In this era of rising academic standards when our classrooms contain a diversity of students with a diversity of needs, how can educators teach these students the written literacy skills necessary for academic and future success?
Students need to write to express not only their personal thoughts, but to demonstrate the ability to analyze and understand academic material. Why are some high school students unsuccessful at expressing ideas in writing yet do so well at arguing for their personal beliefs?
Research indicates that at risk students demonstrate difficulty with writing essays for a number of reasons: For some students, weak cognitive processing hamper their ease of learning and writing essays. For students new to English, difficulties may be due to ‘overload:’ Writing an essay requires multiple cognitive and language tasks. Students need to learn and comprehend the language of instruction as well as task requirements. They need to ‘hear’ (when reading their writing) and retain essay ideas encoded in the new language as well as use the new language to express ideas coded in the native first language.
A review of research suggests that various instructional techniques improve the at-risk student’s ability to write essays independently and acquire needed academic skills.
Research on At-Risk Students
Teachers and administrators cite a number of well-known causes to explain why at-risk students fail at writing: poor attendance, lack of language experience, lack of home support or assistance, lack of student interest or motivation, poor attention or study skills, delayed academic skills. Years of instruction from a multiplicity of teachers with a multiplicity of techniques have not succeeded in overcoming these obstacles.
Research tells us that writing is a "recursive" activity requiring the student to perform multiple functions at the same time that he is “putting pen to paper” and writing down his ideas (American Speech-Language–Hearing Asso¬ciation, 2001). The student needs to: (1) identify the purpose of the essay prompt (to persuade, entertain, inform, etc.) and comprehend its language and directions; (2) develop a thesis; (3) create a plan of ideas to explain his thesis; (4) remember his ideas and plan while formulating and writing sentences; (5) as necessary, mentally revisit his plan, his ideas, and the conventions for writing, (Flower & Hayes, 1980); and (6) “hear the words“ as the reader will (Nippold, 2000).
The at-risk student requires a different methodology to achieve these skills. These students may have difficulty attending to task and teacher (Simon, 1993), or have weak study skills. Students may also have difficulties (1) performing two or more tasks at the same time; (2) mentally retaining information; (3) completing tasks; (4) using problem-solving skills (Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000); and (5) reversing mental perspective (Nippold, 2000).
Also, students of limited English language experience, who may not be strong readers of English, do not comprehend writing prompts or easily formulate ideas into sentences (American Speech-Language–Hearing Association, 2001). These students, who struggle with essay writing, are the population that Talk/Write targets.
At-risk students, however, do demonstrate strengths that—when used—can ease the writing process. These students do, for example, have con-versational or “talking” skills functional for social situations. In addition, it is easier for most of us to understand words and sentences when listening than to retrieve words or sentences for talking. Conse-quently, we can judge whether words or sentences we hear sound “right,” because we can compare what we hear with words and sentence forms stored in our memory. Furthermore, many students who have difficulty with processing auditory information often demonstrate stronger visual perception and retention skills.
Research indicates that teaching students metacognitive strategies—i.e. the “how to’s,” that capitalize on students’ visual as well as receptive and expressive language strengths—promotes ease and effective learning of written expression skills.
Talk/Write Methods: Research-Based
Research has shown that methods in Talk/Write have been effective for teaching students who are low achieving and/or have learning disabilities. Talk/Write combines these successful methods into a writing program that teaches a sequenced, scaffolded, series of skills with a set of strategies that, once mastered, do transfer.
Gersten, Russell; Baker, Scott; and Edwards, Lana (1999) completed research studies to answer the question: Which interventions and components are found to be most effective ... in improving the writing of students? The authors concluded that the successful components were: (1) adhering to a basic framework: teaching and student practice of the writing process (planning, writing, and revision); (2) using semantic maps to help students organize and remember main points; (3) explicitly teaching critical steps in the process: instructors “think aloud,” explaining and modeling the steps, the “how-to's” or strategies in the writing process; and (4) using student scribes or peer editors.
Techniques That Work
1. Use of peer editing where there is a student-writer and student-editor (Wong, Butler, Ficzere, and Kuperis, 1996): The use of student scribes eliminates the need of students to perform at least two mental tasks at the same time, i.e. apply appropriate mechanics while formulating sentences to express ideas. This technique also helps students to "develop a sense of audience for their writing.” The writer switches roles from “talker” (writer) to “listener” (reader) before finalizing his end product. The “talker” (writer) says aloud his ideas to his partner scribe. In this way, the student writer can “hear” how his essay will sound to the person who reads it.
In almost every aspect of the Talk/Write program, students are taught to “say” it (ideas/sentences) aloud so they can “hear” how it (ideas/ sen-tences) “sounds” as another student listens, tracks ideas, and responds.
2. Adhering to a basic framework, i.e. teaching, and having students practice (Gersten & Baker, 1999): The three basic tasks in the writing process are planning, writing, and revision. The primary purpose of Talk/Write is to improve student writing fluency as well as independent ability to write an organized and developed essay. Talk/ Write teaches students to plan and write an essay in a series of workshops or skill units. Essay planning and development are taught in Units 1 and 2, and mechanics and editing (revising) lessons are available in a separate Editing Program.
Talk/Write emphasizes teaching students a sequential but limited series of steps that they can use to write their own essays. Editing and revision in regard to mechanical errors is not a focus, though lessons are available to guide and give students practice in self-editing common errors.
In each unit, skills taught are scaffolded. For example, when the student learns to develop supporting points for the thesis, he begins with a map, develops a thesis, and then creates his supporting points. For every new step learned, the student repeats practice or demonstrates knowledge of all prior steps, ensuring recall of the series of steps once he begins work on his own. In short, he “habituates“ the writing process.
3. Teaching planning via use of semantic maps: Semantic maps help the student organize and remember main points eliminating the need to simultaneously perform two mental tasks, i.e. remembering main points and mentally formulating sentences to express and explain ideas (Gersten & Baker, 1999; Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000).
Talk/Write teaches the use of a graphic organizer that can be expanded for use in other kinds of essay writing beyond the persuasive essay. Students, in a Southern California pilot, were able to modify the organizer to respond to teacher writing prompts for literature analysis and to produce a autobiographical incident essay.
4. Explicitly teaching critical steps in the process: Instructors “think aloud,“ explaining how to do a task while modeling the steps and methods in the writing process (metacognition). Teaching the “how-to's” or strategies has been found effective by more than one study (Graham & Harris, 1989b; Englert & Mariage, 1991; DeLaPaz & Graham, 1997; The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, 1999).
Talk/Write teaches the students a limited set and sequence of strategies. Lesson activities are provided so that students say each strategy, write the strategy, and use the strategy.
5. Teaching for transfer: Gersten and Baker (1999) found few studies on the transfer of writing skills to other classes. Wong, Butler, Ficzere, Kuperis (1996), however, highly recommended efforts for transfer of skills, since only then can transfer be greatly improved.
Talk/Write makes transfer a key objective. During skill reviews (completed at both beginning and end of sessions), students verbalize steps taught; and during class-time activities, students practice steps taught. Independent ability to recall, state, and use strategies improves students’ ability to transfer these to other classes and situations.