most student writing is evidence of a latent confusion of ideas and, more specifically, a confusion between the patterns and relations between and among the student’s ideas. Certainly, we need to teach grammar and punctuation. But what is typically missing from student writing instruction today is any formal, systematic practice designed to help students see their thoughts and organize those ideas in a way that will be meaningful to a reader. When we call attention to the surface of the prose, the top of the prose, misspellings and such, we are not doing anything to help students see what they know about a topic and what they as yet don’t know. Nor does calling attention to rule violations help them represent patterns, relationships, and connections between their ideas. Nor do these devices help student writers identify incongruities between their intentions (purposes) and their representation of their intentions in words.

This whole matter of inadequate writing instruction in our schools is compounded by the fact that most English teachers in America have not been taught to teach writing, and have no experience writing. In fact, a recent RAND Corporation study indicates that 70% of American English teachers feel in no way prepared to teach writing. Even Advanced Placement teachers report that they are too burdened by content delivery requirements to bother with writing instruction.

Writing is Not a Test; Writing is a Strategic, Social Act of Communication

Let’s dig a little deeper into the situation so that we can better understand why students are so reluctant to write. Well-intended English teachers have come up with a multitude of devices by which they hope to enable student writers to competence. I’m referring of course to the proliferation of graphic organizers and outline templates that come home with our students. I don’t want to suggest that there is no utility to these instructional devices, but I do want to call attention to their limitations given that they are designed to enable writing, in other words, thinking success.

Let’s say a student is required to write an analysis of President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address.  What’s the first thing the reluctant student writer or student with learning disabilities does when given the graphic organizer? Stuffs it in some dark recess of her knapsack and hopes it will miraculously disappear. Only after procrastinating as long as possible, and only after being repeatedly reminded by the teacher that the deadline or the overdue deadline is near, does she resign herself to the odious task. The night before or the morning before the assignment is due, the student finally pulls the crumpled handout from her knapsack and spreads it out on her desk. What does she see? A fill-in-the blank test. Remember, up until this moment, the student’s academic success has been measured almost exclusively by how well she knows or doesn’t know the right answer. So when faced with the organizer and a confusion of thoughts in her head, she works hard to guess the “right” answer, writes as small as she can so that her response fits in the assigned blank boxes or as larger as she can so that her response fills in the blank boxes and breathes a sigh of uncertain relief. The first part of the test is over. In other words, the student has used all of her knowledge about how to succeed in school – guess the right answer – to succeed at this task.

The problems here are quickly apparent. First, writing is not a test let alone a fill-in-the-blank test. Writing is an act of communication, a strategic social act of communication, not a test of correctness. Writing is a way of saying something to someone else. Writing is about relationships, specifically the relationship that forms between and among a writer, a reader, and the words on the page. Writing is an interaction between two or more people, an ongoing event that happens between people. In other words, there is no right answer when writing, even though all the student’s prior training and the graphic organizer suggest that there is.

Second, writing is about seeing, organizing, and representing thoughts in a way that will be meaningful to a reader. But neither the organizer (nor the outline template) teaches the student to make evident to herself what she knows about her topic. Nor has it helped her see patterns in her thinking, nor does it provide her with any techniques that would help her arrange her ideas in a meaningful way.

Third, the organizers and outline templates suggest to the student writer that writing is a linear process, a sequential process divisible into a discrete number of “stages” or “parts.” First, you fill in the graphic organizer or the outline, then you write a draft, then you check for errors in grammar or syntax, and voila; you’re done. But writing doesn’t happen that way. Writing—thinking–is not a linear process. Writing is a recursive process. We think as we write and we write as we think, even when composing the most ordinary of documents such as a grocery or to-do list. In other words, what these devices fail to take into account is the recursive shaping of thought by language and language by thought which is what writing is all about. Is it any wonder that our students with or without learning disabilities are reluctant to write?

