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Teaching Written Expression in the Inclusive High School Classroom: Strategies to Assist Students with Disabilities Laura Baylot

Casey Robert L. Williamson University of Memphis Thomas Black Middle Tennessee State University Cort Casey Christian Brothers University

Abstract The current study utilized an online survey to obtain teachers’ perceptions related to teaching written expression in an inclusive classroom. The study included over five hundred secondary English teachers from across the United States. The findings revealed that the majority of the teachers surveyed struggled with the teaching of written expression to students with three particular disabilities: autism, emotional / behavior disorders, and ADHD. General methodologies for teaching writing, emphasizing specific strategies for teaching writing to students with ADHD; autism spectrum disorders (including Asperger’s syndrome), and students with emotional / behavioral disorders, are addressed. Keywords: writing, disability, autism, emotional/ behavioral disorders, inclusion, special education


It has only been within the past two decades that writing has become a viable area of research with regard to academic problems (Hooper, Swartz, Montgomery, Reed, M., Brown, Wasileski, & Levine 2002). Despite twenty years of research, it was not until 2003 that the National Commission on Writing called for reform with regard to how writing was being taught in U. S. schools. The commission acknowledged that teachers typically receive minimal instruction on teaching writing skills, and only a few states require courses for writing certification. The limited number of course offerings leads to teachers not being adequately prepared to teach writing. Kiuhara, Graham, and Hawken (2009) conducted a national survey which indicated that 71% of high school teachers reported receiving no preparation or minimal preparation to teach writing during their college teacher preparation program. In the same study, almost half reported that their in-service trainings related to teaching writing were inadequate. Thus, there is a need for increased attention on how to effectively teach writing skills during teacher preparation programs and/or at teacher in-service trainings at all levels. At the secondary level, writing skills evolve from simply acquiring basic skills to creating original and expository tasks, then to synthesizing research in order to create meaningful connections from the literature. This change in the nature of writing often results in the adolescent struggling and experiencing more difficulties writing as compared to the elementary years (Fitzgerald & Shanahan 2000; Graham & Perrin, 2007). It is often a very difficult transition from the expectations of elementary or middle school level writing to that of high school writing and beyond. It is a transition that often requires direct instruction from the classroom teacher. Not only is this a trying time for many adolescents as they progress to the next stage of writing, but it is also a trying time for teachers as they find themselves in a high school class of thirty students who are in need of personal instruction at varying levels. In other


words, the heterogeneous classroom leaves the inadequately prepared secondary English teacher faced with the daunting task of teaching writing skills that he or she may not even be fully trained to teach. The implications of an underprepared teacher become multiplied in an underperforming school, a school with limited resources, and a school rich with diversity (e.g., range of SES, motivation, parental involvement, and exceptionalities). The goals of this manuscript were to analyze survey responses provided by current secondary English educators and then to provide classroom strategies based on the responses provided. English teachers were targeted due to the emphasis placed on writing instruction and the direct teaching of writing prose, correctly utilizing grammar, and the mechanics of written language being most closely related to the subject. Method Participants Five hundred and eleven secondary English teachers from across the United States responded to a survey posted on the Internet. Participation in the survey was voluntary. The majority of the respondents were female (70%). Furthermore, the majority reported having a Bachelor’s degree (84%) with at least 6 years of teaching experience (89%). Table 1 outlines the participant information in more detail. Instrument The range of exceptionalities often found in the inclusive classroom includes individuals with learning disabilities (LD); emotional / behavioral disorders (EBD); autism spectrum disorders (ASD); mental retardation; speech or language impairments; hearing impairments; visual impairments; orthopedic impairments; other health impairments (including ADHD), and traumatic brain injury (IDEA 2004, Sec. 602 (3) (A) (i)). Thus, the survey questions were based


