When I started working for a high school district in 1995, one of the first things I noticed about my students with social learning challenges was the strong association with weak written expression skills. It was also not uncommon for behavior and mental health problems in the form of anxiety and bouts of frustration to coincide with tasks requiring written expression.
Why is writing so hard?
If you think about it, written expression requires motor planning, social thinking, organizational skills, spelling, grammar and punctuation to all dance together simultaneously. If any one of these factors gets left out or is weak, the result is a poor writing sample. We also know from the literature that an associated challenge in kids with social learning issues is the struggle to multi-task or use effective executive function skills.
Our kids feel frustrated and angry about having to deal with something that so completely overwhelms them. Some of the worst behavior problems I have observed in the classroom were set off by simple requests for the student to write. From full out tantrums to stubborn refusal, the difficult interactions around written language demands are no fun for students, teachers, or parents.
How is social thinking part of the written expression process?
In order to produce reasonably good written expression students need to realize someone else is going to read what they write. By 3rd and 4th grade, students are learning to write for an audience, which means they should adjust their writing to help the reader understand their thoughts. This requires knowing that people have thoughts that are different from their own (perspective taking) as well as the ability to narrate a story across time and/or sequence so the reader can follow and make reasonable conclusions to avoid confusion (narrative language).
They also have to recognize that people move from bigger ideas (gestalt or main idea) to thoughts (details). To help the reader, the writer has to organize his information so that he introduces his idea and then support it with a reasonable set of thoughts (details). There's also the issue of motor planning and visual perceptual struggles. There are so many parts of the writing task that can be challenging and it only takes having difficulty with one to throw a wrench in the process.
And then, there's the fact that written expression doesn't usually just pour out of us. We have to first think about what to write and how to structure it. Many of us use brainstorming to help organize and sort out main ideas from the related thoughts/details. We learn to do this type of thinking in our heads. Unfortunately for many of our students who have difficulty staying focused and holding their thoughts together, their thinking easily becomes a destructive storm - quickly becoming fragmented or tangential.
And then there are older students...
I have worked with a number of high school students who have received years of specialized services, but still couldn't write a paragraph when the content was not interesting to them. Remarkably, these same students passed the high school exit exam! How? I discovered that half the test was multiple-choice (punctuation and grammar) and the other half involved writing. If students were able to get a high enough score on the multiple-choice section, then this score would counteract an extremely low score on the writing portion.
That got me thinking. We probably need to stop referring to this as purely a "writing problem" because it's not. It starts with a thinking problem. The cycle that usually happens once we student is struggling with writing is to send the student (refer them) to get help with written expression. This usually entails interventions focusing on grammar, punctuation, spelling, and basic organization. Then, we ask the student to prove their knowledge by asking them to produce more writing and - as an unintended result - we get more tantrums. Many of our students associate the act of writing with overwhelming frustration and acting out. But where in the cycle did we teach them how to really organize their thoughts?
Many of our students with social learning challenges have difficulty simply organizing their thinking, creating language to demonstrate they are thinking about what other people are thinking, and recognizing how other people form their own thoughts and emotions. All of these concepts and skills are at the core of written expression. The neurotypically-developing student develops this intuitively and practices it through play, conversation and academics. Teachers don't usually have to teach students to create social thinking; they assume they it and then establish lessons that allow them to practice.
So what to do?
We need to work on teaching our students the social thinking and organization that is a precursor for writing before we place demands to produce paragraph or essay length samples. This should only be temporary while we are working with them on ways in which they can improve at the level of thinking. Some examples of strategies we can teach:
- Teach how we brainstorm information related to the topic. Most 2nd grade students learn about "brainstorming" through the use of "graphic organizers," "visual organizers," or "mind maps." Spend more time on this step for those with social learning issues. They will likely need less instruction on the rules related to writing but need deeper work in this area. For one example, check out Pathways for Learning. [Schroeder, D. and Hansen, S. (2008) Pathways for Learning; Visual Organizers to Heighten Academic Success. Language Pathways, Inc. Chesterfield, Missouri. http://www.sllsgooden.org
- Learn to tell the difference between ideas (main ideas) and how these are different from details. As easy as this sounds, even our very bright students can struggle with this distinction. You may see a similar issue in their conversational language where they may be very tangential and don't seem to connect to the main ideas of the conversations.
- Work on helping them learn to prune their thoughts after brainstorming by creating written outlines to serve as guidance for their work.
- For high school students, teach what an "opinion" is and the importance of it in written language. I have worked with many students who struggle with the idea of writing about only one side of an argument when they can see both sides. Or worse - being asked to write about one side of an argument that doesn't represent their thinking on the subject. For example, they may understand both sides of the debate on the death penalty, so they refuse to write anything or are asked to make an argument for the side they don't support, so instead refuse to participate.
To motivate students to engage at this level, we might start by providing a grade or points for simply showing their thoughts by creating a graphic organizer or visual outline. We might even have to start with giving them a grade or points for being willing to explore how to brainstorm ideas related different opinions or exploring how written words impact how others think and feel as they read the essay.
As they improve in their core ability to think and then understand why we write, reintroduce the more complex act of written expression slowly, positively reinforcing the steps along with way. Many may think this is too non-traditional of an approach, given that so much writing is expected in the class and students cannot easily get "out" of this task. We also need to consider how much time is spent with this child cleaning up behavior problems related to writing. Are we really saving instructional minutes by asking this child to write?
Allowing thinking time away from producing written work allows all of us to re-focus and tune up the core skills of writing. However, do not think we are going to teach these thinking skills to mastery. Most of those born to social thinking challenges will always struggle more than the neurotypical student with organizing and sharing their ideas with others. This is at the core of having a social thinking challenge. See Inside Out: What Makes a Person with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick for more discussion related to this topic.
Here are some resources but there are MANY more excellent ones beyond what is listed here:
Harris, K., Graham, S., Mason, L. & Friedlander, B. (2008) POWERFUL Writing Strategies for all Students. Paul Brookes Publishing Co. Baltimore, Maryland.
Leinemann, T. & Reid, R. (2008) Using Self-Regulated Strategy Development to Improve Expository Writing with Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Exceptional children; Council for Exceptional Children Vol. 74, Number 4, Summer 2008, page 471-486.
Wing, E. & Wilson, C. (2001) Map It Out; Visual Tools for Thinking, Organizing, and Communicating. Thinking Publications: Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Witherell, N. & McMackin, M. (2002) Graphic Organizers and Activities for Differentiated Instruction in Reading. Scholastic Publishing; New York, NY.