Let’s look at one more often-used instructional convenience, “universally applicable” acronyms. Many of you are familiar I’m sure with FANBOYS, an acronym that reminds student writers to use the following coordinating conjunctions in their essays: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The assumption here is that these mnemonic tools, once memorized, will enable students to write successful compositions. Here’s another: SOAPSTone. This acronym which comes to us by way of the College Board has gained increasing interest by high school and even some middle school English teachers for its putative value teaching students how to write rhetorical analyses. Specifically, the College Board writes, the acronym, which stands for speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, tone, was designed to provide students “with a concrete strategy to help students identify and use these central components as a basis for their own writing.” As I mentioned, this acronym was quickly taken up by English teachers and deployed in the classroom. In part, the acronym’s allure stems from its association with a vetted authority. But even more attractive is the acronym’s implicit suggestion that the work of writing and thinking is easy. All you have to do in order to write competent rhetorical analyses is identify six things and you’re ready to write.  So let’s give the acronym a try and apply it to the work of writing an analysis of Obama’s first inaugural address. The speaker?  President Barack Obama. The occasion? His first inauguration. The audience? The American people and the world. The purpose? To connect Americans in the shared purpose of democracy and suggest goals for his administration. The subject? America. Tone? Uplifting. Now you have all the “central components” needed to write your analysis of President Obama’s first inaugural address. So please begin.

If I were really in a position to assign you this challenge, I suspect that most of your hands, like our earnest students’, would remain still.

There are many problems associated with the use of these acronyms to teach composition; that is, writing. Most obviously, they are too abstract to have real utility. Second, while acronyms such as FANBOYS and SOAPSTone may be memorable, they do nothing to help student writers make evident to themselves what they know about a subject, to see patterns in their thinking and to organize those patterns, to plan and compose the representation of their ideas, to strategize the writing task with their audiences in mind, or to see incongruities between intention and execution.

When taken together, we can see that the conspicuous flaw in precollege writing instruction as evidenced by the organizers, the outline templates, and the acronyms concerns our instructors’ misrepresentation of a fundamental truth about writing: Writing is not a test; writing is instead a strategic social act of communication that takes place between a writer, a reader, and the words in the document.

How We Can Help Reluctant Writers and Students with Learning Disabilities

What if we ask student writers to think about writing for what it is—a strategic social act of communication—instead of a test? What if we teach them a set of techniques, used by experienced writers, to help them understand writing as a strategic social act of communication, an interaction between themselves, the writers; their readers; and the words on the page?

Why techniques? Even if we teach students to think of writing as a social event not a test, without a set of techniques, inexperienced student writers, particularly when under time constraints – and let’s face it, school writing is always timed writing – will continue to run headlong, as most students do, into a writing event and hope they find their way to the required page limit or word count as soon as possible.

The techniques that I want to share with you today have been successfully used with a diverse range of student writers, including students with learning disabilities such as ADD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia, and have been designed to help student writers:

  • Strategize a writing task by capitalizing on and developing their understanding of writing as a social act of communication, a deliberate situation-specific interaction that takes place between a writer, a reader, and words. In other words, while writing is often done in isolation, writing itself is about relationships. By giving student writers techniques to help them recognize the social nature of writing and techniques to help them behave like writers, instruction reduces anxiety, promotes critical thinking, and enables successful writing.
  • Initiate their writing by developing skills that help student writers make evident what they know about a topic; to see patterns in their thinking; and to organize, interpret, and build on those patterns before and while they write. This sort of pattern recognition work has proved especially successful for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and for students with executive functioning challenges.
  • Strategize a writing task by developing their ability to analyze what they know about their intended reader or readers before and while composing.
  • Develop independence, motivation, and confidence.

I imagine that some of you are thinking that this all this sounds way too sophisticated for middle or high school students let alone elementary-age students and students with learning disabilities. But it’s not. Think for a minute. From earliest childhood, we assess the effect our words have on others. Through experimentation and then through developing our skills, by the time we are very young, we know who will be persuaded to answer our requests by doing something for us, who tells us to do the requested action ourselves, who is liable to ignore us, and who is likely to perceive the request in a hostile manner. Therefore, we adjust our communication accordingly; we strategize and make choices about the representation of our ideas according to what we know about our readers or listeners. In other words, on the basis of the information we have about our reader (or listener), we consciously choose what to say in order to gain the desired result. Given that students come to writing events with this highly developed skill, one of the ways to enable students, and to improve their confidence and skills is to help them make evident to themselves the rhetorical or communication skills they already possess. To do this, ask the student writer to compose a letter that she might send to her grandmother in order to persuade her grandmother to buy her a new bike. To reduce anxiety, I usually ask students to compose this letter verbally while I scribe, but you can ask your students to write the letter on paper or via a keyboard as well. Once the letter is composed, ask the student to write one to her grandfather with the same purpose in mind.

