Finding the Right Words: Modeling the Writing Process for Students with Learning Differences

Spring 2018

By Beth Fabijanic and Marian Goddard Carpenter

We teach at The Siena School, a small school for bright, college-bound students in grades four through twelve with mild to moderate language-based learning differences, such as dyslexia. What we love most about working with our students is their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. However, these students often struggle to express and organize their ideas and to structure and focus their writing. They often come to us very anxious about writing, but over time they start to see themselves as writers, and many of our graduates have chosen to study writing in college.
 
Here are some reflections written by our seniors after completing a film criticism unit this year in their Creative Writing class:
  
My writing has become more streamlined and punchy. I used a backwards essay planner to plan my popular [critique] and it helped make my essays flow and sound human and not robotic.
Analyzing a piece of art through a [critical] lens reveals a larger message that individuals can relate to. I want to show the readers why my subject is important for them, why it goes beyond the theater or the page or the canvas.
For this review, . . . I also considered the big picture and talking about how problems in our society are affecting our lives. I feel like I have improved as a critic because I learned that I like to write about something that I can really relate to.
Over this past quarter, I have improved as a writer by honing in on the creator’s intent rather than the work’s specific application to only my life. I have gradually opened my eyes to see rows of chairs filled with an eager audience, rather than a single spotlight on myself.
 
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of these reflections is that they were written by students who sometimes find the writing process frustrating because what they produce on paper does not always match their thoughts. So many students—and not just those with learning differences—are frustrated when they approach the page because they have trouble fully explaining their ideas. When we consistently and continually model the writing process, we balance our goals to nurture our students’ creativity and strengthen their expressive language. Throughout our curriculum, and across our divisions, we use vocalization, color coding, multisensory instruction, and example texts to model the writing process.
 

Modeling through Vocalization and Multisensory Instruction

When our youngest students—fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders—arrive at our school, many of them have never written more than a few sentences at a time and feel “allergic to writing.” Modeling is at the core of our instruction, and we demonstrate how students can use tools and strategies to break the writing process into manageable chunks. Google Docs Voice Typing is one of the most transformative tools our students employ. Recognizing that our oral language can be a model for written language lowers the hurdle for many students.
 
Other tools that use vocalization as a model for written language are the visual and tactile Story Grammar Marker® icons from MindWing Concepts, Inc., which offer a model for well-structured narrative.1 After the teacher models the tool, students hold the Braidy, touching each icon in sequence as they tell a narrative. We first use the Braidy in small groups, passing it around the circle to summarize a text we’ve read together. Soon, students can use it independently to tell their real and imagined narratives. This narrative model reveals a pattern in the stories they read, hear, and live, and students start to see that any story can be told clearly by following the Story Grammar Marker. The tool also gives us a common language for story parts. The kinesthetic use of the Braidy transitions to a graphic organizer, and students follow it to plan their own narratives, including original myths after they have practiced summarizing Greek myths.
 

Beth’s Middle School English Class

Another example of how vocalizations—oral expression—are used as a model for written expression is in my eighth-grade English class, where students write an argument essay about the narrator’s sanity in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” First, we question and discuss the narrator’s sanity and his violent actions. Then, before they know it, the middle schoolers, who thrive on forming independent opinions and arguing, have become invested in a writing assignment.
 
As they plan their essays, we return to the color-coding of the Step Up to Writing® program that they’ve known since fourth grade, but now, instead of topics, details, and elaboration, I tell them we are making arguments and providing evidence and analysis.2 In this way, the colors become a scaffold that takes the students into more sophisticated writing without the sense that they are learning a completely new form.
 

Step Up to Writing uses color coding to identify structural elements in expository and argument writing.
 
Before the students articulate their argument statements, we play “Opinion or Argument?” We define each term and identify a side of the room for each. As statements are projected, the students go to the side of the room they think corresponds to the statement. Then they are asked to explain orally why the statement is an opinion or an argument. For example, “The school day starts too early” is an opinion, but “Starting school later would improve students’ academic success” is an argument. By using relatable topics, we help students understand the distinction between the two terms and how to develop their own arguments about Poe’s text.
 