on the categories for children and youth 3-21 years of age according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The questions were written for the respondent to agree or disagree with each question or statement and were available through Survey Monkey for six months. The primary research question was: “Which disability category, according to IDEA, did the teachers perceive that they struggled with the most in terms of teaching writing? Results Based on the survey, the vast majority reported struggling the most with students with autism (85.2%); emotional / behavioral disorders (72.1%); and other health impairments (e.g., ADHD) (68.9%). Results were mixed with regard to teaching students with learning disabilities and speech and language impairments with 48% and 45% reporting struggling with these learners respectively. The majority of teachers reported that they did not struggle with teaching writing skills to students who were deaf (95.1%); deaf-blind (97.2%); with hearing impairments (90%); visual impairments (87.6%); orthopedic impairments (89.7%); mental retardation (92.8%); multiple disabilities (91.5%); or traumatic brain injury (94.8%, see table 2). Discussion The majority of the teachers surveyed struggled with teaching writing to students with three particular disabilities: autism; emotional / behavioral disorders; and ADHD. Therefore, in an effort to answer the needs expressed by the English teachers who responded to the survey, the remainder of this article provides general strategies for teaching writing within the secondary English classroom, as well as providing specific suggestions for written expression for students with disabilities, specifically the three categories cited as areas of need by the majority of respondents: other health impairments (primarily ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (including Asperger’s syndrome), and emotional / behavioral disorders.


General Strategies for Written Expression in the Inclusive Classroom Graham, Harris, and Larsen (2001) list six principles for teachers to implement that can assist students within an inclusive classroom setting. They are as follows: (a) provide effective writing instruction (daily writing, overt teacher modeling); (b) tailor writing instruction to meet the individual needs of children; (c) intervene early, providing a coherent and sustained effort to improve the writing skills of children with writing deficits and needs; (d) expect that each child will learn to write; (e) identify and address academic and nonacademic roadblocks to writing and school success; and (f) employ technological tools that improve writing performance. These authors stress the need to find balance between teaching methods, direct and indirect learning opportunities, and differentiating instruction. For example, the teacher should vary his or her approach to teaching as it applies to content, process, and product. Some basic suggestions for writing include individualized instruction, such as knowing which children need more time, shortened tasks, and instructions in multiple modalities (verbal, visual, etc.).

Other Health Impaired: ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is broken down into three subtypes: (a) ADHD, Combined Type: Hyperactive and Inattentive; (b) ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type; and (c) ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type. Children with ADHD often emit chronic, high-intensity behaviors (i.e., inattention and/or hyperactivity) that interfere with their academic progress. Although these behaviors are not in themselves a learning disability, almost one-third of all children with ADHD also have learning disabilities (NIMH 1999). According to the DSM-IV TR (APA 2000), approximately 3-7% of school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. Most students with ADHD are educated in a general education classroom. Children with ADHD find themselves in less restrictive settings than every other 5

special education category, except speech and language impairments. Most general education classes contain one to three students diagnosed with ADHD, with others exhibiting similar behavioral characteristics at the sub-clinical level (McLeskey, Rosenberg, & Westling, 2010). Thus, equipping the general education teacher with strategies to support the student with ADHD is critical to the success of the classroom and the learning of all involved. When working with students diagnosed with ADHD in the classroom, some environmental manipulations may be necessary. For example, it is not recommended to seat a child who is easily distracted by a window, door, or high traffic area. Conversely, a carrel may need to be created for the individual’s desk to ensure that he or she is able to focus. There are several specific behavioral strategies that should be directly applied to the writing process. Behavioral strategies are an excellent choice for students exhibiting ADHD, since the hallmark characteristics are behavioral in nature. One strategy, known as task analysis, is helpful when directly applied to writing. Task analysis is the process of breaking down a complex behavior (a chain of simple behaviors that follow one another) into its component parts to make the task less cumbersome and more manageable. This allows small gains to be made and rewards to be given along the way. A task analysis for writing involves breaking down a paper into paragraphs, then into sentences, then into words. Another behavioral technique, called chaining, is also proven to be successful with this population. Chaining is a technique used for children who have difficulty putting things together, writing linking words, or writing sentences. There are two types of chaining: forward and backward. Forward chaining is a type of chaining that would be most appropriate in the acquisition phase of writing. The steps involved include: (a) identify the target behavior (e.g., write a sentence); (b) task analyze the behavior to determine each individual step – identify


