Diana Tremblay

A. Reflection on WID: An Educational Therapist’s Perspective

telescope friendsAs I no longer teach in a classroom setting, my perspective may be somewhat different.   In my present position, I am not required to develop assignments but instead work individually with students to help them improve their academic performance.  Subsequently, the nature of my practice is fairly interdisciplinary as I see a wide range of coursework.

There were several reasons why I was interested in WID.  Most importantly, I was looking for new approaches to support students who have severe challenges with writing.  Much of the research referred to in “Engaging Ideas”, the main text by John Bean that is used in WID, is undertaken by educational psychologists or learning theorists.  As this happens to be my discipline, it felt like a good fit.  I was looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the literature on writing development and having some time to reflect on my own pedagogical practices.  The emphasis on critical thinking was of particular interest since many of my students struggle with learning at a deeper level.  They often arrive at my office dazed and confused after attempting to comprehend some thorny, theoretical material.

I was a believer from the start but had some questions I was looking to find answers to.  Bean provides good evidence for the importance of engaging students in critical thinking activities.  On the other hand, I know educators who feel it is unrealistic to expect first-year college students to carry out complex, abstract thought.  These abilities are just beginning to develop at the end of adolescence and continue to mature until the mid-twenties.  This development can be delayed even further if a student has a learning disability or English is a second language.  Is this like asking a baby to walk before it is ready?

At the same time, these skills are required for university and, increasingly, in today’s workplace.  My experience both as a teacher and as an educational therapist has shown me that some students will always be more concrete in their thinking, but can still master abstract reasoning with the right approach.  Many of them want and need to be engaged in problem-solving and we are placing them at a disadvantage if we believe they are not capable. The dilemma for educators is how to foster this without creating needless barriers?

Another question that has been raised is should we be asking students to do more writing, and in all of their classes, when this is already a considerable area of difficulty?  It is now clear to me that WID is not necessarily about doing more writing, but rather to carefully evaluate where writing is a good tool to help students go beyond surface level thinking.  Some written assignments may be dropped.  Big papers may be broken down into smaller, more manageable components that lead the student through the process.  Many exploratory assignments can be low stakes writing that are more for feedback than grading.  In the end, it is about making writing more engaging, more reflective and providing appropriate support at the same time. 

For my WID portfolio, I chose to re-examine the research on expressive writing and students with learning disabilities as this is more relevant to my present position at the college. My goal was to find the most effective evidence-based intervention strategies that would be useful in my practice and that could be used by teachers in the classroom as well.  Then, I searched Bean to see which techniques might be a match for these recommended instructional techniques.  Much to my delight, this was an easy task due to Bean’s liberal use of research from the field of cognitive neuroscience.  What follows is a summary of what I found.  I hope it will be interesting and useful for your own teaching practice.

 

B. Barriers to Expressive Writing for Students with Learning Disabilities

In order to understand the difficulties faced by struggling writers, it is important to understand the cognitive processes involved.  Thinking about writing can be categorized into three separate activities: 1) activating thinking or planning, 2) production or processing needed information, and 3) monitoring task demands.  Often these skills are not well developed for students with learning disabilities, but they are not alone.

In today’s diverse classroom, there are other students who face the same challenges.  Second language students come to mind, as well as those whose culture is based on oral language traditions.   Moreover, older students in increasing numbers are returning to school after a long break from academic learning.  All of these groups are likely to have production problems (category 2) similar to students with learning difficulties.  Where they differ is that they are usually more competent at planning and task-monitoring (categories 1 and 3).  As a result, their skills tend to improve faster than their LD peers. 

The first step to helping these writers is to see the problem through their eyes and identify the barriers they run into.  If they are working with an educational therapist, an individual learning profile is developed and then strategies are generated to target specific areas of weakness.  These vary considerably from student to student but there are some common threads.  At the college level, I have many clients who fall short at the first stage of writing – activating thinking.  For example, students frequently ask me to go over the instructions for the assignment.  Despite their teacher’s careful attempts to clearly explain the task, the directions are often too wordy for a language impaired learner.  Then there are those who jump in and start writing without considering what they want or need to say.  For some this is due to a tendency to rush the process.  For others there is a lack of awareness that good writing requires planning and revision. 

Production problems are evident when a student has good ideas yet they cannot find the words to express their thoughts and end up writing very little.  Sometimes ideas come out in a tangled mess.  Perhaps awkwardly written sentences, as well as numerous grammatical and spelling errors, interfere with communication.  Here the obstacle may be weak attention, memory problems or underdeveloped language skills. 