Students write their argument statements and then workshop them with peers before choosing evidence to support their ideas from a Google Doc of evidence that we create collaboratively. They plan each part of the essay on a colored notecard, corresponding to the colors of the Step Up to Writing system. Using consistent terminology (green = argument, yellow = evidence, red = analysis) across content areas and grade levels is critical to helping our students recognize the model and apply their tools and strategies to different writing tasks. The notecards also offer a tactile approach to outlining, allowing students to change the order in which they present their evidence or to easily target areas for revision without being overwhelmed or feeling that they have to “start over.”
 
Once their notecards are completed, but before they start drafting, they “talk out” their essay using Screencastify, a screencasting app that records visuals from a student’s computer screen along with his or her audio commentary.3 I explain that writers often bat around their ideas and articulate them verbally to someone before writing them down. Most dysgraphic students are much more comfortable talking than writing, and for those with expressive language challenges, the verbal essay—stripped of the need to worry about mechanics and spelling—is a challenging but achievable task. After receiving teacher feedback on their spoken essay, students finally draft, peer-revise, and proofread their essays.
 
The process is long but dives deeply into the process of formulating a well-supported argument and internalizing the higher order thinking and executive function skills needed for writing for an extended period.
 

Marian’s Creative Writing Class

Similarly, in the Creative Writing class I teach to seniors, we spend the year exploring model texts and experimenting in different genres and with different styles. Quite naturally, students begin to hone their own voices and styles as they determine what voices and styles they most enjoy reading. Our unit on film criticism tends to be the most challenging, but it also tends to be the unit during which my students make the most meaningful discoveries about the type of voice they hope to harness.
 
To model the writing process as they write an academic critique of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and a popular critique of a documentary (this year we used Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth), we explore model texts. I join them as they brainstorm, plan, and write so that they can see another writer engaged in the business of honing ideas and trying to capture them on paper.
           
The first step we take in this unit is developing comfort with new vocabulary. One way my students become more comfortable with using the language of a critic is by leaning on their strengths for art and visual analysis. I have students take notes in the style of a graffiti wall on Alfred Hitchcock’s pioneering cinematography, which gives them concrete elements to search for as we begin watching the film.
 

 
We also practice analyzing accessible visual texts, such as advertisements and TV commercials, with feminist and Freudian vocabulary. The essential part of this step is having students leap from making observations to making inferences about a text’s message. I provide students with sentence frames and lists of “big ideas” to help scaffold this leap. For instance, I ask students who are struggling to always begin their description with “From this text we learn that …” Once students are able to analyze visual texts from several different critical perspectives and thoroughly explain what an audience learns from them, we are ready to tackle a more challenging text, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
 
For their Psycho academic review, we discuss an upside-down essay structure as they analyze a single scene through three different perspectives. We ask, what message would a feminist critic, a Freudian critic, and an artistic critic take away from the scene? What overlaps are there between these different perspectives?
 
Like the eighth-graders in Beth’s classes, my students use Step Up to Writing-based color coding when they mind-map their ideas on their chosen scene. That way, they can easily identify which pieces of the mindmap belong in each area of the essay.
 
As we shift from brainstorming to planning, we discuss where the argument should appear in their essays. My students always say, “The green is right at the end of the introductory paragraph and then at the beginning and end of each body paragraph.” I then ask, does it have to be that way? How else could you structure your essay? Could your full argument not appear until your conclusion paragraph? We discuss the benefits and the risks of this “upside-down structure” and create a list of goals they will need to keep in mind as they plan and write, including leading the reader to a discovery. Treating the essay as a puzzle, they will need to reveal clues along the way to help the reader piece it together.
 
