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Teaching Special Education Students To Write A Research Paper


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Good writing requires juggling a lot of skills. Students must concurrently generate ideas, plan and organize material, be creative as well as analytical, follow the rules of grammar and spell words correctly.

Students with learning disabilities (LD) often struggle with these competing demands and may develop negative attitudes about writing as a result of their frustration.

A new article in Exceptional Children flags 4 writing interventions as having statistically significant effects on the writing quality of students with LD: strategy instruction, dictation, goal setting and process writing.

In this meta analysis of 43 studies on 15 interventions, researchers highlighted these 4 interventions based on the evidence of studies that met the inclusion criteria:

1. Strategy instruction: “Teaching writing strategies to students with LD had a statistically significant impact on writing quality,” the researchers say. “Most of the studies involved students in Grades 4 to 8, with a majority taking place in resource room/pullout or self-contained special education classes. In 11 studies, students learned strategies for planning and writing texts. Two studies involved strategies for revising and editing texts and two studies involved strategies for planning, writing and revising.”

2. Dictation:Transcription difficulties with handwriting, typing and spelling can so consume students with LD that they have little working memory left to devote to content, according to the researchers. The students may forget ideas or writing plans or prematurely stop writing due to fatigue. “Students with LD who dictated their compositions into a tape recorder or to a scribe showed greater writing improvements than students who composed by hand,” the authors write.

3. Goal setting: All 4 studies on goal setting in this meta-analysis involved students in grades 4-8 and all showed positive results, according to the researchers. “In one study, students selected a goal for their compositions from a set of goals provided by the instructor. In other studies, instructors gave students specific goals for revising or for including genre elements in their writing,” the researchers say.

4. Process writing: All of these studies involved students in grades 1-5 in English/Language Arts classes. ‘In three studies, students in comprison conditions learned writing skills through worksheets/textbook activities. One study involved a writing comparison group who practiced writing texts related to themes in content area instruction.” The duration of process writing varies from 2-10 months. Process writing was carried out in a variety of settings including general education classrooms, resource room/pullout classrooms and special education classrooms.

“Despite these promising results, the overall findings must be tempered by the quality of studies (although study quality was not related to variability in effects),” the researchers write. “It is especially important that future writing intervention studies are true experiments that control for instructor effects, report reliability of outcome measures, and provide treatment fidelity data, as these were weaknesses in the studies reviewed here. Unfortunately, the weaknesses observed in this review are common in educational research.”

Writing difficulties for students with LD

This study of writing interventions provides insights into the difficulties students with LD face when they attempt to write.

Students with LD have difficulties with both content generation and revision. When generating content, students with LD often approach writing as if it involves a single process. They compose each phrase and sentence in response to the one that precedes it, continuing the process until they’ve exhausted what they know, or have satisfied the teacher’s requirements. The result is text often lacks coherence, clarity and purpose.

When revising, students with LD tend to confuse revising and proofreading. They focus on spelling, grammar and mechanics rather than on refining meaning, coherence and the quality of writing.

“Because writing can be cognitively overwhelming, physically exhausting, and time consuming for students with LD, they often develop negative attitudes about writing,” according to the authors. “As a result, many students with LD put forth minimal effort when writing and avoid writing when possible.”

Other interventions examined in the meta-analysis study were: prewriting, procedural facilitation (e.g. use of prompts or cue cards), peer tutoring, creativity training, instruction and process writing, increasing writing motivation, sentence-writing instruction, self-evaluation with a rubric, collaborative writing and comprehensive writing programs.

The effects of writing interventions on writing quality were averaged across the 43 studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis to determine average weighted mean effect size (ES). Average weighted mean ES were also calculated for 6 writing interventions that included 4 or more studies.

The effects of writing interventions on writing quality were averaged across the 43 studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis to determine average weighted mean effect size (ES). Average weighted mean ES were also calculated for 6 writing interventions that included 4 or more studies.

“Overall, writing interventions had a statistically significant positive impact on the writing quality of students with LD (ES = 0.74),” according to the researchers. “All writing treatment subgroups also had positive average weighted ES, but only four were statistically different from zero (i.e., strategy instruction ES=1.09, dictation ES=0.55, goal setting ES=0.57, and process writing ES=0.43).”

“A Meta-Analysis of Writing Interventions for Students With Learning Disabilities,” by Amy Gillespie and Steve Graham, Exceptional Children, 2014, Volume 80, Number 4, pp. 454-473.

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