When faced with this task, many students begin to smile. They are thinking about the calculations they make when composing each document; more specifically, they are thinking strategically about what they know about their intended audiences and different ways of persuading each reader.

Once the letters are written, you will note that they are different. For example, the letter to grandmother might include a lot of hugs and kisses and even include a decorative border of pink or red hearts, while the letter to grandfather might include facts about the student’s age and height. When you question the student about her choices, she typically answers with alacrity and capably explains the strategy motivating her rhetorical decisions.  For example, the student might tell you that she included lots of hugs and kisses in the letter to grandmother because “Grandma likes to be reminded that I love her. If I tell her that, I have a better chance of getting what I want.”  Grandfather, however, “doesn’t care about all that lovey-dovey stuff;” he likes facts and so the student included information explaining “why I need a new bike. That’s why I put in my height and my age. I wanted to show him that I’ve outgrown my old bike.”

After the letters are written, it’s important to call the student’s attention to the wealth of strategies she brought to the writing event; after all, she has already developed a repertoire of skills that help maximize the probability of a positive outcome, be the desired outcome staying out of trouble, placating someone, or getting a new bike. It’s also important to call attention to how much the student writer knows about her audience, and how she has used that knowledge. She has anticipated her reader’s expectations, and has used that information when considering her choice of words and the arrangement of the words. Further, she knows a lot about writerly decorum.  Generally, decorum is defined as a set of rules for polite behavior in social circumstances. When talking about decorum in relation to education, we typically refer to the rules of appropriate behavior in the classroom; in other words, the maintenance of polite, sober, respectful behavior by teachers and students. In rhetoric, decorum refers to the appropriateness of the writer’s choices when engaged in persuasive communication. For example, if you want grandfather to buy you a bike, you are probably not going to insult him or refer to him in a disrespectful way. Instead, rules of polite communication behavior in this situation suggest that you might show your regard for him by using a respectful salutation, say, “Dear Grandfather” instead of “Hey Jim;” that you strike a respectful and perhaps loving tone; that you use vocabulary that is within your reader’s discourse range (not above or below). Our students know all this. They know that writing is a strategic social act of communication. In other words, even young students, including students with learning disabilities, know a lot more about rhetoric, the art of persuasive communication, than we give them credit for, and we miss an opportunity and make our work much harder than it need be when we don’t take advantage of what students know and instead teach writing as a kind of a test of correctness

How to Help Reluctant Student Writers and Students with Learning Disabilities Strategize Writing Assignments

In order to help a student strategize a writing assignment, the first thing you can do is help the student make evident what she knows about her audience. Ask the student what the teacher has emphasized in class. In other words, ask the student or help the student remember the overarching theme for the year, the topic of the specific class unit being addressed that particular learning unit, and the words that the teacher often uses in the classroom. For example, if the overarching theme for the year concerns social justice, help the student remember that the teacher is probably expecting her to write about racial or gender discrimination represented in the book, not about the characters’ relation to nature. Once that information is made evident, the student is better able to focus her thoughts, and is better able to eliminate all her thinking about the text that doesn’t pertain to social injustice. In other words, the student is beginning to focus her thinking and by so doing, is better able to eliminate options and target the representation of her ideas in her composition. Also, with this knowledge of her reader, she is better able to pick appropriate words and to manipulate her words in order to effect maximum gain, more specifically, in order to persuade her reader, the teacher, to award her a high grade. Finally, when armed with this knowledge, student writers feel more competent and more in control of the assignment. Helping students become aware of what they already know about the writing event and helping them realize that this knowledge can be used to help strategize their written responses is especially empowering for reluctant students and students with learning disabled and other issues such as ADHD.