nouns, verbs, adjectives; (c) teach and reinforce the initial step in the skill; (d) collect data on the acquisition of the skill and analyze it for mastery; (e) when the first step is mastered, teach and reinforce the second step in conjunction with the first step; and (f) as each successive step is mastered, add the next step in the skill series until the student is able to demonstrate the entire skill without adult support. Backward chaining would also be appropriate to assist with the writing process. Backward chaining begins by identifying the pieces needed to complete the story. These include the main characters, the plot, the challenge, the resolution of the challenge, and the end of the story. To begin, the teacher performs all of the steps, except the last. Thus, the teacher writes the story, leaving off the end, and the student reads the story and completes the last step. Once the student is successful with this part, the teacher then completes all steps except the last two. This process continues until the student successfully works his or her way back to the beginning and is able to create a story from the beginning to the end. Another recent study found success, using self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) to improve the essay-writing abilities of students with ADHD (De La Paz, 2001). The strategy utilized two acronyms, PLAN and WRITE, to help students keep in mind their goals while writing. The steps are: (a) Pay attention to the prompt; (b) List main ideas; (c) Add supporting ideas; (d) Number your ideas; (e) Work from your plan to develop your thesis statement; (f) Remember your goals; (g) Include transition words; (h) Try to use different kinds of sentences, and (i) Exciting, interesting, $100,000 words. Students were taught these steps during classroom instruction, then wrote these acronyms, PLAN and WRITE, on their scratch paper while planning an essay. The length and complexity of their essays were found to improve significantly


against the baseline data, and the improvement remained when tested four months after instruction had ceased. Autism Spectrum Disorder Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of behavioral characteristics often involving impaired social interactions, impaired communication, and repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior that manifest before the age of three (APA, 2000). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD has risen to 1 in every 88 American children, and according to McLeskey, Rosenberg, and Westling (2010), 27% percent of students with ASD spend 79% of the day in the general education classroom, and 44% of students with ASD spend 40% of the day in the general education classroom. These statistics reveal that ASD is prevalent in the inclusive classroom, with almost 50% of the students diagnosed with ASD spending close to half of their day in the general education classroom. With ASD being considered a spectrum disorder with varying degrees of symptoms, writing may come easily for some children diagnosed with ASD, while others may struggle. The concern here is with the inability to read social cues, being very literal in interpretation, having a concrete outlook on the world, and being overly attentive to details. The inability to read social cues plays a role in a child’s ability to write creatively, with a sense of humor, or in an abstract manner. Being overly attentive to detail contributes to the child with ASD being overly concerned with mechanics and unable to focus on the story line. Devoting time to the mechanics of writing halts the developmental progression required for fluent writing because the individual student has expended all of his mental effort focusing on the mechanics, while leaving very little cognitive energy for generating unique thoughts and prose. Graham (1982) lists several reasons


why attending to the mechanics of writing may hinder the overall writing process and create a disruption in the planning process. These include: (a) forgetting previously conceptualized intention and meaning; (b) developing a less coherent and complex written product, and (c) diminishing the student’s persistence, motivation, and sense of confidence related to writing. The self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) approach described above has also been found in a recent study to be extremely effective for students with ASD (Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010). Student writing improved in length, clarity, and complexity after being taught to plan and write stories using two mnemonic devices: “POW” and “WWW; What = 2; How = 2.” The first stands for (1) Pick my ideas; (2) Organize my notes; (3) Write and say more. The second reminds the students to make notes addressing seven key questions: (1) Who are the main characters? (2) When does the story take place? (3) Where does the story take place? (4) What do the main characters want to do? (5) What happens when the main characters try to do it? (6) How does the story end? (7) How do the main characters feel? This approach to teaching writing has also been successful across other groups of students. Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) is a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics that adversely affect a student’s educational performance over a long period of time and to a marked degree; (a) an inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; (b) an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; (c) inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; (d) a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; (e) a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems (US Department of Education, 2005). It is noted by McLeskey, Rosenberg, and