Equally frustrating for both students and teachers is weak task monitoring.  This is often seen as carelessness as it looks like the student did not pay attention or put in minimal effort.  I find it heartbreaking when a student spends a considerable amount of time and effort on an assignment, yet does poorly because the product was not what the teacher required.  Another version of this is when only part of the assignment is completed while other critical elements are neglected.  Inefficient executive skills or a lack of knowledge of the writing process may be the real cause here.

There is a wealth of instructional strategies available but which ones really work for this population and do they fit in with WID recommendations?

 

C.  What Works for this Population?

The good news is that apparently all writing interventions help students with learning disabilities and other novice writers.  Conversely, all students (with or without disabilities) will benefit from strategies designed for this group as many special education approaches shape best classroom practices.

 There are numerous remedial strategies to consider but research puts forward three notable techniques that should be part of any writing program: 1) extensive and continuous feedback to students, 2) teaching text structures from different writing genres, and 3) promoting the steps of the writing process.  From my experience, I would add a fourth component – demonstrating effective reading comprehension strategies.  Although technically this is not writing, there is a strong link.  I have found that when a student has difficulty voicing an idea it is generally due to a poor grasp of the reading material.  Invariably we need to first go back to the text to re-read sections in order to improve comprehension.

For a student’s perspective on effective writing instruction, interesting insights can be gleaned from a recent national survey done by Brett Christie at The California State University.  Both students with and without disabilities were interviewed and there was general consensus about best teaching practices.  Happily, many of these are also recommended by Bean.  At the top of the list are evaluation rubrics, breaking down assignments and providing concrete examples.  A close second includes providing specific and immediate feedback, as well as finding multiple ways of clearly identifying and explaining course concepts rather than straight lecturing.  In addition, the students mentioned a preference for quick writes over quizzes as a way to demonstrate what they had read and learnt.

 

D.  How Does This Fit with Bean?

So, if in the near future I find myself stepping back into the classroom, I would turn to Bean to search out the instructional strategies that are a good match for the above criteria.  When designing an assignment, I would certainly incorporate opportunities for feedback (Chapter 16) either through task-specific rubrics (4) or peer editing (15).  In addition to this, I would provide examples of assignments (15) that meet this standard.  Next, to aid and encourage reading assigned materials I would develop reading guides or partial graphic organizers (9), which will help students to identify key information.  I already use an active learning approach but now I would add a quick writing component.  There would definitely be fewer quizzes (as for many students this is not a good way to show what they know) and more exploratory writing.  To do this, I particularly like “What-If” scenarios and “They Say, I Say” exercises (10 & 13).  Other options are summaries of lectures, abstracts of articles reviewed in class, and imaginary dialogues between theorists (8 & 13).  The purpose of these short writing exercises would be to encourage students to reflect on why certain ideas are important and how this connects to their daily lives – what Edwin Ellis calls the “So What” question; a feature of his graphic organizers.    

 As for my current practice, students frequently ask for help with thesis-driven writing assigned by their teachers.  Generally I walk them through the writing process from understanding the instructions to flushing out ideas for the rough draft.  I am presently updating a step-by-step writing plan that I give to students to guide their independent work.  It is based on research that was done by Flower and Hayes two decades ago.  I have decided to add some of the suggestions from “Engaging Ideas” that focus on teaching the sub-skills of writing, including the three aspects of good writing – purpose, audience, and genre (3).  Also, procedural facilitators will be used to improve the organization of ideas, a common problem for many students.  Writing strategies such as making preliminary outlines, options for choosing a title, think-aloud steps and prompt cards will be embedded into the plan (6 & 13).  As Bean points out, teaching the steps involved in writing not only produces a better product, but it enhances self-efficacy and encourages students to write more.  What’s more, it can move students away from “all about writing” to more problem-centred thinking.

As a follow up to the writing plan, I would like to examine the text structures that relate to different genres (3 & 13) and develop corresponding writing templates or organizational frameworks.  Prior to WID, I thought of text structures in terms of persuasive, expository, and narrative text. It is now clear to me that at the college level this needs to be broadened.  This is when students start to learn the various styles of writing that relate to discipline specific methods of inquiry.  Reading aids could be designed to facilitate this process, which would help students recognize and compare stylistic differences.  These same aids could then be used to guide their writing.

I enjoyed my journey with WID and definitely extended my tool chest of learning strategies.  For many students, it is college where they are pushed for the first time to think critically about the subjects they are learning.   Some may need a little more support along the way but they can get there.

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