In order to help a student gain more knowledge of her audience, you can also help a student “translate” or “decode” the assignment so that she better understands what the teacher expects to see in her written response.  Look at the prompt with the student. Black out or eliminate all the language that does not pertain specifically to the requirements of the task at hand, including the encouraging words and reminders. In other words, when reviewing prompts with students, highlight key verbs—does the assignment require the student to summarize or explain? –, key nouns such as titles of books or authors’ names, and key information about word count or page length and number of examples required. Eliminate articles, eliminate participles, eliminate adverbs, eliminate the threatening language, eliminate the encouraging homily, the incentivizing language. Why? Given their anxiety and their desperate desire to put this most hateful task behind them, most students and especially reluctant writers and students with learning disabilities, rush through reading the prompts. Some even fail to see if the response calls for a summary or an analysis. There’s just too much dread when faced with the with a writing event. But this simple decoding and focusing work fosters students’ confidence and give students a sense of control. This kind of focusing work is especially helpful for students frustrated by with dyslexia and other learning disabilities and ADHD.

How to Help Reluctant Writers and Students with Learning Disabilities Start Writing Assignments

Once students know the purpose of the writing assignment, you can help them initiate their writing by helping them make evident to themselves what they already know about the topic and helping them group their ideas into meaningful patterns. In order to help student writers see their thoughts, ask students to write down all the words or word phrases that come to mind about the topic. For instance, say the student is asked to write an essay on McDonald’s, the fast food empire.  Ask her to take five to ten minutes and write down or dictate all the words that come to mind when thinking about McDonald’s. Make sure that the student knows that she does not have to provide full sentences, and make especially sure that she knows that spelling and punctuation don’t count; in fact, the exercise works best when the student is encouraged to recognize the exercise as a kind of associative game. The student might produce a list of words that looks something like this: French fries, burger, soggy lettuce, chicken nuggets, playground, Coke, not good for you, fast, sticky tables, drive through, ketchup, pickles, salty, gross tomatoes, milkshakes, tastes good, little toys, Ronald McDonald.  As you can see, most of the student’s words are about the food at McDonald’s. Show the student that this—the food at McDonald’s—forms the student’s dominant concern by circling or highlighting all the food words, and by blacking out all the words that do not pertain to food. On a separate piece of paper, ask your student to take another five or ten minutes to provide you with more words about the food at McDonald’s.  The subsequent list might look something like this: sweet, cheeseburger, milkshakes, unhealthy, tastes good, paper napkins, straw wrappers, greasy, junk food, droopy lettuce, wonder what eating, only go once in a while, Sprite, plastic cups, bad for you, calories.  In the second list, you can see that the student is beginning to make evident to herself what she knows about the food at McDonald’s and is beginning to simultaneously elaborate her thinking by thinking more, and in more detail. Again, circle or highlight the words or phrases that specifically pertain to the dominant concern in the writer’s mind: the good tastes and dubious health value of McDonald’s food. Ask your student to review the circled or highlighted words. After doing this pattern recognition exercise twice, typically students are able to formulate and verbally represent the focus (not all of McDonald’s but just the food at McDonald’s) and the thesis, or main idea, of their thoughts (the food tastes good but is not very healthy). Ask the student to articulate her main idea or thesis.  In response, a student might say, “The food at McDonald’s tastes really good, but it’s not very good for you.” This is good thinking. Now the student knows what aspect of McDonald’s she wants to write about and knows her main idea.

Not only does this pattern recognition exercise help students make evident what they know about a subject, but this work simultaneously helps students eliminate options, other ideas that might intrude when composing their responses. In other words, they can now discriminate between dominant and subordinate patterns in their thinking about this particular topic. In the process of composing, should the student begin to digress and write about the playground at McDonald’s, you can remind the student that although her ideas are interesting, they are not part of the dominant pattern in her thinking and therefore belong in a different essay.

This exercise helps students focus their writing and initiate their writing, and it works as well with fifth graders as it does with high school seniors. This sort of patterning work is especially helpful to students frustrated by learning disabilities such as dyslexia and students with executive functioning challenges including students with ADHD.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.