Westling (2010) that only 0.69% of school-age children and 7.6% of students with a disability are identified with EBD, and 80% of students with EBD are educated in inclusive general education classes 40% of the day. While, statistically speaking, the prevalence of EBD is not alarmingly high, the associated features of the disability make this disorder a high priority to treat when it does occur. Several research studies have been conducted in the past two years related to written expression and children with EBD. One reason for the increased attention to this category of individuals and writing is the connection between the therapeutic aspects of expressing oneself through prose. The use of dialogue journals has been found to improve writing and enhance positive social skills among students with EBD (Regan et al., 2005). In these journals, students respond to a prompt that has been written in their journal by the teacher. After school, the teacher responds to the student’s journal entry, asking for clarification and answering questions where necessary. The same topic can be explored for several days, and the ongoing dialogue between teacher and student can also touch on personal issues that the student may feel more comfortable writing about, rather than verbalizing. In addition to the emotional outlet this provides, the dialogue journal format has been found to improve attention to task, clarity, and length of writing samples. Progress in assistive technology may also offer help for students with EBD (Parette, Crowley, & Wojcik, 2007). Many of these students can become overwhelmed and frustrated with the physical tasks necessary for writing. Assistive technology, such as talking word processors, graphic organizers, and speech recognition software, can help clear physical hurdles so that students can more easily focus on the flow of their ideas. Talking word processors allow the student to hear what is being typed as he progresses which can help increase word count.


Computer-based graphic organizers can be a great drafting tool for helping students organize their ideas and clarify the relationships between their points. The frustrations of typing or writing can be greatly minimized by using speech recognition software in combination with a word processor. Finally, self-regulated strategy development, SRSD, as described above in the section on ADHD and refenced in the ASD section, has also been found very effective for students with EBD (Mastropieri et al., 2009). Additional Assistance Even with all of the above strategies in place, some students may still struggle with a markedly limited vocabulary, errors in tense, difficulty recalling words or producing sentences with developmentally appropriate length or complexity, general difficulty expressing ideas, and difficulty understanding words, sentences, or specific types of words. When this occurs, there are more strategies to help, such as focusing on vocabulary enhancement, syntax, word maps, selfmonitoring, and goal setting. Suggestions for increasing vocabulary can be as simple as having the student find new words in the newspaper, using flash cards, making semantic webs, or using a word wall (Reutzel & Cooter, 2007). Some additional online references on written expression and/or teaching written expression to individuals with exceptionalities include the following: (a); (b); (c), and (d) Future Research/Limitations One primary limitation is that the participants provided limited demographic information. Therefore, a breakdown based on region or school setting (urban/rural, size of school/district) could not be analyzed. This information could have provided insight into regional or districtrelated concerns unique to that specific location. Future research may investigate region as an


independent variable. A second limitation was that the survey consisted entirely of agree/disagree questions and did not utilize a Likert scale or any open-ended questions for qualitative analyses. The agree/disagree nature of the survey provided great results, but a Likert scale would have enabled a better breakdown of the responses. Lastly, bias is inherent in survey data, especially data collected via Internet sources. Summary Understanding the most effective way to impart writing instruction to a diverse classroom has proven to be a challenge for most teachers in the inclusive classroom. Understanding the individual needs of the children that make up each classroom and being able to diversify the instructional strategies for teaching written expression are pedagogical skills that needs to become part of each secondary English teacher’s repertoire. As teachers embrace various strategies, from behavioral techniques like chaining and shaping to self-regulated strategy development and assistive technology, the instruction portion of writing will prove to be advantageous for both teachers and students as performance outcomes improve in class assignments, as well as on high stakes tests.