As the students begin to plan, together we lay out color-coded notecards, and I create a dummy paragraph planner with them. With a document camera, I think aloud as I plan an essay on a scene none of them have selected to write on. This allows me to show them examples of sentence starters to help bridge the different sections of their essay. I am also able to provide examples for how to begin their paragraphs because that is the aspect of the upside-down essay structure with which they are the most unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
 
Thanks to front-loading the writing process with extensive prewriting and thorough planning, my students often find drafting to be much easier. If they encounter difficulties, I remind them of tools and strategies they have used before. I remind them to color-code what they have already written to see where there are holes, to use voice typing to help get their ideas out at the same pace as their thoughts, and to use text-to-speech to listen for moments where they need to more fully explain their ideas.
 
My favorite aspect of teaching this class is helping my students realize that they can model for each other and that I am not the only person in the class capable of helping them improve. Therefore, whenever students draft an assignment, they participate in a workshop. At the beginning of the year, I lay out expectations for the workshop and distribute a list of sentence frames to help them provide specific constructive feedback. We discuss the purpose of the workshop, and the students participate in a practice workshop where they critique something I have written. At the end of the workshop, I reveal that I am the author and thank them for their feedback. Before we begin a workshop on a particular assignment, I ask the students to brainstorm the goals of the writing assignment so that they have concrete ideas to comment on as they offer feedback.
 
I follow this longer assignment with a short popular review. For this popular review, we ask, “Should an audience be encouraged, or discouraged, to participate in this experience?” To transition from academic to popular criticism, we read Roger Ebert’s 1998 review of Psycho and analyze it with color coding.4 My students immediately notice that Ebert does not follow the structure they have been taught. He often switches from evidence (yellow) to analysis (red) mid-sentence, and he weaves background (blue) in by using collective pronouns to make his audience feel that they have a stake in Hitchcock’s film. My students also note that sentences linking his evidence to his argument (green) often appear in strange places, such as the middle of a paragraph. Here is an example of how we color-code this piece:
 
 
 
Students find this review fun to read because Ebert uses structure to hook readers, surprise them, and satisfy their curiosity. We explore how the review convinces us to watch Hitchcock’s film by persuading us of its relevance to our own lives.
           
The students also critique a documentary and use the same steps outlined above to plan and write. To help them play with structure, I ask them to cut their notecards into strips so they can manipulate the organization of their ideas. They spend a whole class period moving their different ideas around and trying to arrive at a structure that will engage and convince a reader of their argument. This is what their resulting planners look like:
 

 
Every year as we begin this unit, my students ask me, “Why is this a Creative Writing assignment? Writing an argument doesn’t feel very creative.” By the end of the unit, my students often share that their perspective has changed. They have come to see playing with structure and crafting an argument to persuade an audience as a creative endeavor.
 

Conclusion

These are just two assignments that exemplify the cohesive and in-depth approach we take to modeling the writing process from fourth through twelfth grade at Siena. Every teacher uses the same language and multisensory tools, and our students practice vocalizing assignments and using color coding to organize their ideas across all their academic subjects. When students receive constant reinforcement and practice with tools, they feel empowered to tackle writing assignments. As a result of modeling, students become more confident, which allows their strength (their creativity) to shine through what they considered their weakness (their writing), and makes them eager writers.
 
1. Maryellen Rooney Moreau, and Brian Scott Welch, Talk to Write, Write to Learn: A Teachers’ Manual for Differentiated Instruction and Tiered Intervention (Springfield, MA: MindWing Concepts, 2008).
2. Voyager Sopris Learning, Inc., Step Up to Writing, 4th ed. (kit) (Dallas, TX: Voyager Sopris, 2016).
3. Screencastify (software); available from Screencastify at https://www.screencastify.com/.
4. Roger Ebert, Great Movie: Psycho, RogerEbert.com Reviews, December 6, 1998; online at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-psycho-1960.
Beth Fabijanic

Beth Fabijanic (bfabijanic@thesienaschool.org) heads the Humanities Department and teaches elementary and middle school English Language Arts at The Siena School (Maryland).

Marian Goddard Carpenter

Marian Goddard Carpenter (mcarpenter@thesienaschool.org) teaches high school English and leads the Internship and College Counseling Programs at The Siena School (Maryland).