References American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth edition.

De La Paz, S. (2001). Teaching writing to students with attention deficit disorders and specific language impairment. The Journal of Educational Research, 95 (1), 37-47. Graham, S., Harris, K. and Larsen, L. (2001). Prevention and intervention of writing difficulties for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16 (2), 74-84. Graham, S. (1982). Measurement of handwriting skills: A critical review. Diagnostique, 8, 3242. Hooper, S.R., Swartz, C, Montgomery, J., Reed, M.S., Brown, T., Wasileski, T., and Levine, M.D. (2002). Prevalence of writing problems across three middle school samples. School Psychology Review, 22, 608-620. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (2004). Pub. L. 108-446. Learning Disabilities Roundtable 2004. 2005. Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Kiuhara, S.A., Graham, S., & Mason, L. (2006). Teaching writing to high school students: A national survey. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 136-160. Mastropieri, M.A., Scruggs,T.E., Mills, S., Cerar, N.I., Cuenca-Sanchez, Y., Allen-Bronaugh, D., Thompson, C., Guckert, M., & Regan, K. (2009). Persuading Students with Emotional Disabilities to Write Fluently. Behavioral Disorders, 35 (1), 19-40 McLeskey, J., Rosenberg, M.S., & Westling, D.L. (2010). Inclusion: Effective Practices for All Students. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.


Parette, Jr., H.E.,Crowley, P., & Wojcik, B. (2007). Reducing overload in students with learning and behavioral disorders: The role of assistive technology. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 4 (1). Regan, K. S., Mastropieri,M.A., & Scruggs, T.E. (2005). Promoting expressive writing among students with emotional and behavioral disturbance via dialogue journals. Behavioral Disorders, 31 (1), 33-50.

Authors Laura Baylot Casey, Ph. D, BCBA-D is Assistant Professor of Special Education, College of Education, Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership, University of Memphis Robert L. Williamson, Ed. D is Assistant Professor of Special Education, College of Education, Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership, University of Memphis Thomas Black, Ph. D is Assistant Professor of Elementary and Special Education, Middle Tennessee State University Cort Casey, Ed. D is Assistant Professor of Education, Christian Brothers University


Table 1 Mean Years of Teaching Experience, Degree, and Gender of Teacher Participants Degree (n) Years of Teaching Experience 1-5 6-10 11-15 16 or more Total Gender (n)

N 178 212 109 12 511

BS 153 189 82 6 430

MS MS +hours 23 17 19 5 64 2 6 8 1 17

M 12 31 58 52 153

F* 66 181 101 10 474

*2008 UNICEF Education Statistics for the United States reports in 2005, 88.6 % of teachers in primary schools and 62.5% of teachers in secondary schools nationwide were female.*


Table 2 Teachers’ current needs based on IDEA’s disability categories___________________ Item n Agree % Disagree n %

I struggle teaching children diagnosed with autism to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with deatness-blindness to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed as deaf to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with emotional disturbance to write effectively in my inclusive classroom I struggle teaching children diagnosed with hearing impairment to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with mental retardation to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with multiple disabilities to write effectively in my inclusive classroom.






























I struggle teaching children diagnosed with orthopedic impairment to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with other health impairment including ADHD to write effectively in my inclusive classroom I struggle teaching children diagnosed with specific learning disabilities to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. I struggle teaching children diagnosed with speech and language impairments to write effectively in my inclusive classroom I struggle teaching children diagnosed with traumatic brain injury to write effectively in my inclusive classroom.





















I struggle teaching children diagnosed with visual impairment 63 12.4 448 87.6 to write effectively in my inclusive classroom. __________________________________________________________________________